SUNRISE, Fla. -- So much for the youth movement.
Despite all the preseason hype about several of the Panthers' top prospects competing for jobs when training camp began on Sept. 11, two weeks later it looks like only their 2013 top draft pick Aleksander Barkov, 18, and second-year forward Drew Shore, 22, will make their opening-night roster in Dallas on Thursday.
Young prospects such as Nick Bjugstad (concussion), Alexander Petrovic, Quinton Howden and Vincent Trocheck will gain much-needed experience in the AHL playing for the San Antonio Rampage. On Sunday, the Panthers placed defenseman Colby Robak, 23, and veteran forward Joey Crabb on waivers. They're down to 21 healthy bodies, so at least one blue-liner and a forward could be added.
Thanks to an infusion of revenue unleashed by new owner Vincent Viola, General Manager Dale Tallon's financial restraints were unlocked in time for him to land established veterans such as four-time All-Star goalie Tim Thomas, offensive-minded forward Brad Boyes and defenseman Tom Gilbert, as well as enforcer-type Kris Barch to add toughness in the final week of the preseason.
"We felt like we've accomplished things coaching-wise, I think there's areas that we still have to tidy up and keep working on," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said of the 3-1-3 preseason. "But most importantly for me, with Vinny Viola coming in, and (co-owner) Doug Cifu, just overall with our players in general, I like the vibe in the locker room, the tempo, the tenor.
"We're all speaking the same language and understand when things weren't going well, it wasn't going to be one individual; it was a team effort that would make a difference."
NHL preseasons are for shaping rosters, fine-tuning systems and building chemistry between linemates and defensive pairings. It's also about instilling confidence in surgically repaired players, such as Calder Trophy-winner Jonathan Huberdeau and Kris Versteeg, who are coming off hip and ACL repairs, respectively.
Huberdeau scored two power-play goals in his first game on Thursday, and Versteeg potted a pair in Saturday's come-from-behind 5-3 victory over the Lightning.
"That's what preseason is for, try to get your legs back, get your confidence back and timing ... to get chemistry together with the guys," Versteeg said. "Hopefully, that got accomplished. You work for so hard, so long to have those euphoric flow of feelings, it was exciting to feel that again.That's why we play the game."
For the 39-year-old Thomas, who played his first complete game in 17 months Saturday after playing 1 1/2 periods Thursday, the preseason was long enough to affirm his decision to return.
"I didn't even think about it because I knew what kind of shape I'm in," said Thomas, who allowed three goals on 22 shots Saturday. "We're looking to become a team, to get confidence in each other, confidence that we can win the game when we're up in the third period. The way things worked out, we got to prove even more than that."
Of course, questions remain. Losing two shootouts is a familiar refrain. However, Huberdeau and Barkov, two of Dineen's projected shootout specialists, didn't play those games. Barkov, his own worst critic, flashed snapshots of brilliance, but the teen phenom will be a work in progress.
The Panthers' depth should improve in about a month with the hopeful returns of forward Sean Bergenheim and captain Ed Jovanovski.
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