Greg Cote

After nightmare year, Florida Panthers’ Kiddie Cats are back on track & ready to roar

Teammates congratulate Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau, second from right, after he scored a goal during the second period of an NHL preseason hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sept. 26. Others from left, right wing Evgeni Dadonov, center Aleksander Barkov and center Vincent Trocheck.
Teammates congratulate Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau, second from right, after he scored a goal during the second period of an NHL preseason hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sept. 26. Others from left, right wing Evgeni Dadonov, center Aleksander Barkov and center Vincent Trocheck. AP

The long wait: Florida Panthers fans, their patience perpetually tested, waiting for their hockey club to be a major player again. It was 1996 the one and only time this franchise advanced beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs — by far the longest such drought in the NHL.

The shortest path to ending the longest wait: The Kiddie Cats all grow up together, turning potential into proof.

It feels close. Not there yet, maybe. But getting there.

“Their best players are some of their younger guys,” says Panthers coach Bob Boughner, so new to the team it’s still their by habit, not yet our. “At some point they have to take the next step and be dominant. I’ve been good at developing, taking young players and making them upper-echelon guys. That’s why I’m here.”

The Panthers have as strong a nucleus of young players as there is in the NHL, led by the quartet of centers Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov, 22, Jonathan Huberdeau, 24, and Vincent Trocheck, 24, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad, 21. Trochek was an All-Star last season. Many believe Barkov will be top-shelf elite, a superstar.

“All of a sudden it can just click,” says Panthers general manager Dale Tallon. “It can start to snowball.”

Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck and Ekblad are at the top of the Kiddie Cats marquee, but in all 14 players on the 23-man Panthers roster are 25 or younger as Florida’s 24th NHL season begins Friday night at Tampa Bay, with the home opener Saturday, also vs. Tampa.

Boughner (pronounced “boog-ner”) was hired in June expressly to find the elusive next step for a young team, and for a hungry franchise. He is the 15th Panthers coach. None has lasted longer than three seasons. Lurching directions and impatience have defined this club, but now, with a cluster of young talent secured with long-term contracts, there is the sense the Panthers may be just one great coaching hire from becoming an NHL force.

Florida Panthers coach Bob Boughner is excited about the young team the Cats will bring to the 2017-18 season.

Tallon is sure he hired that man this summer.

“I interviewed 14 coaches, more than I did when I hired Gerard [Gallant, in 2014], and Bob was the most prepared and the most passionate,” said Tallon of the two-time Ontario Hockey League champion and previous NHL assistant. “He blew us out of water. He was ready. He knew our lineup all the way through and he knew our depth chart extensively. He just impressed the hell out of us.”

Boughner, 46, has instilled a faster-paced attack that he saw lacking in dissecting film from Florida’s disappointing, injury-wracked 2016-17 season.

“When I watch this team [from last season] they didn’t have a lot of intention to shoot a puck,” Boughner told us, seated in his office after a team practice this week. “They wanted to over-pass it. They backed in too much.”

Tallon went to work, too, in making the personnel moves he saw as needed.

“We’re a faster, more skilled team with a little more grit,” he said. “We thought we were not quick enough, skilled enough or tough enough last year. We didn’t have enough sandpaper. We weren’t gritty.”

Two seasons ago the Panthers seemed to have arrived, winning the division and setting a club record with 103 standings points -- potential revealed.

A nightmare season followed.

Injuries. A sixth-place finish. Turmoil. Tallon demoted. Gallant suddenly and prematurely fired a quarter into the season by owner Vinnie Viola. An interim replacement, Tom Rowe, who clearly was not the answer.

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo talks about the importance of entering this season without a mindset of not getting lost in the big picture and prepare for each individual game

It was a lost season, a regression that gives this season a needed fresh-start feel.

“Last year was not fun,” Tallon understated it. “I erase that from my memory. [Bleep], I still don’t know what happened. I was befuddled, I guess is the word.”

Viola essentially said “oops my bad” and reinstated Tallon as the guy in charge, and bringing in Boughner has won over the dressing room.

“I’m truly confident. It’s a breath of fresh air for sure,” says the rising star Ekblad. “Everybody is on the same page, more so than we have been before. How clear, confident and precise [the coaches] are with everything they do. They’re always on the dot. It’s a great feeling. Our pace is extremely high. I’m very excited.”

Said Barkov: “It was a tough season last year. We have awesome coaches right now. We expect to be in the playoffs.”

Boughner speaks a lot about changing the culture of the Panthers, about “redefining the room.”

Culture might breed winning, or maybe winning shapes culture.

Either way, after a wasted, lost season of turmoil, Dale Tallon and Bob Boughner have the Florida Panthers back on the rails and headed right.

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