After two years in or near the league's basement, these three things could help push the Florida Panthers to a much-needed playoff appearance in 2014-15. A version of this article originally appeared in the SB Nation 2014-15 NHL Season Preview.
Goaltending: After watching far too many pucks end up in the back of their net, the Panthers made the bold move of bringing Roberto Luongo back a day before the March 5th trade deadline. A full season with Luongo primarily between the pipes bodes well for the Cats. The highly-paid veteran went 6-7-1 with a 2.45 GAA and impressive .924 save percentage playing behind a tattered Florida defense following the deal. Compare those numbers to the bloated figures posted by Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, Jacob Markstrom and Dan Ellis last year and it's pretty easy to pencil in more wins this season. Al Montoya, who was signed to a two-year deal during the offseason, has never really lived up to his lofty draft status, but his play with Winnipeg last season was light years above what the Panthers got from any of their backups in 2013-14.
Burgeoning Young Core: The Panthers are starting to reap the rewards of some downright awful finishes over the last several years. Recent Dale Tallon first-round selections Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad got their feet wet last season, with the mature-beyond-his-years Barkov earning a spot on the Finnish Olympic Team and Bjugstad leading the team in scoring, albeit with just 38 points. 2013 Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau struggled, but got another year of valuable experience under his belt. A couple of others with first-round pedigrees, defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov, should be ready to take the next step in their development, and when you add this year's number one overall pick Aaron Ekblad to the mix (and with a handful of other top prospects about to or already knocking on the door), you have all the building blocks in place for a perennial playoff contender, provided most everyone lives up to their vast potential.
Center Depth: This position has been a sore spot for years, but with the team's highest-paid forward slotting in as the third-line pivot, things are definitely looking up. While Dave Bolland might be somewhat overpaid, the summer acquisition brings mucho intangibles, as well as two Stanley Cup rings, to a Florida club looking for leadership. If Bolland can post double-digit goals and approach his career-high of 47 points, it will give the Panthers another line that opponents will have to worry about. The aforementioned Barkov and Bjugstad may still be green, but both impressed mightily during their rookie campaigns and the potentially dynamic duo boast the size and skill that makes scouts drool. Gritty former Columbus Blue Jacket Derek MacKenzie will anchor a vastly improved fourth line. The top four centers on the depth chart have forced another very talented youngster, Vincent Trocheck, to bide his time with the San Antonio Rampage.