Greg Cote

The Panthers are challenging themselves to win Stanley Cup. That's bold, but refreshing

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) scores to tie the game in the third period as the Panthers host the New York Islanders for game 5 of the playoffs at the BB&T Center on Fri., April 22, 2016.
Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) scores to tie the game in the third period as the Panthers host the New York Islanders for game 5 of the playoffs at the BB&T Center on Fri., April 22, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The Florida Panthers meet the coming hockey season with unusual swagger, with cockiness. It is strange, coming from a franchise always cast as the underdog climbing uphill. Strange, from a club that has made the NHL playoffs but five times and not won a single postseason series since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals — Cinderella on skates — in 1996.

It is jarring. It is audacious. It is something else, too. Refreshing. Wonderful. And perfectly timed.

All of our other major pro sports teams are down. The Dolphins seem to be as depressingly bad as ever. The Marlins have been decimated by tragedy. The Heat are trying to reboot after the once-unfathomable departure of Dwyane Wade.

To the rescue come the Cats.

The only one of our four major pro teams yet to throw a championship parade is now without question the closest of them all to doing that as the Panthers host the New Jersey Devils Thursday at the Sunrise barn in the club's 23rd annual Opening Night.

“Underdogs no more,” as president of hockey operations Dale Tallon put it Wednesday.

Remember how Miami Hurricanes football players at the program's height of power in the 1980s buffed braggadocio to an art form? And how LeBron James upon arriving in 2010 talked dynasty for the Big 3-era Heat (“Not three, not four...”) by counting championships?

We're not elevating these Panthers to that standard of epic boastfulness, but, clearly, this is a team that thinks it can win the Stanley Cup and isn't shy to say it. This is a team publicly challenging itself to do it.

Shawn Thornton has been through many opening nights in his NHL career but it'll be a new experience for Florida Panthers rookie winger Shane Harper on Thursday night.

“Everybody knows we're a good team now,” says coach Gerard Gallant. “We're not going to sneak up on anybody.”

Two costly injuries during the preseason have stunned the team. Center Nick Bjugstad broke a hand and will be out four to six weeks. Far worse, forward Jonathan Huberdeau suffered a severe ankle injury that will sideline him about four months — at least two-thirds of the season.

But Tallon is convinced that improved depth will allow the Cats to absorb those blows. No fissures in confidence are evident.

What does right wing and 25-goal scorer Reilly Smith see for this team and season?

“Greatness,” he said.

Last season the Panthers set franchise records for most victories (47) and standings points (103).

“This year we have a lot higher expectations for ourselves,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo.

This could be the best team the franchise has ever put on ice. Players expect that.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad was told the Panthers are being rated a top-10 team and among Eastern Conference powers in media polls, and said, “As players on this team, our expectations exceed those times 10.”

The Panthers went bold after an excellent regular season ended unexpectedly last spring in a first-round playoff ouster vs. the New York Islanders.

There were front-office changes. About one-third of the roster was turned over to emphasize added speed, especially on defense. Defenseman Keith Yandle and backup goalie James Reimer are notable additions. Heck, even the logo was changed.

After having hip surgery in the summer, Roberto Luongo's long offseason is over and the Florida Panthers goalie is ready to step between the pipes when the season opens on Thursday night.

But the biggest change was a commitment to the roster's youthful core that will be the foundation of the future.

In addition to injured stars Huberdeau and Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Smith and Ekblad all are under 25. Barkov has superstar potential. Ekblad is a two-time all-star at age 20. Club owner Vinnie Viola poured almost $185 million into securing them all with long-term contract extensions.

This team has a chance to be very good for a long while — long after Luongo, 37, and amaranthine wonder Jaromir Jagr, 44, are gone.

(There was an interesting juxtaposition of this roster's blend of experience and youth on display Wednesday at the team's practice rink in Coral Springs. On one side of the dressing room sat the graybeard Jagr. A few steps away sat elfin Swiss forward Denis Malgin, getting his shot at age 19. The year Malgin was born, Jagr was scoring his 250th NHL goal).

Expectations have placed uncommon pressure on these Panthers, although veteran enforcer Shawn Thornton begs to differ.

“Pressure's having five kids and no job,” as he put it Wednesday.

Opening Night will feature an unveiling of the banner Florida got for winning a division title last year, but that's a mere consolation prize.

Thornton shook his head a little bit.

“There's only one banner that counts,” he said.

It is the one that comes with a Stanley Cup.

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