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Core Values: Barkov, Huberdeau at center of Panthers' youth movement

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Aleksander Barkov (16) and Jonathan Huberdeau (right) are keys to future success for the Panthers. (USATSI)
Aleksander Barkov (16) and Jonathan Huberdeau (right) are keys to future success for the Panthers. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Florida Panthers trudged through another exceptionally bad season, but their futility did help them earn them the first overall pick, with which it selected top defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Over the years, the Panthers have been able to acquire numerous high-end prospects with high draft picks. As those players mature, there's a chance they can help the franchise climb out of the bottom of the league.

With just one playoff appearance over the last 13 years, the Panthers for once appear to have some vision for the long-term. Having amassed one of the better prospect groups, the club has been able to graduate young players to the NHL roster with regularity. Some have performed better than others to date, but the club will need all of them to grow into above-average NHL players at worst to progress as a franchise.

However, general manager Dale Tallon isn't content to just build on youth alone. He was busy this summer, which augmented the appearances of long-term vision. The club threw money around in free agency and not all of it seemed to be smart money.

The club added Dave Bolland on a five-year, $27.5 million, added fighter Shawn Thornton on a two-year deal, depth center Derek McKenzie got three years, while two-time Stanley Cup champ Willie Mitchell got a two-year deal. The club also signed Jussi Jokinen to a four-year deal that may have been their most sensible signing of the summer.

The team also added Roberto Luongo in a trade late last season, which should actually help the team see improvement in the crease this season. Even though Luongo's contract will take him into his early 40s, the Panthers had the space and the positional need that makes it worth absorbing that deal.

Despite all of the new additions to the team, it's the high draft picks of recent years that are going to have to be the players driving the resurgence in Florida. Jonathan Huberdeau had a down year last year after winning the Calder Trophy the year before, but he is a central figure in this team's long-term future.

Others like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Alex Petrovic, Dylan Olsen and Jimmy Hayes give the Panthers their best chance at becoming a relevant franchise, along with a host of others in the prospect pipeline.

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): G Roberto Luongo (35, 8 years), D Brian Campbell (35, 2 years), LW Jonathan Huberdeau (21, 1 year), C Aleksander Barkov (19, 2 years), C Dave Bolland (28, 5 years), C Nick Bjugstad (22, 1 year), D Aaron Ekblad (18, Draft rights owned)

Total cap hit for 2014-15*: $20,820,375 (30.1% of salary cap consumed by seven players)
* - Includes $925,000 estimated cap hit for Aaron Ekblad who remains unsigned

Average Age: 25.4

Total point production in 2013-14: 40 goals, 87 assists, 127 points (25.9% of team's total production)

About the Core

Roberto Luongo's return to Florida provides stability in net. (USATSI)
Roberto Luongo's return to Florida provides stability in net. (USATSI)

Roberto Luongo: Adding Luongo late last season at a reasonable cost to make the deal should help the Panthers have some stability in net. Though 35, Luongo still is capable of playing the position strongly. After he was added via trade with the Vancover Canucks, Luongo posted a 6-7-1 record, .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average. For a team that finished with a .900 save percentage overall last season, that's a massive improvement. There's no one behind Luongo who will be able to unseat him as there was in Vancouver. This is his net, he's back where he's comfortable living with his family in Florida, and he can fairly easily slide into the back end of his career. The last two seasons in Vancouver are not necessarily indicative of Luongo's capabilities. To have a goaltender with a career .919 save percentage, vast playoff experience and one who is exactly where he wants to be should be a big help to the Panthers next year and even could push them into playoff contention in the East. How he was acquired: Traded from the Vancouver Canucks with Steven Anthony for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias

Brian Campbell: The Panthers defensive corps is going to be awfully young, but Campbell will provide strong veteran performances as he has over three seasons with the club. The gifted offensive defenseman has thrived as Florida's No. 1. Last season, he averaged a career high 26:57 per game. Perhaps if he had more weapons to distribute the puck to his point total would have been better than the 37 he had. Beyond that though, Campbell has continued to put up positive possession numbers as he has throughout his career. He still has a high-risk, high-reward game, but the team is controlling the puck better with him on the ice than off. Campbell has gotten a bit of a bad rap due to the big contract he has been playing under since 2008-09 with the Blackhawks. Florida's need to get to the floor really paid off because he has been a terrific player for them since he arrived. In 212 games with the Panthers, Campbell has 117 points. He only has two years left on that long-term deal, but his presence should be invaluable as the younger players grow into their roles over that span. How he was acquired: Traded from the Chicago Blackhawks for Rostislav Olesz

Jonathan Huberdeau: It appears that Huberdeau succumbed to the dreaded sophomore slump last season. A season removed from winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, Huberdeau saw his point total drop to 28 points in 69 games. He had 31 in 48 games as a rookie. Despite the rough season, Huberdeau's importance to the franchise hasn't diminished. Now he'll have his former coach from his junior days behind the bench in Florida in Gerard Gallant. Huberdeau was a star in the QMJHL with 257 career points in 195 games in that junior circuit. First thing the Panthers have to do is figure out how to get Huberdeau more shots. His shots per game dropped from 2.33 per game as a rookie to 1.57. A lot of that could depend on who gets slotted at center on Huberdeau's line. It's far too early to write off the young talent. Having an overall deeper lineup is going to help take some of the offensive heat off of Huberdeau, but he's going to have to be a player that delivers regularly. Additionally, he's playing for his next contract extension as his entry-level contract expires after this season. How he was acquired: 2011 NHL Entry Draft, first round, third overall

Aleksander Barkov: Like Huberdeau, Barkov should be a huge part of this team as it progresses over the next few years. Before having his season cut short by injury during the Olympics, Barkov was looking pretty solid as a rookie. The young Finn had 24 points in 54 games. He was also performing well in the possession game as he posted a 52 percent Corsi for percentage. Considering he was just 18 (he turned 19 on Tuesday) and getting his first taste of North American hockey, his performance was pretty remarkable. Now the question is how much the injury he sustained while representing Finland in Sochi set him back. He also got injured during his draft season. Losing development time isn't ideal, but Barkov appears to be a special talent. He starred in the Finnish pro leagues as a teenager and his introduction to the NHL was so positive. Keeping him healthy and getting him more pro reps should be interesting. The now 19-year-old has good size, thinks the game maturely and has some serious skill. He's going to be fun to watch. How he was acquired: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall

Nick Bjugstad: After leading the team in scoring last season (not saying a whole lot at 38 points, but pretty solid for a rookie), much will be expected of Bjugstad hading into his sophomore campaign. Bjugstad put up 16 goals and showed off the scoring potential that made him a star college player at the University of Minnesota. What makes Bjugstad even more intriguing is that he seemed to show progression last season. He had 14 points over his last 23 games of the season including 11 points in the month of March. At 6-foot-6, 218, he's not a bruiser, but if he can continue developing a power game and make things happen on the ice with his size and speed, there's a good chance he can be an annual 20-goal scorer if not better. Bjugstad will be due a new contract at the end of this season. Another step forward could trigger a multi-year deal. How he was acquired: 2010 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 19th overall

Dave Bolland: After getting a five-year, $27.5 million contract, Bolland is being paid like a core player, so here he is. The veteran of two Stanley Cup teams in Chicago, Bolland is coming off an injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He managed just 23 games last year after having tendons cut in his ankle by a skate blade. Bolland started off the year well enough with the Maple Leafs with 10 points through his first 14 games. Then he got injured. Expecting October Bolland to be 2014-15 Bolland is a lot to ask, however. Despite being paid like a top-six forward type, Bolland has often been better when playing a lower-lineup role. He's never touched 50 points in a season over his career. He does have two 19-goal campaigns, though. The Panthers often have to overpay to get free agents to sign and they absolutely did that with Bolland on money and on term. With so many young centers on the team needing more reps, the additions of Bolland and Derek McKenzie could block some of those players from getting NHL time. Bolland will have a lot to live up to with this contract that was widely panned as one of the worst in free agency. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014

Aaron Ekblad: If you're going to draft a guy first overall, you better expect him to be a long-term core player. That's what Ekblad is for the Panthers. Though not yet signed, he will get his max entry-level deal sooner or later. The gifted defenseman was always ahead of his peers physically and mentally. He was the first defenseman and just the second player since John Tavares to receive exceptional status to join the OHL a year before he was age eligible. While with the Barrie Colts, Ekblad often dominated the competition. He had 116 points in 175 games over three years in the OHL, including 53 last season. He starred for Canada at various international events including the most recent World Junior Championship. At 6-3, 216, he has pro size. He has big potential and the Panthers really need him to hit on all of it. He should make the full-time roster next year and if all goes well, he could see top-four minutes before long. How he was acquired: 2014 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Who's next in line

Erik Gudbranson must show improvement in 2014-15. (USATSI)
Erik Gudbranson must show improvement in 2014-15. (USATSI)

The Panthers have a lot of young players who are going to need some time to continue maturing, but quite a few of them are going to have to do it at the NHL level. Some already have been.

The Panthers have a pair of guys who could be core defensemen beyond Aaron Ekblad.

Erik Gudbranson was drafted to be their defenseman of the future, but hasn't quite lived up to that billing yet. The big rearguard still has plenty of potential to tap into at just 22, but he's had to learn on the job and it hasn't always been easy. There haven't been many points to speak of, but the big defender has been an aggressor physically. They still need more from a former third-overall pick, though.

Dmitry Kulikov already has 313 NHL games under his belt and has been progressing rather nicely into a top-four defenseman for the team. He's definitely still one of the team's internal core players as he just signed his new three-year extension. Often the subject of trade rumors, the club quashed those with the new contract. He scored a career-high eight goals last year to go along with a career-best 127 shots. Another step forward developmentally and Kulikov could be a strong top-pairing option down the line. He's already being paid like one.

Other young players who have already made an impact at the NHL level include a trio acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in Brandon Pirri, Dylan Olsen and Jimmy Hayes. After joining the team last season, all made good impressions at the NHL level. Pirri had 14 points in just 21 games, suggesting he may be ready for a more established role on the team, while Olsen really looked strong in a bottom-pairing role.

Prospects brought up internally like defenseman Alex Petrovic and forwards Vince Trocheck and Drew Shore also showed promise in brief stints with the team. Trocheck in particular looked as though he was ready for a full-time job this season. The question will be if the new additions at center in free agency will allow him more time to get some NHL reps. He may have to start the year back in the AHL again.

Below the NHL level, there's a host of strong prospects including undersized, but highly skilled Rocco Grimaldi, who just signed his first pro deal after a solid career at the University of North Dakota. The team also has two promising defensemen still in college in former first-round pick Michael Matheson and second-rounder Ian McCoshen. Both play for Boston College.

There's plenty of depth within the prospect system. As certain veterans' contracts end, there will be more of a need for this group to jump into the NHL lineup, but the Panthers should also be patient. Pushing too many young players too soon is a recipe for disaster. It seems as though the Panthers are being picky about who gets those shots so far, which is probably the right approach.

Overview

The Panthers as a whole are better than they were last year. Considering the Eastern Conference is a crapshoot in terms of the playoff race, there's a chance the Panthers could be in the postseason conversation deep into the season.

How the everyday lineup is constructed will be interesting to watch, though.

There are a lot of veterans beyond the offseason additions that will have a big impact on this team, most notably Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Brad Boyes and Sean Bergenheim. Boyes had 21 goals last season, while Upshall finished second on the team with 37 points.

Having established veterans like that, along with the new additions, particularly Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen, diminishes the team's reliance on youth, but development of those young players should still be a priority. The top guys like Huberdeau, Barkov and Bjugstad are more than capable of playing big-time roles on this team and need those opportunities to grow as players.

The Panthers really have no other choice but to trot out a young defense, which will benefit from Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell taking some big minutes. All eyes will be on Ekblad to see just how ready he is for a bigger NHL role. It will also be a pretty important year for Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov.

Having stability in net should go a long way, too. Perhaps refreshed by his return to Florida, the Panthers' net will belong to Roberto Luongo for the foreseeable future. Al Montoya and Dan Ellis are more than serviceable backups as well.

The Panthers are a tough team to predict next season. It could be a much improved campaign with even the postseason possible, but there's always going to be that doubt. Having a rookie head coach behind the bench in Gerard Gallant will do nothing to calm those doubts. The team has been chewing up and spitting out rookie head coaches with regularity from Peter DeBoer to Kevin Dineen to most recently Peter Horachek. Gallant will have to find a way to be different.

This season may also be an important one for Dale Tallon. He spent a lot of his owner's money this offseason and will have to spend more of it to handle upcoming restricted free agent extensions. Without immediate improvement, which is of course no guarantee, he could be on the chopping block next.

This organization has been more of a punchline over its history, but there's at least optimism bubbling to the surface. Youth doesn't always develop the way a team hopes it will, but with such a deep group below the NHL level, some are bound to hit. It's going to take some time, but the Panthers have the pieces in place to become a relevant teamin the NHL. They have a chance to take a step in the right direction in 2014-15.

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