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Dwork On Sports: Are Young Panthers Ready To Take The Next Step?

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Welcome to the Dwork On Sports blog.  This is a place where I'll cover all things related to South Florida sports, with a steady combination of facts and opinions while ultimately keeping a close eye on anything and everything related to our local teams.

Dwork On Sports

This is my favorite time of the year. Summer time can be somewhat boring in the sports world, especially if your baseball team isn't having a good season.  When July and August roll around that's when the NFL gets going again, with teams going through training camp and the preseason.  Once football season begins it's not long before hockey and basketball follow suit.

We've spent a lot of time discussing the Miami Dolphins over the past couple months and while that will certainly continue throughout the rest of the year, I wanted to take a break from that to talk about another local team that heads into their season with high expectations.

It's been a slow process for the Florida Panthers to re-enter the world of relevance in the NHL.  When general manager Dale Tallon was hired in 2010 the Panthers were one of the worst teams in the league, consistently finishing near the bottom of the standings. Their last playoff appearance came in the 1999-2000 season and their last playoff win was three years before that.

Tallon immediately laid out his 'blueprint' to success and began implementing his plan to do in Florida what he did in Chicago, turn a last place team into a Stanley Cup champion.  The process has proven to take longer with the Panthers as he first had to undo over a decade of bad decisions and start stockpiling draft picks and prospects.

After another last place finish in his first season, Tallon spent big money (big...for the Panthers) in 2011 and the team ended up winning the Southeast Division, taking the New Jersey Devils to double overtime in Game 7 of the opening round of the playoffs but ultimately falling short of winning the series.

The team regressed the following year as many of the veterans he signed the previous offseason struggled to match their production from the playoff year.  Tallon knew that his ultimate plan to rebuild the Panthers was still in full motion though as the main component to his design was developing prospects and draft picks into players that would carry the franchise for years to come.

Now let's fast forward to present date, where the Panthers roster is full of young players that he drafted and acquired through trades.  Those youngsters have been maturing and improving, to the point where Tallon choose not to sign any veteran free agents during the offseason so that he could allow the future of the franchise to take the reins of the team.

Here is a list of those young guys (and their ages) who will be leading the team in the upcoming season.

Aleksander Barkov (20), Nick Bjugstad (23), Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Brandon Pirri (24), Reilly Smith (24), Vincent Trocheck (22), Aaron Ekblad (19), Erik Gudbranson (23), Dmitry Kulikov (24) and Alex Petrovic (23).

Those are all guys who have established themselves as NHL-caliber players and spent time, some more than others, maturing with the Panthers (except for Smith, who was acquired this offseason from the Bruins for Jimmy Hayes).

There are also a handful of prospects in training camp who are ready to prove that they are ready to play in the NHL every day and help this team get back to the playoffs.

Lawson Crouse (18), Rocco Grimaldi (22), Quinton Howden (23), Garrett Wilson (24), Connor Brickley (23) and Mike Matheson (21) are just some of the young players who have a legitimate chance of claiming one of the two or three open roster spots on the Panthers heading into the season.

One of the biggest positives to having so many talented prospects is that it makes training camp uber competitive for everyone involved.  Everyone is hungry to show that they're ready to lead the Panthers and play in the NHL and while Tallon will do everything he can to make it happen for them, it's ultimately up to the players to prove they deserve a roster spot.

It's very exciting to see the 'future of the franchise' begin to reach its massive potential, but at the same time it comes with a level of uncertainty regarding the upcoming season.

When the season finally begins we'll start to see how ready these youngsters are to take the Panthers to the next level.  They could very well take that next step that Tallon envisioned them taking when he decided not to sign any veterans this offseason, or we may see that some of them still need another year of seasoning before they can truly make the leap.

Either way, the 2015-16 season should be an extremely fun one for Panthers fans starved for a winner.

Last season the team remained in playoff contention until the final few games and had they not been stricken with injuries, things may have ended better for the Cats.

Now many of those players have another year of maturing under their belts. The team looks to be improved from a season ago for that reason alone.

But as we've seen with the hometown Dolphins (through the first two weeks of the season anyway), all the potential in the world doesn't mean anything until it's reached during games that count.

The Panthers have a real shot at being one of the more fun and exciting teams in the NHL this season, especially if their top line of Huberdeau, Barkov and veteran superstar Jaromir Jagr can continue to play as well as they did last season.

In two short weeks when the Panthers open their season at home against the Philadelphia Flyers, we'll start to find out just how ready these young guys are.

The Panthers will face the Philadelphia Flyers in their season opener at the BB&T Center on Saturday, October 10th at 7 p.m. You can hear every game on Sports Radio 560 WQAM, the radio home of the Florida Panthers.

Follow David on Twitter (@DavidDwork)


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