Florida Panthers

Optimism abounds as Florida Panthers begin training camp

Aaron Ekblad pulls on a Florida Panthers sweater after being chosen first overall in the NHL hockey draft, Friday, June 27, 2014, in Philadelphia.
Aaron Ekblad pulls on a Florida Panthers sweater after being chosen first overall in the NHL hockey draft, Friday, June 27, 2014, in Philadelphia. AP

After finishing at or near the bottom of the NHL standings the past two seasons, there is genuine optimism surrounding the Florida Panthers this season.

With Roberto Luongo in goal for what is expected to be a full season as well as an upgrade on its forward lines, Florida expects to be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Of course, the Panthers aren’t alone in their thoughts. Every team is unbeaten in September.

“There’s a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm,’’ said general manager Dale Tallon, whose team officially opened training camp Thursday morning in Sunrise.

“The players aren’t stupid. Those who have been here can see what we’ve brought in. They know we’re deeper in all positions and have a good mix of players at all positions. We have a good chance to be competitive every night.’’

Although oddsmakers in Las Vegas don’t seem convinced, the Panthers feel they have improved their lot enough to battle for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Hockey News, which correctly picked Florida to finish near the bottom of the standings last year, has the Panthers in the postseason this year as the fourth team out of the Atlantic Division.

Not only is Luongo and backup Al Montoya an upgrade over last year, but Tallon was busy during the opening day of free agency bringing in Dave Bolland and Derek MacKenzie to likely center Florida’s third and fourth lines.

Winger Jussi Jokinen, enforcer Shawn Thornton and defenseman Willie Mitchell (who won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles twice in the past three seasons) also were brought in to complement the Panthers’ improving young core of players.

“We got some good veteran pieces over the summer who are going to help bring these young guys up the right way,’’ Luongo said earlier in the week.

Said Mitchell: “This is a good, up-and-coming young team I felt needed a player just like me. That’s why I’m here. When it feels right, it’s right.’’

Florida will be counting on youngsters Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad (Florida’s leading scorer as a rookie last year), Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and recent top draft pick Aaron Ekblad to do more than just contribute. They’re being counted on for some heavy lifting.

Florida also is counting on bounce-back years from players such as Huberdeau, Tomas Fleischmann and Tomas Kopecky who struggled last season.

“Guys are going to have comeback years,’’ Tallon said. “It’s a team concept and we’re going to roll out four lines. Everyone is going to contribute, not just one guy.’’

The Panthers, despite their past struggles, hope the tide turns and they give their fans something to cheer this year.

Florida has been to the playoffs only once since 2000 and has missed out on the postseason twice since winning the Southeast Division in 2012.

“Everyone is optimistic because we feel like we can be a playoff team with the new pieces we have,’’ defenseman Brian Campbell said. “Last year we didn’t know who was going to be here. This year, we have a chance to get some chemistry going right from the start. We know what our group is from the start.’’

▪ With a number of new faces — and a mostly new coaching staff headed by Gerard Gallant — the Panthers will close camp at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The Panthers have plenty of ties to West Point from owner Vinnie Viola (who graduated from the Academy in 1977) throughout the front office.

Florida previously spent a few days of training at West Point in 2007. The team will head to New York after its final exhibition game at Tampa Bay on Oct.3.

“We have so many new people, and team bonding is important,’’ Tallon said. “West Point is a place where a lot of teams have gone.’’

Panthers training camp

All practices at the Coral Springs IceDen:

Friday: 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Saturday: 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Sunday: 10-11:15 a.m.; scrimmage 11-12:15 p.m.

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