Blossoming Jonathan Huberdeau, 20, the NHL Rookie of the Year last season, returned 10 pounds heavier with what Dineen called “quality weight” to face the rigors of what is very much a grown man’s sport. The coach said Huberdeau “came in prepared to take the next step.” He could become the scorer Florida has lacked since Pavel Bure.
Aleksander Barkov, only 18, the recent No. 1 draft pick, is starting with the big club and could be the offensive complement to Huberdeau. That’s exciting. Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Nick Bjugstad and Jacob Markstrom are other future stars young enough to be carded in any self-respecting bar.
An ESPN “future rankings” outlook for the 2016-17 season rated the Panthers’ prospects fifth best in the league overall.
A lightning rod
If Florida’s young stars and new owner are about solidifying the future, our third point of interest is about right now.
It’s a weird story that might become downright charming if Thomas is able to join a pretty solid history of Panthers goaltending, from John Vanbiesbrouck to Roberto Luongo to Tomas Vokoun.
Thomas is 39 now. He led the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup title, made his fourth All-Star team, won the Vezina Trophy as goalie of the year. He was on top.
Then two things happened that made Thomas a hero or a nut, depending on one’s vantage. In either case, they gave him an aura of mystery.
First he declined to attend the Bruins’ White House ceremony, making headlines with a manifesto explanation that began, “I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people.”
Then he quit hockey. Abruptly retired, stayed out a year, and then suddenly reappeared late last month in the sport’s southernmost outpost.
Dineen cares not about Thomas’ politics or his age, he just hopes the goalie can find magic left in his career’s winter while also serving as a mentor for young Markstrom.
“Goaltending has a chance to be a real strength,” the coach said.
That an unretired, near-40-year-old veteran would embody that as teammates half his age begin to bloom around him gives this Panthers team an odd mix, an unpredictability.
The experts seem sure this won’t be a winning season.
Doesn’t mean it won’t be an interesting one.