They will attempt to erase the memory of a sixth-place finish last season with much of their hopes pinned to centers Aleksander Barkov, 21, and Nick Bjugstad, 25, and forward Jonathan Huberdeau, 24.
“Our core young guys need to take over this team,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “We want to play a different style and we wanted to get younger and quicker.”
The Panthers will be coached by Bob Boughner, hired June 12 to replace Tom Rowe, who took over when Gerard Gallant was fired on Nov. 27. Boughner, 46, played 10 NHL seasons as a defenseman for six teams.
“I believe in Dale, I believe in this group,” Boughner said. “I think we have a lot of great pieces to build a winner. I love the lineup. That’s the thing that made me the most excited.”
Boughner takes over a team that features a strong nucleus of talented young players, starting with Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, center Vincent Trocheck, 24, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad, 21.
One forward no longer on the roster is Jaromir Jagr, 45, who is looking for an NHL team to play for after the Panthers decided he no longer fit into their plans. Tallon was effusive in his praise of Jagr and what he meant to them over the past two-plus seasons but said the decision to move on was part of an overall change in philosophy.
In that vein, the Panthers also bought out the contract of veteran forward Jussi Jokinen. Forward Jonathan Marchessault, who led Florida with 30 goals last season, was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft on June 21, and the Panthers traded Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights for a draft pick that day.
To replace Jagr on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau, the Panthers signed forward Evgeny Dadonov, 28, from the Kontinental Hockey League. A third-round pick of the Panthers (No. 71) in the 2007 NHL Draft, Dadonov had 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 55 games over three seasons with Florida but blossomed after returning to Russia; he had 66 points (30 goals, 36 assists) in 53 games for SKA St. Petersburg last season.
The Panthers also signed Finnish Elite League scoring leader Henrik Haapala, 23, on June 1. Tallon said he envisions Haapala, who had 60 points (15 goals, 45 assists) in 51 games with Tappara last season, skating on Florida’s second line with Trocheck and veteran Radim Vrbata, who was signed as a free agent on July 1 after he had 55 points (20 goals, 35 assists) in 81 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season.
Florida hopes one of its prized forward prospects — Henrik Borgstrom, the No. 23 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft; Owen Tippett, the No. 10 pick in 2017; Sebastian Repo, a sixth-round pick (No. 184) in 2017; or Maxim Mamin, a sixth-round pick (No. 175) in 2016 — can contribute this season alongside Bjugstad on the third line.
“Our young guys are going to get a really good chance at training camp to make our team,” Tallon said. “Our coaching staff and myself and the whole organization, we’re not afraid to play young players. The quicker they get into the battle, the more experience they get the payoff will be long term.”
Though there will be plenty of changes at forward, stability rules on defense. Goaltender Roberto Luongo, 38, will begin the season with 453 NHL wins, two from overtaking Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the all-time list. James Reimer will return as the backup.
The Panthers decided to protect four defensemen in the expansion draft before signing restricted free agents Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic.
Bjugstad, Barkov and Huberdeau combined to miss 100 games last season, no doubt a factor in the Panthers finishing 23rd in the NHL in scoring (2.50 goals per game).
“I don’t foresee Bjugstad and Huberdeau combining for 17 goals this year,” Tallon said. “Touch wood, I hope they stay healthy. We’re going to get a lot more offense from our back end. I think that Vrbata and Dadonov will certainly make up for most of that deficiency, if there’s any at all.”