Veteran Florida Panthers look to learn from season's mistakes

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Since their 1996 run to the Stanley Cup final, the Panthers have only won one playoff game, and they haven't reached the post-season since 2000. The Panthers fell six points out of playoffs this year, in part because their 16 overtime and shootout losses. They also struggled early for a second straight season, going 7-17-5 from mid-October into December.

"I know we're up there in the league with overtime losses and that's something that needs to be addressed," centre Gregory Campbell said. "We do have the personnel on this team that's capable of winning games in shootouts. We have the talent and we have the goaltending that can win us games. I think it's just something that we just have to realize is important."

The Panthers closed the season with one last overtime loss Saturday at Carolina to finish with 86 points at 35-31-16.

"We learn as a team," forward Martin Gelinas said. "We'll know that those games are key. We'll know when to make it happen. You can't sit back in overtime."

Gelinas said if the Panthers had fared better in overtime early, the rest of the season might have been much different.

"If the first overtime we would have won, knowing, 'Hey, this is the way we've got to do this,' I think that might have been a big difference," he said. "But we didn't have that momentum and confidence going our way, and those are big points."

Gelinas, who picked up his 300th career goal in the final game, said Florida will look to younger players like Campbell to step into key roles next season.

"I see a lot of talent here," Gelinas said. "I see a lot of young guys who are ready to take that next step."

Captain Olli Jokinen said the Panthers' younger players gained valuable experience, and fans will see a more prepared team next season.

"In the big picture, I think we made progress," Jokinen said. "Our younger guys got better."

Off-season priorities will include deciding which goaltender to keep among Alex Auld, Ed Belfour and Craig Anderson, or pursuing one through free agency. The team is also in the market to upgrade offensively on the right side.

This year, the Panthers lost centre Joe Nieuwendyk to retirement and sent Roberto Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks as part of a five-player trade that included power forward Todd Bertuzzi. Bertuzzi was sidelined for most of the season because of back surgery and was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. Auld struggled and the 41-year-old Belfour took over in the net. Former General Manager Mike Keenan left the team in September.

The revolving door might have stunted the team's growth, Campbell said.

"I think we have the team that has playoff potential," he said. "It's just putting all the pieces together."



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