Apr 12, 2014; Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers head coach Peter Horachek in the third period of a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at BB&T Center. The Blue Jackets won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Panthers: 2014-15' Playoff contender?

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The Florida Panthers have had difficulties cracking into the playoff picture for a couple of years, making their last appearance in 2012. Before then, they hadn’t gotten to the postseason since 2000. Could this be the season they again find themselves part of the big dance, vying for a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup?

On paper, the Panthers look to be a more difficult team than in recent years. Shawn Thornton adds size and toughness, something that should be handy when it comes to protecting this teams youth against some of their bigger Eastern Conference counterparts. Jussi Jokinen provides an ability to score goals and points at a rate usually only seen by the games top players. Heck, if he can duplicate last season’s 57 point output this year it’ll give them a whole new dimension offensively.

Defensively, first overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad garners much of the attention because of how gifted he is with the puck. His 23 goals, 53 points with the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts last season proves that much. Even so, there’s no guarantee he’ll crack the Panthers roster as a rookie. If he does, watch out NHL because this kid’s only going to help a blueline that finished near the bottom in pretty much every category last season.

Meanwhile, acquiring Willie Mitchell from the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings should help Ekblad transition from juniors to the big leagues if he’s deemed ready for such a big leap. Either way, he’ll provide experience to a defensive corps full of youth down south. The Panthers only real veteran: 35-year-old Brian Campbell. All other defenseman are below the age of 25.

In net, Al Montoya’s a definite upgrade from Dan Ellis and Scott Clemmensen. His 13-8-3 record and 2.30 goals-against average with the Winnipeg Jets last season was pretty darn good. Over his career, the 29-year-old has a winning 37-26-13 record, 2.63 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Not bad for someone whose going to be used mainly as a backup to longtime veteran Roberto Luongo.

Will this be enough to break the Panthers postseason drought? Though unknown, I’d say they have the talent and tools to break into the 2014-15′ playoff picture.

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