Playoffs were ‘great learning experience’ for Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) There was a stretch in the regular season where the Florida Panthers seemed like they were getting every break, helping them put together what became a franchise-record 12-game winning streak.

And then came the postseason, when it seemed like no bounces went Florida’s way.

The Panthers played a six-game series against the New York Islanders, found themselves trailing in only two of those games – and lost the series anyway, doomed by three overtime losses and three games where Florida could not hang on to leads. So with that, the season came to an end in April once again for the Panthers.

Except this time, the sense of optimism about what’s coming might be more real than ever before.

“It was a great learning experience for a lot of our young kids,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was a lot of kids’ first playoff experience. We’re a real young team and we’ll be better next year.”

The Panthers have a group of young stars who should be together for years — Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith among some of them. They have a goalie in Roberto Luongo who turned 37 and still had one of his best seasons. They have Gallant, who might be a frontrunner for NHL honors after leading the Panthers to the Atlantic Division title.

If they can keep Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers will be a popular pick to go a long way next season.

“Nobody picked us to finish first place in the Atlantic and we had 103 points and we came a long way,” Gallant said. “And I think anybody who knows our hockey team, knows the character, how good our young players are and how good we’re going to be for the next number of years. … I know going forward we’ve got a great team.”

Here’s some of the issues facing the Panthers as their offseason begins:

JAGR STATUS: The 44-year-old led the Panthers in scoring with 66 points, has been an invaluable mentor to linemates Barkov and Huberdeau, and probably rivals Luongo as Florida’s most popular player. His postseason was frustrating in that he was on the ice for 163 shifts and finished with a mere two assists, extending his playoff goal drought to 37 games (spanning 100 shots and 852 shifts). The sense is that the Panthers will know quickly if he’s coming back. It’s his call; the team absolutely wants him to return.

CAMPBELL’S CONTRACT: D Brian Campbell has been with the Panthers for five years, and played in all 389 games that the team had (including playoffs) in that span. An unrestricted free agent now, some might point to his age – he turns 37 next month – and wonder if Florida should keep him. Others could point to his career-best plus-31 rating this season and quickly realize what he meant to the Panthers in this turnaround campaign.

MITCHELL’S FUTURE: Continuing the what-happens-next trend, D Willie Mitchell missed Florida’s final 42 games and there were reports that he’s considering retirement because of concerns over past concussions. Mitchell is a free agent, has served as the Panthers’ captain and teammates said he still had a role in the postseason run even while not being on the ice.

BOLLAND’S ANKLE: Forward Dave Bolland‘s health is a big question, and unlike the Jagr, Campbell and Mitchell matters this one might not get answered for a while yet. He’s only two years into a $27.5 million, five-year deal – and his 2015-16 season ended in mid-December because of an ankle problem that has dogged him for years. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner, though it remains most unclear if Bolland will be able to help the Panthers going forward.

ON-ICE CHANGES: While the young core of the Panthers is going to be around for a while, expect Florida GM Dale Tallon to look for help on special teams when free agency begins. The Panthers were in the NHL’s bottom third this season in both power-play success (16.9 percent) and penalty killing (79.5 percent). The backup goaltender spot will also have to be addressed, with Al Montoya (12-7-3, 2.19) now a free agent.

Related: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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