2014-15 Season Previews: Florida Panthers
Team M.O.: Previously, this was a team that had a defense-first style of hockey until GM Dale Tallon took over. Since then, the team has tried to roll three scoring lines (who were also expected to be defensively responsible) in addition to a fourth checking unit. After making the playoffs in the 2011-12 season (which ended a 12 year playoff drought for the club), the team took a significant step backwards (despite the fact that many of their prospects should've been coming into their own.) This ultimately cost both former head coach Kevin Dineen and former interim coach Peter Horachek their jobs. For good reason, too...
Last Season: The team won.... the lottery for first overall pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft because of their 29-45-8 record, good for 66 points and second to last in the Eastern Conference. The team selected defensive stud Aaron Ekblad, whom the team was hopeful would be competing for a spot at camp until he suffered a concussion at a Team Canada exhibition game. Don Cherry was not pleased.
Offense: If there's a word to describe the performance of the Panthers offense last season, it would be disappointing as a whole.
Now, it's wasn't all doom and gloom last season (and the team made some legit moves in the off-season to help stabilize the forward corps.) Regardless of whomever gets the captaincy this season, this is Nick Bjugstad's team going forward (and it's his to win or lose.) He was, without question, the guy that responded when the team leaned on him. Scottie Upshall did well considering he played a similar style during his time in Phoenix; he may never kick it up another gear but can still offer top-six point production (whenever he avoids the injury bug.) Aleksander Barkov may not have lit up the scoresheet, but he did show that he can be a capable defensive presence (and at age 19, should find his scoring touch at the NHL level as he grows.) For better or worse, Sean Bergenheim seems to have found a team he can be productive in, yet remains the guy who's good at everything but great at nothing. Tomas Kopecky took a step back in his production last season, but was still defensively responsible; this is a contract year for him so expect him to do what he can to produce. Quinton Howden had an audition last season as a penalty killer and did well in the role, could he have a full-time job with the Panthers this season? Depth forwards Bobby Butler and Joey Crabb may try and make a case of their own as well.
As for the bad.... Can someone explain how Tomas Fleischmann only put up 28 points last season?!?!?!?! That's astounding, and not in a good way. Yes the guy's had health problems in the past, but he's capable of so much more. Jonathan Huberdeau followed up a Calder Trophy-winning campaign in 2012-13 with a disappointing 28 point campaign this past season; hopefully he regains some swagger and can avoid the sophomore slump. Brad Boyes is doing well as a shootout specialist, but the team needs him to be contributing offense during regulation time on a more consistent basis than he has.
The team did well to upgrade their offense during the off-season when you consider who all was available. The team went out and landed Jussi Jokinen as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even before skating for the Pens, he was still a capable (and versatile) point producer who should work well within the team's system. Dave Bolland (another Tallon guy) comes to the club after a somewhat disappointing season with the Toronto Maple Leafs (and even then, he was still serviceable for them.) He should benefit from playing in this style of system giving how his own game works. Derek MacKenzie was acquired as a free agent from the Columbus Blue Jackets and gives them an established defensive center for the fourth unit (though he may have to compete with the young Brandon Pirri for that role.) Shawn Thornton comes over from the Boston Bruins, giving the team an enforcer who can provide leadership for some of the younger guys.
If there's anyone to call out in particular, it's Jimmy Hayes. Why? Because considering his draft pick status and size, it's up to him to grab the spot of the team's power forward and do the team's dirty work (but if he can lead the team in hits, he'll hopefully he'll also be a leader amongst point producers.) Otherwise, the tools are there, but it's on newly minted coach Gerard Gallant to get them all on the same page.
Grade: B If Executed Properly.
Defense: Damn. Talk about a lot of potential yet lack of execution last season. These guys seem like they could use a leader...
... Oh hey, it's Willie Mitchell! A veteran defender who knows how to lead kids to Stanley Cups. That's good, because they've got a fantastic group of kids who lack guidance.
Though Dmitry Kulikov was a punisher on the blueline last season, he took a step back in his offensive production. Will he project to being a solid two-way defender, or can he become the guy they call upon in all game situations? He'll have the chance to prove that if Ekblad is out for an extended period of time. Erik Gudbranson is a capable physical defenseman, but a third overall pick is generally expected to produce more than that (but if the rest of the team does well and he develops a niche, then that'll work just the same.) Dylan Olsen did well in spot-duty during the past season and should be a viable candidate to fill a defensive defenseman rather well (and he certainly has the size to do it well.) The team needs a puck mover in that mix, both Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak will likely compete for that role.
If there's one disappointing development in the off-season, it's with Brian Campbell. He wore the "A" last year and is a top-4 (if not first-pairing) offensive defenseman. But his leadership capabilities have now come into question after a trade request; which remarkably lacks cognizance to his cap hit ($7,142,875/year) and his overall lack of defensive presence. Unless he leveraged that to make the management act in the off-season (which they did), it's pretty disappointing to hear that. He means a lot to that club and should feel vested instead of disengaged.
The good news is that the potential is there (and hopefully, the leadership.) It's just unproven, and more has to be done to overcome that.
Grade: B If The Growing Pains Stop
Goaltending: If there's a spot that's a mix of complete and proven on the squad, it's their goaltending.
Bobby Lu (okay, Roberto Luongo) came back to Miami last season in trade from the Vancouver Canucks (which had to happen after Vancouver grossly mishandled their goaltending situation.) He should do better now that he's not under the microscope like he was in Vancouver. Al Montoya was signed as a free agent from the Winnipeg Jets to help solidify their goaltending situation; he hasn't cut out a niche as a starting goaltender, but looked good in 28 appearances last season and is a deft puck-handler in the mold of Martin Brodeur or Marty Turco. Dan Ellis was retained after being acquired from the Dallas Stars last season, but he'd be better off starting the season off in the minors at this stage of his career because his performances range between serviceable and downright awful. Prospects Sam Brittain and Michael Houser round out their minor-league depth.
Last season, the team started off with the platoon of rookie Jacob Markstrom and veteran Tim Thomas - who sat out the entire 2012-13 season - which led to terrible results (and cost both their jobs with the Panthers by the end of the season.) In this mix, you have a bonafide starting goaltender, a goaltender who has the tools to be a solid 1A, and a guy who's an inconsistent-yet-decent backup helping the kids out on the farm. This is as good of a mix in crease as any team will have.
Management: Give GM Tallon credit, he's doing everything he can to get the Panthers back to respectability after dealing with both a lockout and the Olympic break. Vinnie Viola has also done well in spending the necessary dollars to get competitive players on the club. Enter Gallant, who didn't dazzle the league when he was the coach in Columbus, but should've gotten an idea of how to win during his time with the Montreal Canadiens. Here's to hoping that he can guide the team to victory more often than not this season.
For the record, this blog will always remember Gallant as #17 and rockin' the A. Make sure you rib that guy who runs the other team in Florida, will ya Jerry?
Prediction: Depends on which team we see this season.
On paper, the team shouldn't have been as bad as they were last year. This team has the tools to at least challenge for a playoff spot. If the team takes a step forward, then all will be good. If they're still contending for a lottery pick after this season, then the team may throw that ugly "rebuild" word around again. If that happens, the other "r" word - relocate - may not be too far off in the future.