After the disastrous 2012-13 shortened season -- injuries, underachieving veterans, less than spectacular goaltending -- there were high hopes for the Panthers going into the past season. Jonathan Huberdeau was coming off his Rookie-of-the-Year status. Prior first rounder Erik Gudbranson had another year of experience. Promising 2013 first round pick Aleksander Barkov was NHL ready and a host of other youngsters were developing. Veterans Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg and Ed Jovanovski were purportedly recovered from debilitating surgery.
The weak goaltending was bolstered by the signing of Tim Thomas during training camp. Jose Theodore, who gave the team two good years, had season ending knee surgery the prior year and was not re-signed. Presumably, perennial "goalie of the future" Jacob Markstrom was ready and would share duties with Thomas.
It didn't take long into the season to realize that it was more of the same. Markstrom was again inconsistent and relegated to the minors. Thomas had some good games but was not the super-stopper he was with a stronger Boston team. By the trade deadline both Thomas and Markstrom were gone as result of the acquisition of Roberto Luongo.
The best players early in the year were probably Barkov and fellow rookie Nick Bjugstad, the team's leader scorer with a paltry 34 points. The biggest surprise was training camp walk-on Brad Boyes, who led the team with 21 goals and was invaluable in shootouts which had been a team weakness. He was ultimately rewarded with a contract extension. Barkov and veteran Tomas Kopecky were injured during the Olympics and never returned to action.
As an indication of just how bad things were, of the 20 players in uniform for the opening night victory over Dallas, when the Cats played Dallas again the last week of the season, only seven of those players were on ice. The others were traded, injured or demoted to the minors. In addition, the coaching staff had a major overhaul with the firing of Kevin Dineen and his bench assistants. Dineen was replaced by AHL coach Peter Horachek, who never had the term "interim" taken out of his title and was recently fired.
The season had begun with a complete change of ownership.
Assistant general manager Mike Santos, who engineered many of the personnel moves over the last few seasons was a casualty before the season ended. While all of this was happening, team president Michael R. Yormark abruptly left for greener pastures. Yormark was responsible for many of the marketing campaigns as well as the friendly treatment the team received from its landlord, the Broward County taxpayers.
By the latter part of the season, it was much the same as it had been for three of the last four years. The one saving grace was when the Cats backed into first place in the weak Southeast Division in 2011-12, their only playoff appearance in the last 12 seasons. By the trade deadline, in addition to Thomas and Markstrom, veterans Mike Weaver, Kris Versteeg and Marcel Goc were also shipped out. The Panthers made headlines with the reacquisition of Roberto Luongo. Only time will tell if this is the start of still another projected turnaround.
By season's end Horachek was coaching a lineup of AHLers on a continuous shuttle from San Antonio. Players like Quinton Howden, Drew Shore, Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic were getting another shot at the big time. The most impressive was Vincent Trochek who managed eight points and major ice time in 20 games.
By far the best performing call-ups were the players plucked out of the Black Hawks minor league rosters by trade. Dale Tallon was familiar with Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen from his Chicago days. Pirri, a former AHL scoring leader who couldn't crack the star-studded Chicago lineup, was most impressive with his seven goals in 21 games.
New owner Vincent Viola has pledged big bucks to put together a winner. The acquisition of Luongo was a statement to that effect. Florida had the lowest payroll in the NHL last year because Tallon's hands were tied due to the pending ownership change.
A first priority will be the selection of a new coach. Horachek was 26-36-4 after taking over from Dineen but in fairness to Horachek, after the Olympic break, the team was so decimated by injuries and trading of veterans, that he was coaching a group of rookies and AHL prospects.
In citing the reasons for Horachek's dismissal, Tallon said that he will be looking for an established NHL head coach. The three head coaches under Tallon (Horachek, Dineen and Peter DeBoer) had no prior NHL experience. He acknowledged that Peter Laviolette and Barry Trotz, among others, are on the consideration list.
After a coaching choice will be a decision on veterans. Will injury-plagued Ed Jovanovski be given the opportunity to fulfill the final year of his lucrative contract? Will Tallon try to move veterans such as Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Tomas Fleischmann whose performances were less than stellar?
The Cats have the number one draft selection this year. Last season, when they finished last, the lottery did them out of Nathan McKinnon. This year the situation reversed itself with them scoring a lottery bonanza, however the selections are not that obvious. Tallon has repeatedly said that he is rich in defensive talent, but his budding blueliners are yet to blossom so he might give some thought to top rated Aaron Ekblad for both his defensive and offensive prowess.
Which free agents will the Cats pursue? It is unlikely that stars such as Thomas Vanek will give Florida a second thought but there are others like Paul Stastny, Mike Cammaleri and Matt Moulsen who might be persuaded.
Exactly what Tallon does personnel-wise is anybody's guess. This is a team that needs everything, despite the promising roster. The Panthers finished in 29th place of the 30 NHL teams, with a league's worst power play and penalty kill. They ranked 29th in both goals for and against. Their leading scorer was rookie Bjugstad who has the dubious distinction of the fewest points to lead a team in scoring in NHL history.
For possibly the first time in Tallon's regime, he is dealing from strength. He has money and marketable assets. He is already on record of saying he will be active in the trade and free agent market, hoping to "surround (our youngsters) with the right NHL players."
With deep owner pockets, plenty of cap space, a number one draft pick and a stockpile of potential breakout players still in the system, the team can go no place but up.