SUNRISE, Fla. – Florida general manager Dale Tallon would prefer to move past last season, for obvious reasons.
Here’s a quick recap of how the 2013-14 campaign went for the Panthers: They fired a coach, were out of the playoff race early, had no one ranked among the league’s top 75 goal scorers, were horrendous on special teams and wound up with the second-fewest points in the NHL. By any measure, the year was horrific.
“Nowhere to go but up,” Tallon said.
That task begins Friday when the Panthers open their first training camp under new coach Gerard Gallant, the latest coach for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 but still enters this preseason with optimism. The Panthers brought goaltender Roberto Luongo back to South Florida late last season, added plenty of experience through free agency and will count on several young players to realize some potential.
With six players on this roster who have hoisted the Stanley Cup, Tallon figures anything resembling last season won’t be tolerated.
“It’s going to change the attitude of our locker room,” Tallon said. “Even the veterans that are here who haven’t won and the young guys that are coming up, they’re going to learn a lot from these guys. It’s going to be a well-rounded locker room with a lot of character.”
Willie Mitchell won the Cup last season with the Los Angeles Kings; he’s now in Florida and expected to play a big role both on the ice and as a mentor in the locker room. Centers Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen were part of the Panthers’ free-agent haul designed to change the complexion of the team quickly, and the team is hoping forward Jonathan Huberdeau can see his numbers take off now in his third season.
But Florida’s chances probably rest mostly on Luongo’s shoulders.
Luongo is entering his 15th NHL season, yet still has remarkably consistent numbers. He had a goals-against average of 2.44 and a save percentage of .920 in his first full season with the Panthers, that being 2000-01. Last season, with Vancouver and Florida, his numbers in those categories were virtually identical, 2.40 and .919.
“If we can stay relatively healthy and we progress like we should be progressing, I think we should be in the mix,” Luongo said. “That’s all you can ask for. You want to be in the mix. You want to be competing for a playoff spot come March and April.”
The Panthers have been facing some off-the-ice questions as well, even before training camp starts.
Most of Florida’s time in the league has been a struggle; the Panthers went to the playoffs twice in their first four seasons of existence, even making the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. But since 1998, the team has made a total of two more post-season trips and it’s been known for some time that the franchise has dealt with financial problems.
“We have no plans or intentions to move this franchise,” Panthers owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu said in a statement released this week, amid ongoing speculation in Canada that a team could soon be heading to Quebec City.
“It is no secret that the Panthers and BB&T Center have lost tremendous amounts of money over the last dozen years,” the owners added, referring to the arena where the team plays home games. “We are working hard to address this situation, which we believe we can do with the support from our loyal fans, our business partners, the business community and our community-at-large.”
In South Florida, where ticket sales tend to be a challenge for most college and pro teams, winning seems to be the only sure-fire solution.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Tallon said. “Let’s get that straight. We’re the Florida Panthers. We’re committed. We want to win here. … Let’s win. Let’s fill the building and have some fun.”