The expectations for the Florida Panthers are real this season.
Gone are the days where the Panthers head into training camp hoping all goes right and they slide into the playoffs.
Not making the postseason is not an option around the Panthers anymore.
"We’re just as excited as everyone else," said Shawn Thornton, one of 52 players who hit the ice Friday morning for the first day of Florida’s training camp in Coral Springs.
"We’ll see where we take it. … There should be expectations. A lot of effort and money has been put behind this team. Now it’s up to us to go out and perform. I think expectations are a good thing. When do don’t have them, well, it’s sometimes nice to fly under the radar and we did that [in 2014-15] when I first got here.
"But I think it’s much better to be noticed, to be on the radar. We just have to go out there and perform."
The Panthers made just their fifth playoff appearance in franchise history last season but jumped into the playoff fray in a big way by setting franchise records for wins (47) and points (103) all while winning just the second division title by taking the Atlantic flag.
"We had our best season ever," Dale Tallon said, "so the guys are confident and aware. They feel good about themselves and know they can get to the next level."
Florida’s postseason stay didn’t last long, however, as the Panthers were knocked out of the first round by the New York Islanders in six games.
New general manager Tom Rowe and Florida’s revamped front office didn’t sit on their laurels during the offseason, instead making moves to try and rectify problems they felt would hold Florida back from being a top-end team moving forward.
The Panthers now have new goaltenders, forwards and defensemen as well as new coaches and support personnel.
Most hockey experts had the Panthers on the fringe of the playoffs prior to last season.
This September, most have Florida as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference alongside in-state, divisional rival Tampa Bay.
"We have our own expectations and don’t really rely on what others say about us,’’ said Nick Bjugstad, one of a handful of Florida players who made their postseason debut last spring.
"We all expect to win, have a winning mentality that has been introduced the past couple of years. Us younger guys have learned it’s not acceptable to miss the playoffs. That has been instilled by our veteran guys, our coaches, our organization. We’re all buying in. Everyone wants to win here, not just the players."
Florida’s defense will look very different this season as four of last year’s opening night starters are gone.
The Panthers made a big offseason splash by trading for Keith Yandle and then signing the veteran defenseman to a seven-year deal worth $45 million.
Florida also brought in Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk to a mix which included rising star Aaron Ekblad as well as Steven Kampfer, Alex Petrovic and rookie Mike Matheson. Florida’s defensive play should speed things up as the Panthers key in on getting the puck out of their own zone and feed their talented forwards up front.
"The game has become more of a speed game than ever before,’’ said Tallon, now the team’s president of hockey operations.
"If you watched Team North America or Pittsburgh win the Cup last year, it was based on speed and transition."
Florida Panthers Training camp
▪ When, where: Practice began Friday morning; Florida Panthers IceDen, Coral Springs
▪ Schedule — Saturday: 9:45 a.m.; Sunday: 9:45 a.m.; Monday: 9:45 a.m.; Tuesday: Preseason doubleheader vs. Nashville Predators, BB&T Center, 3:30/7 p.m.
▪ Admission: Free to all practices; preseason games, various pricing