You’d be forgiven if you can’t quite wrap your head around what the Florida Panthers have been doing for the past year or so. A franchise that had accumulated a good amount of young talent and surrounded said players with solid veterans such as Roberto Luongo and Jaromir Jagr all of a sudden started to speed-wobble, booting GM Dale Tallon upstairs, going hard on analytics, firing popular coach Gerard Gallant, then re-installing Tallon as GM, while firing more front office execs and letting their only 30-goal scorer from last season, Jonathan Marchessault, go to Vegas.
But hope springs eternal for the players who remain, including left winger Jonathan Huberdeau. He, of course, is part of that vaunted youth movement, and he’s hoping to leave behind the Achilles surgery that truncated his 2016-17 campaign with the franchise.
“It was tough, especially when you’re watching the guys playing and you have to work hard to get back in the game,” Huberdeau said. “It took three and a half months and when I came back I was not 100 percent.”
Huberdeau’s absence actually helped Marchessault get the top-line minutes he needed to break out as a scorer and Huberdeau was very happy that his teammate filled the void when he was gone. Still, the Cats would have been better with both in the lineup and Huberdeau was one of several key players to miss an extended period of time. Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Alex Petrovic and Nick Bjugstad also spent significant time on the shelf and the Panthers just couldn’t overcome.
“I think we’ll try to forget about last year,” Huberdeau said. “It didn’t go well for us and we know we’re a good team for this year.”
Indeed, despite a lot of change, Florida still has the same young core led by all the injured players previously mentioned, plus Vincent Trocheck and the ascending defenseman Michael Matheson. What remains to be seen is how the team will function with the departure of veterans such as Jussi Jokinen and, presumably Jagr, who remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent. Jagr in particular was a huge presence in the room, thanks to his unbeatable work ethic and living legend status. Huberdeau soaked it up.
“Every day was special for me,” he said. “He was a good guy – he cared about us.”
As valuable as Jagr was both on and off the ice, it goes without saying that at some point, the Panthers had to become the domain of Huberdeau, Barkov, Trocheck and Ekblad. For a team that has missed the playoffs four of the past five years, there should be some urgency down in Sunrise.
It won’t be easy, of course. The Atlantic Division is getting better and there’s certainly a chance the Metropolitan Division will snag five playoff spots in the East, so if you’re Florida, the margin of error is slim. Are the Panthers better than the Lightning, Canadiens and Maple Leafs right now? What about the Bruins or Senators?
At the least, let’s all hope that everyone remains healthy in Florida because it’s about time we got to see this core at full strength. All the elements are there for a potent attack; the franchise just needs stability. For now, with Tallon back as GM and a promising new coach in Bob Boughner, the off-ice is firmed up – though Huberdeau is concentrating on his job as a talented offensive threat.
“You try not to think about it,” he said. “As a player, you don’t want to care too much about these things. We’re trying to just play the game. This year, things are going to be way better.”
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