Panthers, tired of waiting, hope breakthrough year is here

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov has a simple thought entering the season.

It’s time for change.

Every season for Florida starts with optimism and ends with frustration, a cycle that Barkov and the Panthers are desperate to break in 2021. It’s been nearly 25 years since the team has won a playoff series, by far the longest drought in the NHL, and this season’s 56-game truncated schedule means the Panthers won’t have much room for error if they’re finally going to break through and become a real contender for something.

“We have to take the next step,” Barkov said. “We’ve got to do it. We can’t talk much. We’ve got to do it on the ice, and we’ve got to show everyone that we’re taking the next step. Physically, everyone is ready. Mentally, everyone is ready.”

It’s Year 2 of the Joel Quenneville coaching era in Florida; the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach got the Panthers into the qualifying round of last season’s playoffs, where they fell in four games to the New York Islanders.

Quenneville’s most recent stop before Florida was Chicago, where he led the Blackhawks to a title in his second season. The Panthers can only hope history repeats itself — and he likes what he’s seen from his club in the offseason.

“They want to get down to business right away and they want to play for keeps,” Quenneville said.

A big change to watch right away is who joins Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau on Florida’s top line. Newcomer Anthony Duclair will be among those getting that chance.

“I have one job and that’s to get open,” Duclair said. “Those two guys are pass-first mentality, so myself, being a shoot-first guy, I think I fit in pretty good.”

Some of what to know about Florida entering the season:

ABOUT BOB

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was nowhere near his usual standards last season, when he had the second-worst save percentage of his career (.900, three saves shy of the worst) and a 3.23 goals-against average (three-quarters of a goal higher than what was his career rate). Florida’s best goalie last season was Chris Driedger, who makes about one-twelfth of Bobrovsky’s salary.

REPLACING GOALS

Including the four play-in games, Mike Hoffman scored a team-best 32 goals for Florida last season and Evgenii Dadanov was second with 25 goals. Neither is back, and that means the Panthers have some serious goal-scoring to make up for this season. When Florida scored four or more goals last season (excluding ones credited for winning shootouts), the Panthers were 31-1-3. When the Panthers scored three or less, they were 5-28-5.

HOME EDGE

Florida is planning to have some fans in the stands to start the season, with details still getting worked out. The Panthers hope to give them — however many there are — reason to cheer. Only seven of the NHL’s 31 clubs had a worse record on home ice last season than Florida, which managed 38 points in its 35 home games.

NEW LOOK

Bill Zito takes over as GM for Dale Tallon. Some of the key additions included signing Duclair to a team-friendly one-year deal, adding grit with defenseman Radko Gudas and landing forward Patric Hornqvist in a trade. Another new face is assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, who worked with Quenneville in Chicago.

SCHEDULE WATCH

Florida opens against Dallas on Jan. 14. The Central Division features Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay, runner-up Dallas, and three other teams that made the 16-team playoff last season. But Florida’s record last season against its seven now-divisional opponents was 10-6-2.

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