Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Glum outlook for Florida Panthers can’t temper excitement

Nobody among the hockey literati expects much from the Florida Panthers in the new season commencing Thursday night in Dallas. Few imagine the franchise’s 20th anniversary year will end with much worth celebrating, such as, for example, a playoff spot.

Nationally, across the NHL, the Cats are seen as an Eastern Conference bottom dweller, an outfit judged 29th of 30 teams in ESPN’s preseason power rankings.

Locally, though the team bubbled into headlines last week when New York businessman Vincent Viola bought the club, the Panthers skate on the far periphery of South Florida’s interest. That isn’t hockey doomed as niche sport here; that’s the residue of a team that simply hasn’t won much or mattered much since it played Cinderella in the Stanley Cup Finals of ever-distant 1996.

So here we go, christening a new season that finds the Panthers thoroughly off the radar nationally and not much more than a small sandcastle on the local beachhead dominated by the Dolphins and Heat.

I spoke to coach Kevin Dineen just before he boarded Wednesday’s team flight to Dallas and passed along this general outside belief that — although brighter days surely lay ahead for his youthful kitten-Cats — the outlook for this season skews toward glum.

“I think that’s a fair assessment of our team,” Dineen had to admit. “There’s still a level of experimenting with our personnel.”

There is a ready-or-not quality to this season’s start. “This ride could go a lot of different ways,” as Dineen put it.

Excitement builds

So why am I more excited about this Panthers season than any in a long time? Why do I find this team more interesting than what they’ve had here for years? And why should faithful Panthers fans feel good about the arc of the club even as all the pundits point to a losing season?

Part of it is the ownership change.

Most of it is getting to be an eyewitness to the flowering careers of so many bright young stars.

And some of this is the sudden inclusion of one Tim Thomas into all of this — Thomas, who, if the hockey gods are smiling, could become one of the biggest comeback stories in the sport.

Let’s take these three things in order.

First, the new owner.

Vinnie Viola is a passionate hockey fan said to be worth $1 billion, his pockets considerably deeper than those of his predecessor. Viola’s immediate green light allowed general manager Dale Tallon to quickly sign a few veteran pieces to fill small holes. The new owner’s willingness to spend will be much more significant down the road as expiring contracts position Florida to have a huge amount of salary-cap space and roster flexibility over the next few years. Imagine the money to spend big on top free agents to augment an ascending young nucleus. (Tallon does.)

Here’s another small result of the ownership change: Dineen, the third-year coach, gets to suit up and travel with his entire 23-man active roster now. He used to be limited to 20 as a cost-cutter. That might not seem important, but Dineen calls the change something “that puts a high emphasis on quality of play.”

Next, the young talent.

When you refer to the Panthers as 19 going on 20, that could be the franchise timeline … or the age group of the players who will be this club’s future stars.

Blossoming Jonathan Huberdeau, 20, the NHL Rookie of the Year last season, returned 10 pounds heavier with what Dineen called “quality weight” to face the rigors of what is very much a grown man’s sport. The coach said Huberdeau “came in prepared to take the next step.” He could become the scorer Florida has lacked since Pavel Bure.

Aleksander Barkov, only 18, the recent No. 1 draft pick, is starting with the big club and could be the offensive complement to Huberdeau. That’s exciting. Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Nick Bjugstad and Jacob Markstrom are other future stars young enough to be carded in any self-respecting bar.

An ESPN “future rankings” outlook for the 2016-17 season rated the Panthers’ prospects fifth best in the league overall.

A lightning rod

If Florida’s young stars and new owner are about solidifying the future, our third point of interest is about right now.

Tim Thomas.

It’s a weird story that might become downright charming if Thomas is able to join a pretty solid history of Panthers goaltending, from John Vanbiesbrouck to Roberto Luongo to Tomas Vokoun.

Thomas is 39 now. He led the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup title, made his fourth All-Star team, won the Vezina Trophy as goalie of the year. He was on top.

Then two things happened that made Thomas a hero or a nut, depending on one’s vantage. In either case, they gave him an aura of mystery.

First he declined to attend the Bruins’ White House ceremony, making headlines with a manifesto explanation that began, “I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people.”

Then he quit hockey. Abruptly retired, stayed out a year, and then suddenly reappeared late last month in the sport’s southernmost outpost.

Dineen cares not about Thomas’ politics or his age, he just hopes the goalie can find magic left in his career’s winter while also serving as a mentor for young Markstrom.

“Goaltending has a chance to be a real strength,” the coach said.

That an unretired, near-40-year-old veteran would embody that as teammates half his age begin to bloom around him gives this Panthers team an odd mix, an unpredictability.

The experts seem sure this won’t be a winning season.

Doesn’t mean it won’t be an interesting one.

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