Columbus Blue Jackets center Boone Jenner (38) skates with the puck as Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) pursues in the first period of a hockey game, Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
SUNRISE, Fla. - This season had a familiar feel for the Florida Panthers, who again relied heavily on prospects and again missed the playoffs.
But general manager Dale Tallon is confident the Panthers can get better this off-season—and quickly.
The Panthers are expected to have about $30 million in cap space this summer, and Tallon said he's been given the go-ahead by new owner Vinnie Viola to spend money. It's a refreshing change for Tallon, who previously had been restricted financially.
The GM wants to add five veterans this summer, including two defencemen, to complement the team's young nucleus.
"I'm disappointed in the year," Tallon said. "I'm disappointed in a lot of things. I'm moving forward. We're going to fix it. We've got great support now from Vinnie Viola and we're going to move forward and add the pieces to help these kids get to the level that we need to get them to."
After finishing 29th in the overall standings this season, the Panthers are assured of having a top-three pick in the NHL draft for the fourth time in the past five years. The first three—defenceman Erik Gudbranson (in 2010), wing Jonathan Huberdeau (2011) and centre Aleksander Barkov (2013)—all played significant roles this season.
The Panthers have been stockpiling prospects since Tallon became general manager in May 2010, and the GM wants his young team to grow together.
"That's the way to do it," Tallon said. "That's the way it's going to get done. But we also have to have people around them that are going to help them find their way. Expediting their play and putting them in the situations this year expanded their growth a little bit and got them some valuable experience. If we get the right people in July and August to come in there to help them ..."
Before Tallon gets to work on the roster, he'll have to figure out what to do with interim head coach Peter Horachek. After replacing Kevin Dineen in early November in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, Horachek compiled a 26-36-4 record.
Tallon commended Horachek for the job he did, but said Horachek's future would be discussed in early May.
The Panthers showed rapid improvement after Horachek took over, and an 18-11-4 stretch left them only eight points out of the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference after a 5-4 shootout victory at Detroit on Jan. 26.
But things unraveled quickly. The Panthers lost five of six before the Winter Olympics, then saw Barkov, arguably the team's best all-around player as an 18-year-old rookie, sustain a knee injury while playing for Finland.
"I don't think people realize how good this guy is and how important he is because he's as good defensively as he is offensively,"? Tallon said. "We were still in the hunt just prior to the Olympic break, and once he went down ... we struggled before the break and then we lost him and it was tough for us."
Another big problem for the Panthers was the lack of production from some key veterans. After leading the team in scoring the previous two seasons, Tomas Fleischmann slumped to eight goals in 80 games, two years after finishing with 27 when the Panthers captured the first division title in franchise history. Tomas Kopecky, whose season ended after he sustained a concussion playing in the Olympics for Slovakia, didn't score in the first 19 games.
Florida ended the season second-to-last in the NHL?in both goals and goals allowed, and pulled off the dubious double of finishing last in both power-play and penalty-killing percentages. Nick Bjugstad led the team in scoring as a 21-year-old rookie, but his 38 points represented the lowest total for an NHL team leader in a season of at least 82 games, according to STATS.
But it was the play of Bjugstad and Barkov and the other young players, as well as the March acquisition of goalie Roberto Luongo, that left the Panthers with some optimism after they missed the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 years.
"This is not where we wanted to be," Horachek said after the season finale. "You have to decide, are we a playoff team next year??And what do we have to do differently individually to bring our game up? Part of that is conditioning, part of that mind-set. We have to be committed to the next level to be able to get to the next level.
"Where we did succeed is we had a lot of young guys that we saw positive things from. We are going to mould that into something positive for next year."