The Florida Panthers would just as soon forget the 2012-13 season ever happened. Coming off the franchise's first ever division title (and first playoff appearance in over a decade) in 2012, the Panthers were downright abysmal in a lockout-shortened season, finishing with the worst record in the NHL.
But none of that matters Thursday, when the Panthers open the season on the road against the Dallas Stars. The Panthers will likely improve in 2013-14, if only because the odds of so many key contributors getting injured again are slim. The Panthers were fourth in the league with a combined 361 games lost to injury.
With new owner Vinnie Viola in place, Panthers GM Dale Tallon brought in veteran goalie Tim Thomas to solidify an otherwise young roster. Tallon made waves for bringing in a bunch of veterans before that fabled 2011-12 season, but his strategy this season will be to depend on a host of young players and hope they hit their stride.
The centerpiece of Tallons' roster is second-year center Jonathan Huberdeau, who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL last season. He scored 14 goals with 17 assists last season, though the team will hope he improves on his 12.5% shooting percentage.
Second-overall draft pick Aleksander Barkov should play right away, and the Panthers hope he can provide a 1-2 scoring punch with Huberdeau for years to come. Last year's team-leading scorer Tomas Fleischmann is also back on the front line, providing veteran presence alongside Tomas Kopecky.
The Panthers' defense is under a lot of pressure to improve from last season, but it would be difficult to get any worse. They were dead last in the NHL with 3.54 goals against per game.
The team has high hopes for 22-year-old Dmitry Kulikov, who will be paired with veteran Brian Campbell on the first shift. Besides Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Petrovic are other young defensemen expected to see significant playing time this season.
Providing an anchor behind the defense is Thomas, who spent last season out of hockey to spend more time with his family. The 39-year-old Thomas will also be mentoring young goalie Jacob Markstrom, widely considered the team's goaltender of the future.
The NHL's realignment did the Panthers no favors this year, as they now share a division with five 2013 playoff teams, including former Western Conference heavyweight Detroit. Even if they play well, the Panthers could find themselves crowded out of the playoffs by their strong division rivals.
But nothing puts a disappointing season behind a team like Opening Night, and the Panthers are doubtless anxious to see that first puck drop.
The Panthers face the Stars in Dallas at 8:30pm, with coverage on Fox Sports Florida.