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2013-14 Florida Panthers Preview

<p>Making matters worse, the Panthers' last-place NHL finish didn't even get them the No. 1 overall pick at the draft, a distinction that belonged to the lottery-winning Colorado Avalanche instead.</p>

Making matters worse, the Panthers' last-place NHL finish didn't even get them the No. 1 overall pick at the draft, a distinction that belonged to the lottery-winning Colorado Avalanche instead.

However, it's not all bad news for the Panthers, who do boast an extremely talented left winger in Jonathan Huberdeau, last season's Calder Trophy winner, and a host of other former first-round draft picks.

Still, Florida's chances of making the playoffs for just the second time in 13 seasons in 2013-14 are slim, especially since the Panthers will be playing in a tougher division thanks to the NHL's realignment plan for the upcoming season.

The new Atlantic Division included five teams (Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto) that qualified for the postseason in 2013, while the other two teams -- Buffalo and Tampa Bay -- are also good bets to finish ahead of the Panthers this year.

FORWARDS - Huberdeau was one of the few bright spots for a Florida team that managed to gain just 36 points during last year's 48-game schedule.

Huberdeau ended the season tied with Edmonton's Nail Yakupov for the NHL's rookie scoring lead in 2013, recording 31 points on 14 goals and 17 assists. That was also good for second on the team to veteran winger Tomas Fleischmann, who had 35 points on 12 goals and 23 helpers.

Overall, the Panthers' offense was simply dreadful last season, as the club finished 29th in the NHL with a paltry average of 2.27 goals per game. Barring a huge step forward from Huberdeau in 2013-14 and a monster rookie season from Aleksander Barkov, who was picked second overall by Florida at this past summer's NHL entry draft, the Panthers could be just as bad in the scoring department this season.

To be fair, the Panthers' disappointing 2013 did have a lot to do with injury problems. Florida was fourth in the NHL with 361 man games lost last season and that included injuries to forwards Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, who finished second and third, respectively, in points for the Panthers in 2011-12 but combined to play only 27 games last year.

While Weiss left in the summer to sign a lucrative contract with the Red Wings, Versteeg hopes to bounce back from his injury-plagued 2013 to give Florida an offensive boost this season. Versteeg had 23 goals and 54 points for the Panthers in 2011-12, but managed only two goals and two assists in 10 games last season. His season was cut short by a torn ACL in his right knee and there's a good chance he'll be ready to start the season.

In the absence of Weiss, Shawn Matthias is slated as the club's top centerman with Fleischmann and Versteeg penciled in as his wingers. Matthias finished tied for second on the team with 14 goals last season, but only had 21 total points over 48 contests.

Although he only turned 18 years of age earlier this month, Barkov will be given every chance to grab the second-line center spot. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he has the size to jump right into the NHL and the native of Finland is said to play a complete two-way game.

Although head coach Kevin Dineen is expected to try and mix up the line combinations to spark the offense, right winger Tomas Kopecky, who had 15 goals and 12 assists last season, could start the season on the second line with Barkov and Huberdeau.

Like Versteeg, wingers Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim will try to simply stay on the ice in 2013-13.

After posting 17 goals for the Panthers in 62 games during the 2011-12 season, Bergenheim missed all of last season due to a hip/abdominal muscles issue. Upshall, meanwhile, played in only 27 games last season, notching four goals and one assist.

DEFENSE - While the Panthers offense was nothing short of pitiful in 2013, the club's defensive numbers somehow managed to be worse.

Florida surrendered an average of 3.54 goals per game last season, leaving the club dead last in goals against. The good news is the Panthers have a lot of room for improvement at the back end, and they actually have some talented youngsters on the blue line.

Brian Campbell is the veteran of the group and is coming off a 27-point season (8G, 19A) with the Panthers in 2013. He expects to skate with Dmitry Kulikov, a 22-year-old with tremendous upside.

Although only 22 years old, Kulikov will be entering his fifth season as an NHLer in 2013-14 and all those years of seasoning could be about to pay off. The Russian had three goals and seven assists over 34 games last season and his minus-five rating wasn't terrible considering Florida had an NHL-wrost goal differential of minus-59 in 2013.

While Kulikov was taken with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Erik Gudbranson was the third player taken at the following year's draft. The highly-touted 21-year-old has room for improvement after posting four assists and a minus-22 raring in 32 games last season.

Oft-injured veteran Ed Jovanovski could be a skating partner for Gudbranson this season, but he is expected to miss the start of the season due to a hip ailment that caused him to miss all but six games in 2013.

Injuries also limited veteran Mike Weaver to only 27 games last season, but the hard-working blueliner is ready to go for the start of the upcoming campaign.

Another young rearguard to keep an eye on is Alex Petrovic, a 21-year-old Alberta native who made his NHL debut with six appearances at the end of last season. Petrovic was a second-round selection by Florida in 2010 and could join Kulikov and Gudbranson as future mainstays on the Panthers blue line.

GOALTENDING - Jacob Markstrom is considered Florida's goaltender of the future, but he may spend the upcoming season as an apprentice to two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas.

Thomas, who also won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy during a wildly successful tenure with the Boston Bruins from 2002-12, took a leave of absence from professional hockey last season, but the 39-year-old is back for another go-round.

Thomas joined Florida on a professional tryout basis when Scott Clemmensen, who was expected to serve as Markstrom's backup, suffered a knee injury in early September. If Thomas' tryout goes well than Clemmensen could be left out in the cold when it comes to playing time.

It would be interesting to see Thomas man the crease for Florida this season, considering he almost always played in front of a stout defense during his time in Boston. All told, the veteran posted a 2.48 goals against average, .921 save percentage and 31 shutouts over 378 career games with the Bruins.

Markstrom, a second-round pick by Florida in 2008, was 8-14-1 with a 3.22 GAA for the Panthers last season and he could benefit from playing second fiddle to Thomas in 2013-14.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - While it was nice to see the Panthers make a brief foray into the playoffs in 2011-12, it was just as sad to see the franchise fall so quickly back into its old bad habits last season. General manager Dale Tallon was rightfully given praise for building a playoff team two years ago, but he could be searching for another job if Florida doesn't show some kind of improvement from last season's awful performance. There is some talent on this roster, but it's raw and unlikely to put the fear into members of the realigned Atlantic Division. Buckle up, Florida fans, because 2013-14 is going to be another bumpy ride.

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