The Florida Panthers actually only missed the playoffs by one point last season, but the fact remains that the last time the Panthers made the playoffs, Pavel Bure led the team in scoring and Robert Svehla was the backbone on defense. Needless to say, Panther fans in Sunrise, Florida are getting restless. Aside from the Sawgrass Mills Shopping Mall across the street, there hasn’t much action going on these days at the BankAtlantic Center in April.
With Jay Bouwmeester traded in the off-season to Calgary, and the Panthers having no free agent activity, improvement will have to come from within. Expect another tough season in the Sunshine State unless the young Panther forwards can finally blossom and their defense can remain healthy. Oh, and hiring a full-time GM isn’t a bad idea either.
Up front, it will once again be a group effort to pop the goals in, leg by a young cast of characters with amazing potential. Unfortunately, most of these youngsters have yet to bloom and mature. Leading goal scorer David Booth is coming off of a very impressive 31 goal season, and will be counted on once again to be one of the leaders in the goal scoring department. Nathan Horton took a bit of a step back last year, and will need to remain healthy and play a full 82 game schedule should the Panthers have any hope at a post-season berth. Although experts have been saying Horton has the potential to score 40 goals, he has yet to fulfill this promise that had scouts drooling when he was drafted 3rd overall in 2003. It’s safe to say the experiment of Horton playing centre is now officially over, after last year’s campaign. Expect him to move back to his natural wing position this year.
The diminutive Stephen Weiss remains the Panthers’ top centre, another young player yet to deliver on his potential, although he did lead the Panthers with 61 points scored this past year. New acquisition Steve Reinprecht will fit in nicely as a second line centre; however, he is more suited to a third line checking role. His leadership presence on a young Panthers team is the intangible that he brings to the table. Other top wingers include another up and comer Michael Frolik who had a phenomenal 45 point rookie season, along with aged veteran Cory Stillman. The departed Richard Zednik’s leadership and speed will both be missed on this young team.
Looking at the Panthers’ bottom six forwards, Rusty Olesz has the most talent. After two sub-par seasons for a former 7th overall draft pick, he needs to get his act together this year. Other forwards include youngsters Kamil Kreps, Michal Repik, and the highly-touted Shawn Matthias, previously acquired in the Todd Bertuzzi deal with Detroit a few years ago. Look for Florida to give Matthias a shot as a second line centre early on (and move Reinprecht to the third line), along with some second tier power play time to get his NHL career in motion. Given Matthais’ brutal AHL campaign (20 points in 61 games with Rochester), he has his work cut out for him. Reports have suggested that Matthais dropped some pounds in the off-season, so perhaps he is finally ready to hit South Beach with avengence. 2009 top pick Dmitry Kulikov is most likley not ready for NHL action at this point either. Other depth forwards are Gregory Campbell, and of course the ultimate Panther, Radek Dvorak.
The loss of Jay Bouwmeester obviously creates a large void on the Panthers’ blueline, not to mention veterans Karlis Skrastins, and Nick Boynton who never got along with the Panther coaching staff and signed with Anaheim this summer. However, there is still some optimism with this defense group with the likes of Bryan McCabe and Keith Ballard leading the troops.
Combined with Jordan Leopold, Bryan Allen, and Ville Koistinen, the Panthers’ boast a nice mixture of finesse, offense, and sandpaper from the backend. If the Panthers want to even have a sniff at a post-season birth, their defense will need to limit the amount of rubber Tomas Vokoun faces, as this team is notorious for giving up a lot of shots against. A healthy Bryan Allen and Jordan Leopold, both who have had injury troubles in the past, will go a long way in helping this process. Christian Backman and Martin Skoula have both been invited to Panther training camp (opening in Halifax!) and Dennis Seidenberg is rumoured to be in in discussions with the team as well. This sudden depth of the Panther D could mean blue chipper Keaton Ellerby will be hard pressed to crack the squad this season.
After Craig Anderson’s breakout year, Vokoun must have initially been breathing a bit easier when his former counterpart signed with Colorado this summer.
However, new acquisition Scott Clemmensen will push Vokoun for playing time, and will provide some stiff competition. Last year in relief of injured Martin Brodeur, Clemmensen managed 25 wins in 40 games – not too shabby for a career backup goaltender. Vokoun looked out of it at times last year, and was likely warn out as the season progressed, so Clemmensen will provide Panther Coach Pete DeBoer with a nice option should Vokoun falter.
Ceiling – if the Panthers youngsters finally develop, Horton can pop 40 goals in, Booth continues is superb play, Shawn Matthias brings his game, and the backend holds up, the Panthers could be on the fringe of the playoff bubble and finish 9th in the East.
Floor – if Horton once again tanks, Stephen Weiss flounders, the young forwards provide no help, and the Panther D runs into injury trouble, then kiss the season goodbye with a 14th place Eastern Conference Finish.