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Fall Training: Panthers to Open Camp Saturday Morning

Mantleftlaud When the Panthers return to the ice on Saturday morning in Coral Springs, it will be the first time the entire team and coaching staff have been together as a whole since the 2009-10 season finale.

That game, a 3-1 loss to the rival Lightning on April 11, was an ugly – if not fitting – end to a disaster of a season.

“It's been a long summer. Too long after not making the playoffs,'' said coach Pete DeBoer, who enters his third season with the Panthers. “We want to fix what went wrong. We all had a bad taste left from how last year ended and anyone with any competitive juices didn't sleep real well this summer.

“We're excited to get back in the competition, back in the hunt. It was a tough year, the toughest year of hockey I've had as a coach. But whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I notice a genuine sense of excitement around here.''

Much has changed around the Panthers since that loss in April. General manager Randy Sexton was replaced by former Chicago GM Dale Tallon in May. Talented winger Nathan Horton was shipped to Boston, with defenseman Keith Ballard sent to Vancouver in a multi-player draft-day deal.

The Panthers come into training camp with little fanfare and even fewer expectations. The Hockey News recently picked the team to finish last in the 15th place Eastern Conference after finishing 14th last season.

Even though few prognosticators are picking the Panthers to end their NHL record-tying streak of nine straight seasons outside of the playoffs, the players say they not only don't listen to such talk – but they don't believe it either.

“If we're flying under the radar, that could be a good thing,'' said center Stephen Weiss, who wears No. 9 and enters his ninth season with the team. “We can only focus on what the 20 guys here do on the ice. I could care less what other people think.''

Added Bryan McCabe: “Last year was unacceptable to all of us. It was a bad year all around. But I don't think anyone around here reads the stuff people write about us. We think we can compete with anyone in the league and get into the playoffs. We want to turn this thing around and make the playoffs. Then we'll see what happens.''

With Horton gone, the Panthers are going to try and find other ways to score goals. The Panthers scored the third fewest goals in the league last year, but hope a healthy David Booth and improved play from newcomer Chris Higgins (27 goals in 2007-08 with Montreal) and winger Rostislav Olesz (14 goals last year) take up some of that slack.

The Panthers go into camp with Weiss centering the top line with Booth (31 goals in 2008-09) and Michael Frolik (21 goals in each of the past two years) on the wings. Steven Reinprecht will likely center a second line with Higgins and Radek Dvorak.

Newcomers Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner – who came to Florida in the Ballard deal with Vancouver -- will be looking to settle in somewhere.

“I just want to get off on the right foot and find my game down here,'' said Higgins, who scored just eight goals with the Rangers and Flames last season.

The Panthers defense will be interesting to watch as players jockey for position. Florida added veteran Dennis Wideman to join McCabe, Bryan Allen, Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison. The Panthers have one starting spot left, with 18-year-old Erik Gudbranson trying to beat out Joe Callahan, Nathan Paetsch and Mike Weaver for a place on the opening night roster.

Tallon likes that there's a little bit of competition going on as camp opens.

“We have a lot of depth at all positions,'' Tallon said. “The key to success is competition, to see who comes to the forefront, who wants it more than the other guy. Those guys will play on our team.’’

The Panthers hold their first practice in Coral Springs on Saturday at 9 a.m., with an afternoon workout and scrimmage scheduled for Sunday. The team will hold a light practice Tuesday morning before flying to Raleigh, N.C., for the first exhibition game of the preseason later that night. The Panthers will play the Bruins in Rochester as well as visit Boston and Montreal before returning home next week.

This format of training camp, which is spent mostly at home or on the east coast, has been welcomed by just about everyone around the organization. Florida has spent camp in a variety of places – from Vail, Colo., to Nova Scotia -- over the previous five years and have gotten off to rotten starts.

“There's no secret the traveling has been tough on us,'' Weiss said. “We don't need to be burning all that energy and there's no excuse now if we don't get off to a good start. We should go into the season with some gas in the tank. It's nice to be at home and just travel a little bit. It should help.''

All practices at Coral Springs IcePlex unless noted

Saturday: 9 a.m.-noon
Sunday:  1-1:45 p.m.; scrimmage: 2 p.m.
Monday: 9 a.m.-noon
Tuesday: 11-11:45 a.m; Panthers at Carolina, 7
Thursday: vs. Bruins at Rochester, N.Y., 7
Sept. 25: at Boston, 7
Sept. 27: at Montreal, 7:30
Sept. 29: vs. Carolina (BankAtlantic Center), 7:30
Oct. 1: vs. Tampa Bay (BankAtlantic Center), 7:30
Oct. 2: at Tampa Bay, 7:30
Oct. 10: Regular season opener at Edmonton, 8 p.m.