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Happy Panthers players.

Panthers CEO Brian Fletcher is adamant contract speculation about a host of young stars won't take the spotlight from the club's immediate goal of going one better than their 2020 finish.

The NRL runners-up will return to pre-season training on December 14 but much of the focus throughout the side's break has centred around their young off-contract stars, including Stephen Crichton and Jarome Luai.

Fletcher maintains the Panthers, aside from losing skipper James Tamou, should be in a position to challenge for the title again in 2021 after falling short in October.

He told NRL.com he was confident the players would focus on their on-field mission rather than the contractual futures of their teammates despite one-third of the squad due to become free agents in 2022.

Analysing the Panthers' 2021 draw

Fletcher said he was unable to comment on Brent Naden, who has been provisionally suspended by the NRL after the Penrith centre returned a positive A-sample for "metabolites of cocaine" from a post-game test conducted by Sport Integrity Australia after the October 25 grand final.

Penrith have announced they will provide support to Naden and his family as they await the outcome of the process.

The roster puzzle

Roster management is a key focus for the Panthers leading into the 2022 season with 10 players off contract and two players – Dean Whare and Zane Tetevano – with options in the club's favour.

The Panthers have been guilty in the past of signing players to long-term deals that didn't pan out as they'd hoped for – think Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Waqa Blake – and are reluctant to go down that path again.

Cleary: Young players not overawed

Among those expected to move on as early as 2021 include veteran winger Josh Mansour, who has been given permission to speak with rival clubs.

A deal elsewhere for Mansour could help the club find the extra funds to tie up Stephen Crichton beyond next year with the breakout star attracting interest from elsewhere.

"When 'Sauce' [Mansour] came here he replaced somebody else, that's the nature of the beast," Fletcher said.

"He has been great and the club has been very good to him too but we needed to invest in Charlie Staines who we view as the future going forward.

"I'm not sure how it's going to end up over the next few months but Sauce has got a contract here at this stage and we're happy if he wants to stay on for another year.

"That's the main message, that they're all here next year and it's our job now that the ones who are nearing or coming off contract fit in the puzzle moving forward.

Panthers' top five tries of 2020

"You'd like to think they'll all be raring to go to play together again next year and see where their futures go after that.

"That's the beauty of it, we've got a year to get ourselves right. We've got the nucleus of the side there now with the older guys who are 24-25."

On Crichton, Fletcher said: "The retention committee have their heads in all of that at the moment and are negotiating with guys like Stephen.

"These young kids, especially Stephen, are playing outside Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Viliame Kikau – there's not many combinations like that in the NRL.

"If you go play in a weaker side it probably exposes you. We'd like to keep them all but the fact of the matter is you can't.

"It's up to us to just try and pick the right ones. You won't always get it right, you might kick yourself for letting one go."

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Staying firm on Burton

One player confirmed to be leaving the club in 2022 is promising playmaker Matt Burton. 

Fletcher has been vocal over the past week after Burton's deal with Canterbury was confirmed 12 months before his contract expires at the Panthers, believing the club should be compensated for its development of talent.

Bulldogs coach Trent Barrett, who finished as Penrith's assistant coach in October, was the key to luring Burton to Belmore and recently told SEN Radio he would "keep a roster spot open" for the playmaker next year.

Fletcher is adamant the club won't let that happen.

"We got lucky this year with not many injuries, which is what you need for success," Fletcher said.

"But the reality is we've got State of Origin back next season in the middle of the year and a normal, longer competition ahead.

"We need all our players on board and that's why we won't be letting Matt Burton go.

"Nathan Cleary will likely play State of Origin again and Jarome Luai could too so you need that back-up and Matt has been in our system for a while now and plays well with both halves.

"Tyrone May is also there but after that, there are a few in the under 19s coming through who haven't played much football at all this year because of COVID."

The final moments of the Storm-Panthers grand final

Dealing with defeat

Penrith's grand final defeat may look as though it was the one that got away but Fletcher says the effects of the loss were not as bad as many expected.

"I think it's easier when most of them are only young kids," he said.

"It might've affected the older blokes a bit more but these kids genuinely believe they'll get another opportunity pretty quickly if they play like they did this year.

"It won't worry them because they're so well drilled. They're usually waiting the last three weeks of their break just to get back out there again. A lot of them are at the gym now.

"They know it's all up to them and showed they weren't frightened to play anyone.

"If they can just all get their heads around next year after playing in the grand final it's the same team, if not better than this year, because they've got that year of experience together."

While the Panthers produced strong performances on the paddock, their financial gain took a hit after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Luai laments lesson in emotional grand final loss

"We missed all the upside to having a good football side," Fletcher said.

"We would've sold out most of our home games and the benefits of fans returning to the leagues club after the game.

"That had a big financial impact on us. You could go another 20 years and not go through that again so of all years the timing wasn't great but that's the way it panned out.

"It will be interesting to see how we start next year against the Cowboys, once you're winning everywhere just fills up."

The Cleary factor

No player started and finished the revamped season under as much scrutiny as Nathan Cleary and no coach was closer to a player in the game than Ivan.

After a disastrous 2019 campaign as a father-son combination, the rollercoaster continued.

Nathan's return from a two-week suspension for his infamous TikTok incident was met with the team going on a 17-week winning run, but the grand final and State of Origin series loss capped a bittersweet finish.

Best finishes: Panthers and Knights share the spoils

"I think Nathan's experienced with it now, the critics have come at him from a young age," Fletcher said.

"He's got enough advice around him to ... not take any notice of it.

"You've got to have that mentality or it will get to you and he's always going to be a calm person.

Nathan Cleary and Josh Mansour with the JJ Giltinan Shield.
Nathan Cleary and Josh Mansour with the JJ Giltinan Shield. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"He's got the world at his feet. He's here until 2024 and hopefully stays until he retires.

"And I think Ivan's the sort of coach who is collaborative and easy enough to get along with. The players love him and love Cameron Ciraldo and Peter Wallace who are all good people.

"If you come to play football at Penrith you've got to be enjoying your home life.

"Your life isn't all about football."