Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers open season with renewed sense of optimism

When training camp opened last month, the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the Florida Panthers was quite noticeable.

Picked by most pundits to repeat last season’s last-place finish, the Panthers didn’t seem to have much life.

In the three weeks from the start of camp until Thursday night’s season opener, however, there has been a most definite change.

The Panthers may still finish near the bottom of the standings, only now they feel they have a chance to do more. General manager Dale Tallon was able to bring in NHL veterans to supplant a supposed youth (meaning much more inexpensive) movement.

“We have more depth and therefore more competition for jobs,” Tallon said two days before the Panthers open their season against the host Dallas Stars.

“That’s a good thing. We have a better pace because guys are working harder. They know we have others who can take their jobs. We had opportunities and then we added veteran guys on one-year contracts. They are playing to prove something. That allows our kids to develop, play a little longer in San Antonio. That’s a good thing.”

As the team was in the process of being sold to New York investor Vinnie Viola, Tallon was under orders to keep costs down.

Coming into camp, the biggest offseason moves the Panthers made were letting Stephen Weiss walk away to Detroit without any sense of a fight and bringing in veteran Scott Gomez to replace him – on the roster, anyway.

Yet as the ownership picture cleared up, so, too, did the dark skies hovering above the Panthers.

Tallon lured free agent goalie Tim Thomas just before Florida’s first preseason game. Thomas, a two-time Vezina winner and a Stanley Cup champion, signed a one-year deal at a base salary of $2.5 million.

The Panthers also brought in free agent winger Brad Boyes – who has 407 points in 606 NHL games – as well as veteran defensemen Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney. Enforcer Krys Barch was also brought back in a deal with New Jersey.

“I think there are a lot of guys here with a lot to prove,” Whitney said. “I think we’re going to be ready to play, ready to surprise some people. We play in a tough division but it’s going to be up to us to be successful.”

Although Tallon didn’t break the bank with any of these signings – aside from Thomas, no one will top the $1 million mark – he greatly helped the team’s depth by taking advantage of the lowered salary cap and finding bargains once camps opened.

And now, instead of going into games with a lineup of fresh-faced youngsters, the Panthers now go into the fight with players who have been there before.

Florida will still go into the season with a trio of kids in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson, although the talent those three possess is hard to dismiss.

Aside from those three, Florida is a veteran-laden team, something that wasn’t expected when September began.

All told, Tallon added over $5 million to the Panthers’ payroll in the past few weeks – a number that could increase if Thomas reaches a series of incentives.

“A player on a one-year contract is a motivated player,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “They want to make an impression. We expect good things out of those. We have good people. At the end of it, our new ownership has made a statement that they are willing to fill some holes. Dale has done a wonderful job of finding players who fit within our team and our budget.”

Florida goes into the opener in Dallas with the chance to have nine players who weren’t in last year’s lineup. The Panthers suffered through the lockout-shortened 2013 season by finishing last in the league for the first time in franchise history.

The Panthers were beset by injury in 2013, with a dozen players missing significant time as the team limped to the finish line with eight regulars out of the lineup in the final weeks because of various injuries.

“We’re better than we were,” Tallon said. “We have more tools, more depth and more assets available than we did last year. We’ll see how it all fits. We want to compete for a playoff spot, compete for a division like we did two years ago.”

This training camp has been good to the Panthers as only three players – Nick Bjugstad (concussion), Steve Pinizzotto (hip) and Scott Clemmensen (knee) – unexpectedly joined the injured list.

When the Panthers start the season Thursday in Dallas, they do so with pretty much the lineup they expect to have throughout the year.

By going into a much tougher division, the Panthers need all the help they can get. Florida is considered to be outside the playoff picture with the likes of new divisional rivals Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa fighting for those positions. Florida is also joined in the new Atlantic Division by Tampa Bay and Buffalo.

“There’s no hiding. We’ll be what we are,” Dineen said. “We’ll be ready to start on Thursday and go from there. I’m not big on ‘me against the world.’ Sometimes the dog on top has just as much fun as the underdog.”

Thursday: Panthers at Stars

When/where: 8 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Center, Dallas.

TV/radio: FSN; 560 AM.

The series: Tied 11-11-3.

Scouting report: The Stars have an all-new look from their snazzy new jerseys and logo to former Buffalo Lindy Ruff and general manager Jim Nill. The Stars made a big splash in the offseason by acquiring Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff. Florida last won in Dallas on Nov. 15, 2011. The Panthers are 9-7-2 (one tie) all-time in season openers and have won three of their past four.

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