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PACK 'EM UP: Florida Panthers Clear Out Lockers, Head into Offseason

LockerrBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

One by one, the Panthers pulled into their training facility under dreary conditions. 

The soft rain and constant cloud cover was a fitting backdrop as the team came to Coral Springs to meet with team management for the final time this season.

The players then lugged their pre-packed oversized bags to vehicles out back and headed into the offseason. 

Unlike last year, locker clean-out day wasn't a foregone conclusion days before it actually happened. Last year, the end of the season came mercifully as the Panthers limped into last place in the Eastern Conference as coach Pete DeBoer was fired on a Sunday morning; the players returned the following Monday to grab their stuff.

SechampsphotoThis time around, the Panthers packed up wondering what could have been. One well-timed goal Thursday night (or even Friday morning) and Florida would be playing Philadelphia in the conference semifinals right now.

“This day is always tough, coming in and cleaning out your locker,'' veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski said.

“It's always tough to say goodbye to the fellas. As a group, there were a lot of positives. We were a goal away from advancing is something, yeah, to be proud of. But once you get a taste of it, you want more. We'll build from it.''

The Panthers have a number of personnel decisions to make, although nothing close to what they had to deal with last summer. When the Panthers cleared things out last year, only a handful knew whether they were returning or not. This time around, most know their fate with the Panthers. 

Florida, thanks to GM Dale Tallon's work last year, has 17 players who played for the team this year under contract for next season and hold the rights to four more.

The Panthers also have prospects – like  Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom – who could play here next year.  

One by one, players who are free agents said they would welcome a return to the Panthers next season.

Those who are free agents include goalie Scott Clemmensen, forwards Mikael Samuelsson, John Madden, Marco Sturm and Krys Barch.  

“We talked about it a little bit and we'll see what the future brings,'' Samuelsson said. “If it happens, that Ibelievewould be great. If I doesn't, I'm respectful of the decisions they make. Everything worked easy here. We had a real positive atmosphere here.''

--Defenseman Jason Garrison is also a free agent as his two-year deal is up and he will garner a big raise over the $675,000 he made last year. Garrison had a career year with 16 goals after having seven combined over the previous two seasons.

“I want to be here and I want to play here but it's not under my control. We'll see what happens,'' Garrison said. “Not one guy on this team doesn't want to be a part of this.''

--Kris Versteeg, who is a restricted free agent, said he will have surgery to repair his bothersome hip on Wednesday in Nashville. Versteeg says he has made it clear he wants to stay with the Panthers. 

“I would like to get something done,'' said Versteeg, who scored a career-high 23 goals this season. “I want a long-term deal. I would be lying if I said I didn't.''

--Tomas Fleischmann confirmed he played the final six games of the Devils series with a broken left pinkie suffered after being slashed late in Game 1. Fleischmann notched an empty net goal in Game 2 but said he struggled to control the puck because of the wrecked digit.

“It was tough. You work all season for this and then you get an injury like this in the playoffs,'' Fleischmann said. 

--Sean Bergenheim broke a bone in his foot after being struck by a Jason Garrison shot in the first period on Thursday. Bergenheim, using a walking boot Saturday, didn't come out of the game and played 30 shifts – 25 after being hurt – in the series finale. 

“[Garrison's] shot was going in the net but it hit me,'' Bergenheim said. “It was pretty painful. The doctors gave me some pain medication and I was able to play the game. But that's what the playoffs are all about. Guys play in pain. It's no big deal. It's a good time to be a hockey player. I love the playoffs.''

--Madden said he will need nasal surgery after colliding with teammate Tomas Kopecky during the first period Thursday. Madden has lacerations under and above his blackened right eye as well as a number of stitches on his nose.

Madden, who will be 39 on Friday, says he wants to continue his NHL career. 

“I hope it wasn't, especially after the way it ended,'' said Madden when asked if Thursday may have been his last game after 13 NHL seasons.

“Having a collision with your teammate isn't the way you want to go out. I feel I have some hockey left in me and hopefully I'll find somewhere to play next year. My meeting went well with Dale and Kevin. We'll keep the line of communication open.''