Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers optimistic about ending playoff drought: ‘Why not us?’

Roberto Luongo, center, is shown with CEO/president Rory Babish, left, and GM Dale Tallon on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 after returning to the Florida Panthers following a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.
Roberto Luongo, center, is shown with CEO/president Rory Babish, left, and GM Dale Tallon on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 after returning to the Florida Panthers following a trade with the Vancouver Canucks. Miami Herald Staff

Roberto Luongo says he didn’t come back to South Florida for an extended vacation.

He’s here on a second tour with the Florida Panthers and says things are going to be different this time.

South Florida has become the NHL’s home of the longest summer as the Panthers have taken more vacation time than any team in the league since 2000.

Luongo and a number of his teammates say they are tired of the long offseason and will try to put the Panthers back in the playoffs for just the second time in the past 15 years.

“I’m happy to be back, but I’m real happy to see we went out and got some new pieces over the summer,” said Luongo, who played for the Panthers from 2000-06 before being traded back in March.

“I came here because I want to win, want to help get this team back in the playoffs. We demand a lot out of ourselves. It’s going to be important for us to get the most out of what we have.”

Luongo, of course, could be the key ingredient to a Florida team that looks better than its most recent predecessors. Of course, the results couldn’t be much worse.

Florida finished last in the 30-team NHL in 2013 and 29th last year. That’s after the team won the Southeast Division title and went to playoffs in 2012.

“It’s been tough,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “I hate to lose.”

For the Panthers to make the jump into the postseason, it’s going to take a big improvement over last year.

“We have a lot of work in front of us, we know that,” said veteran winger Jussi Jokinen, who played in Pittsburgh last season and will start the season on Florida’s top line with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

“This team finished near last place so we know there’s a big hill to climb to get back in the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. But that’s the goal and we’re excited about the challenge.”

SEVERAL NEW FACES

Like Florida’s previous playoff team, Tallon did some tinkering with the roster in the offseason. He’s hoping for the similar immediate results.

Heading into Thursday’s season opener at Tampa Bay, the Panthers have seven new faces on the roster – six coming via free agency.

That doesn’t completely paint the picture of Tallon’s latest overhaul.

Of Florida’s 23 roster players, 13 weren’t on the team for last year’s opener.

Last year, Tallon made some moves – bringing in players such as Luongo, Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Hayes not for that team as much as looking ahead to this season and beyond.

“When I got here last year, I knew it was more for the future than the present,” Luongo said. “I’m excited to see how we progress as a team. We should be in the mix.”

Although the Panthers went winless in their six preseason games, Tallon sees promise in what Florida has to offer.

“I’ve liked what I’ve seen, but it’s going to take some time,” Tallon said.

In the offseason, Tallon not only added pieces to the roster but retooled the coaching staff.

Last November, Tallon fired Kevin Dineen and his assistant coaches. After the season, he let interim coach Peter Horachek go.

John Madden, who was a fourth-line center on the 2012 playoff team, returns as an assistant coach under new head coach Gerard Gallant. Madden is joined by newcomers Mike Kelly and Mark Morris.

‘A COMPETITIVE TEAM’

“We need everyone here to pull their weight,” Tallon said. “We have a competitive team right now although we’re not where we need to be. I think we’re going to play hard every night, be in every game. If Luongo stays healthy, the kids like Bjugstad and Barkov have strong years, then veterans like Bolland and MacKenzie will make a difference for us.”

Tallon envisions a team that is going to play good defense in front of Luongo and backup Al Montoya while rolling out four strong forward lines.

In what is perceived to be a weaker Eastern Conference, the Panthers feel like they can contend for one of the eight playoff spots.

“Everyone around here is optimistic that we can be a playoff team with what we have,” said defenseman Brian Campbell, who enters his fourth season with the Panthers.

“I feel like in the East, there are about two or three teams set in stone. It’s not like the West. Here, I think just about everyone is in the mix. You have to ask the question, ‘Why not us?’ We should be right there.”

Said Luongo: “Every year you see a team kind of come out of nowhere and takes that next step. Last year, no one expected Tampa to be much and look at what they did. It’s a matter of everything coming together and staying healthy.”

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