In 2012, the Florida Panthers won their first ever Southeast Division title and returned to the NHL playoffs for the first time in over a decade. That seems like a long time ago in light of the NHL lockout which very nearly killed the 2012-13 season.
But with a deal to end the lockout in place, the Panthers are set to defend their division title. Many players spent the lockout training together at the Glacier Ice Arena in Lighthouse Point. They held their final workout there on Wednesday, with an informal practice at the team's facility in Coral Springs scheduled for Thursday.
Florida will open training camp with a very similar roster to last year's division championship team. "We were a team that wasn't looked upon as a top-notch team in the league and I think winning our division is something to be proud of and something to build off," coach Kevin Dineen said Wednesday.
"We were all looking forward to getting started in September, and even though it's January we're all still looking forward to legitimizing this franchise as a team that you have to play extremely hard against every night to get points."
The team's top three scorers from 2012 are back, with Kris Versteeg signing a four-year deal with the team in July. Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann scored 70 of Florida's 197 goals last season, adding 102 assists.
To bolster the offense, Florida added free agent forward Peter Mueller to a one-year contract in July. The 24-year-old Mueller scored 22 goals as a rookie, but has sustained multiple concussions since, making him a health risk. He replaces Mikael Samuelsson, who scored 13 goals last season and signed with Detroit last summer.
The team signed defenseman Filip Kuba to replace the departing Jason Garrison, while enforcer George Parros was signed to give the roster added toughness.
The Panthers are not done making moves, though. Restricted free agent Dmitry Kulikov remains unsigned, and the Panthers are also considered a candidate to sign free agent goalie (and former Panther) Robert Luongo. The team has invited veterans Alex Kovalev, Andrei Kostitsyn and Marek Svatos for training camp tryouts.
With training camp expected to last only a week, and the regular season cut from 82 games to 48, the importance of the regular season will be magnified, especially in the first few weeks.
"You guys know how important the start of the season is in an 82-game schedule and that's just going to magnify in a shortened season," Weiss said. "All the games will be meaningful right off the bat."
The Panthers will open their season on January 19 against the Washington Capitals.