Disappointment in ’13: Panthers begin with high hopes but finish with NHL’s worst record

SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers enjoyed a memorable night when they opened the 2013 NHL season. They watched the unveiling of their 2012 Southeast Division championship banner at BB&T Center, then recorded a convincing 5-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to goals by prized rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and soon-to-be 40-year-old Alex Kovalev.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, their home finale was more representative of their season. With an undermanned lineup, and with Kovalev now retired, the Panthers suffered a 4-0 shutout loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The loss assured the Panthers of finishing with the worst record in the NHL even before they closed the season with a 5-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday.

“That stinks, when you’re at the bottom of the pile,” Coach Kevin Dineen said. “There’s a lot of hockey teams and you’re always looking to try to reinforce some positives for your team but that is the brutal reality of our situation and it’s something we have to sit on for four months.”

The season began with a lot of optimism for the Panthers, who not only captured their first division title in 2012 but also ended an 11-year playoff drought. But a rash of injuries, some shaky goaltending and the worst penalty killing in the league combined to derail the Panthers.

Florida followed that season-opening victory with a five-game losing streak and never got to the .500 mark the rest of the season as they finished last in the Eastern Conference for the second time in three seasons.

“It’s been disappointing,” forward Scottie Upshall said. “It’s been almost a spiral effect since camp. With the shortened season, you lose a couple of games in a row, you really put yourself behind the 8-ball. We were just a prime example of a team that didn’t get off to a great start, things started to go wrong and before you know it it’s April and you’re not in the mix.”

Even though the Panthers were expected to have a hard time repeating as champions in the last year of the Southeast Division, injuries gave them almost no chance.

Florida ended up with more man games lost to injury than any team in the league, and key players Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim and Ed Jovanovski all underwent season-ending surgeries.

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Things got so bad that when he announced Jovanovski’s hip surgery, General Manager Dale Tallon quipped, “Yeah, it’d be nice to a surgeon.”

Because of all the injuries, the Panthers were forced to shuffle their roster throughout the season. They ended up using 15 players who saw action in the American Hockey League and eight of their players made their NHL debut in 2013.

Among the latter were 2010 first-round picks Nick Bjugstad, who played the last 11 games after completing his career at the University of Minnesota and scored his first NHL goal in the finale, and Quinton Howden, along with Huberdeau.

Huberdeau flashed the offensive skills that made him the third overall pick in the 2011 draft and emerged as a leading contender for the Calder Trophy.

Goalie Jacob Markstrom, long viewed as the franchise’s goaltender of the future, began the season in the AHL but took over as the Panthers’ starter after veteran Jose Theodore sustained a groin injury in a March 2 game against Carolina. Like Theodore and veteran backup Scott Clemmensen – Theodore (.893) and Clemmensen (.874) both ranked in the bottom five among the 48 goalies who appeared in at least 15 games – Markstrom had bouts of inconsistency.

But Markstrom also had enough flashes of brilliance to suggest he’ll become as good as advertised.

Despite the poor showing this season, Tallon remains optimistic about the future of his team. A big reason is the abundance of highly touted prospects in the organization. The other is the hope that the Panthers will have better luck with injuries next year.

Tallon showed his faith in his team at the trade deadline when he declined to deal any of his veteran players with the exception of fourth-line centre Jerred Smithson.

“If our team was healthy and adding the pieces that we’ve added and adding the young guys through the draft, I think we have a great future,” Tallon said. “We’re not going to mess with it just because we had a hiccup in a shortened season.”