Florida Panthers\' Stephen Weiss skates during the team\'s NHL training camp in Coral Springs, Fla. Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
SUNRISE, Fla. - There's one last order of business to complete before the Florida Panthers can finally get this season started.
It comes Saturday night, not long before the first dropped puck of this new and condensed season, and it's a moment 12 years in the making. The Panthers will pay homage to last season one more time, with the hoisting of the banner to commemorate their first Southeast Division title.
And Panthers coach Kevin Dineen doesn't think the added pomp and circumstance will in any way create a distraction.
"We waited seven months to get going," Dineen said. "I think an extra 15 minutes for a really special night will be good for us."
In some ways, it'll be both a reminder of good times and bad for the Panthers, when that banner gets displayed before Florida's season begins against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Yes, the Panthers had their long-awaited breakout season. And no, winning the Southeast isn't exactly the franchise's ultimate goal, either.
"It's not a Stanley Cup banner," Panthers forward Stephen Weiss said. "And those are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day. But certainly, it was a good year for us last year. We're proud of winning the Southeast. It'll be nice to see the banner go up, but I'm sure it'll be out of our minds pretty quickly and we'll be on to the next challenge."
Florida's ride ended last season on home ice, in a double-overtime, Game 7 thriller against New Jersey. The Devils wound up going all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. The Panthers have been waiting to pick up where they left off ever since, first through the summer and then through the lockout that turned this season into what will be a 48-game battle of wills.
And to get back to the playoffs, there might not be much room for error. Florida earned the No. 3 seed in the East last season by winning the division, but only finished with 94 points—just two more than Washington and Ottawa, who took the last two spots in the conference playoff bracket with 92.
"Our guys are a great group of guys," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "There's a lot of character in our locker room and we've added some more. We're adding more skill as well. It's not going to be easy. Teams are going to be prepared for us. But the second half, we weren't a surprise in the second half. This is a group of guys that want to win ... and want to prove to the world that they can get better and go deeper in the playoffs."
Florida returns its top four scorers in Tomas Fleischmann, Weiss, Kris Versteeg and defenceman Brian Campbell, as well as much of the core from the usual lines that Dineen sent out last season. Jose Theodore started 51 games last season in goal, and has been tabbed to be the opening-night starter for the Panthers once again.
Theodore's goals-against average last season was 2.46, his best in four years.
"We built something last year," Theodore said. "We're still far away from the ultimate goal. But last year was a start."
But were they really that far from the ultimate goal?
Consider the head-to-head series with the Devils a season ago. The teams met 11 times, including playoffs, with New Jersey winning the series 6-5 and outscoring Florida 29-28. And remember, the Devils won the Eastern Conference title.
"Last year was a big step," Theodore said. "Now we're in the playoffs. We lost in Game 7, double-overtime. So you're right, it was a bounce here or there. But still, you've got to learn from your mistakes. Last year was a solid year, but we want to be better."
To do that, the Panthers are going to likely look at a couple of new faces.
Well, one new, and one older face, to be more specific.
One of the things that held Florida back at times last season was a lack of scoring depth, which the Panthers are hoping might be addressed by highly talented rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and veteran Alexei Kovalev. Huberdeau was born in 1993—two years after Kovalev was taken No. 15 overall in the 1991 draft—but they've been paired together at times in training camp.
Kovalev's spot on the roster isn't guaranteed, but teammates are raving about what a player of his skill and resume could add to the Panthers' locker room.
"This team already has everything," Kovalev said. "There's just little things missing. It's always easier when you score more goals."