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A Roller Coaster Summer for the Florida Panthers Is Officially Over



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New Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk shares a laugh with general manager Bill Zito during his introductory press conference in Sunrise on July 25. — Photo @GeorgeRichards

The Florida Panthers had a crazy offseason, one that started off extremely quiet then shook up the entire look and feel of the organization as the summer went along.

The Panthers did not do much of anything in the weeks that followed their second-round sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Things certainly heated up as June turned into July.

When the dust of the summer settled, the Panthers had a new coach (their third in a calendar year) and also traded away their all-time leading scorer (Jonathan Huberdeau) as well as a highly-sought defenseman (MacKenzie Weegar) for a cornerstone player in Matthew Tkachuk.

The cap-strapped Panthers also saw Mason Marchment, Noel Acciari, Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot walk away in free agency while signing a number of players who appear to be following the ‘prove-it’ deals which worked out so nicely when it came to Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair.

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Oh, and Duclair sustained an Achilles’ tendon injury while working out which needed surgery. He was spotted running the other day, but he’s still going to be out of the lineup for a bit.

It was most definitely an interesting offseason for general manager Bill Zito and the Panthers.

And today, it officially comes to a close.

The Panthers will open training camp as players report for their physicals at the IceDen in Coral Springs this morning.

The team will hit the ice with a 56-man roster for the first time on Thursday morning.

Tkachuk, speaking last week before throwing out the first pitch at a Marlins game, said he and the rest of his teammates who have been working out the past few weeks cannot wait to get going.

That wait is just about over.

“The season is right around the corner. This is where you start to get the goosebumps and the jitters,’’ Tkachuk said. “It’s a great time of year but it’s also the time of year where you are so close but still have the next few weeks to get ready.

”If it was up to me, I would fast-forward to that Game 1 right now. It’s an exciting time, practicing with basically everyone on the team. It has been so good to get to know everyone on and off the ice. It’s going to be a special year.

“We have a lot of great players. It’s just getting acclimated to the guys, there’s a lot of different players from the past few years. It’s not just me; there are a lot of new faces. … We have done so much team stuff from the informal skates and hanging out off the ice that it shouldn’t take us too long to get acclimated with each other.’’

Florida’s offseason was quiet — almost silent — until things got rolling.

Zito was quietly talking to coaching candidates as interim coach Andrew Brunette waited around to hear what was going to happen.

In June, not long before the NHL Draft, Zito hired former Carolina, Toronto and Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice; Brunette left days later for an associate coaching gig with the Devils.

At the draft, it was thought Zito would be busy moving contracts in trying to create some cap space.

Nothing happened.

Then came free agency and the Panthers, without money to spend, saw three of their top UFAs walk. In came in players such as Colin White (Ottawa buyout), Nick Cousins (Nashville UFA), Rudolfs Balcers (San Jose buyout) and Marc Staal (Detroit UFA).

“We think we got done what we set out to do,” Zito said. “We did not have a lot of cap space but we tried to be as prudent and efficient as we could and we’re pretty excited about the players that are coming in.”

The Panthers then moved to the next stage of the summer which appeared to be working on long-term extensions for either Huberdeau or Weegar.

Then Tkachuk told the Flames he would not be signing long-term to stay in Calgary and things changed in a hurry.

Florida, one of a handful of teams Tkachuk said he would sign with, pounced and made a deal Calgary GM Brad Treliving could not turn down.

Not only did Florida give up Huberdeau (the leading scorer from last season) and Weegar, but prospect Cole Schwindt and a first-round pick.

The Panthers went all-in on getting the 24-year-old Tkachuk who is just now reaching his prime as a player. He signed an eight-year max deal with Calgary before being traded to the Panthers, a contract which makes him the third-highest paid player on the team under captain Sasha Barkov and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

All of a sudden, the Panthers went from quietly going about their business to lighting things up.

“I want to be here,” Tkachuk said. “This isn’t me wanting to get traded and having no say. I chose this. I really want this to work. I’m really excited about the possibility of winning in South Florida.

“When I made the list, first and foremost, it was about winning. It was not just winning now, but it was winning in the future. All the guys are from my age to 28, 29, that was first and foremost a very attractive part for me is the win-now mode and the win in the future.”

Now that summer is over, the fun can start.

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