We're about halfway done with our season preview and are a little ahead of schedule. Hopefully we can get this kicked out well before September ends and the teams start their travel season in lovely Europe. Pre-season hockey rules so go check it out in a town near you!
And now, the Florida Panthers.
Team M.O.: These guys haven't had a whole lot of success in recent history. They broke into the league in 1993, managed to contend for the Stanley Cup in 1996, but made their last playoff appearance in 1999. Despite having some decent teams and players since then, the organization hasn't been able to put it together but hopefully some new blood changes things.
Last Season: Fourteenth in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs. Simply stated, the team wasn't good enough with the roster they started off with and once injuries started to occur to good players (see: David Booth) then miscues began to occur and the team suffered overall. Things are looking up this season though as a few new faces should provide some assistance to the burgeoning young squad.
Offense: Stephen Weiss wasn't dishing out passes to his regular wing-man last season but was still good for 60 points; he could be an elite centerman if he can learn to deal with the tough stuff better. Booth is an amazing scoring forward and a benefit to any team he'd play for, but he's had a bad tendency of keeping his head down; which lead to two concussions in parts to a hit from Mike Richards (which was dirty) and a hit from Jaroslav Spacek (which was clean.) He'll need that to have a nice life, let alone a solid career in hockey. Michael Frolik has provided some consistent complimentary scoring for the team and is due for a breakout season soon. Cory Stillman still gives the team some solid scoring but injuries are becoming more commonplace as he's getting older. Steven Reinprecht was kept under 40 points for the first time in 3 seasons and may find himself used more in a checking capacity if he can't better his offensive production. Shawn Matthias is finally started to receive regular ice time at the NHL level and will receive more ice time the more he can produce. Radek Dvorak might not break 40 points this season but he still has the speed teams need for that "Number 7" forward. Christopher Higgins and Steve Bernier were brought on during the off-season to provide some complimentary scoring that will hopefully realize their potential. Meanwhile, the team hopes Rostislav Olesz will flat out realize his potential in order for the team to succeed. The newly-acquired Marty Reasoner gives the team a solid checking forward who can play in a variety of defensive situations while providing leadership to the young Panther players. Byron Bitz will give the team a solid grinding forward. Michael Grabner will likely be sought to give the team complimentary scoring while Andrew Peters and Triston Grant will likely battle for the enforcer role out of camp and the better player will win.
The group of forwards doesn't seem overly-spectacular but a lot of that could be due to underachievement. Hopefuly coach Peter DeBoer will instill a system they can believe in and the younger guys on the team demonstrate the maturity necessary to blossom at the NHL level. If they can find any worth free agents willing to accept a tryout, especially of the Brendan Morrisonn or Bill Guerin variety, it definitely push them over the edge from "playoff pretender" to "playoff contender."
Defense: Bryan McCabe has done a solid job leading the team and proving some legitimate defensive scoring for the team. Dennis Wideman was brought over from the Boston Bruins and will look to give the team some offensive production; he'll give the team 30 points on a bad season and 50 or better on a good one. Jason Garrison was re-signed in the off-season and could give the team a reliable second-unit playmaking defender if he can get his minors numbers to match his majors numbers. Bryan Allen was able to step in after missing most of the previous season with injury to give the team a tough solid defensive player; there's no reason to think he won't do it again or do it better. Dmitry Kulikov made the team last season and despite a knee injury early on in the year, did fairly well in his first NHL season and should give the team someone who will generate offense on the power play. Mike Weaver came over from the St. Louis Blues as a free agent and will provide the team with a defending defender who can be used effectively in a third-pairing setting. Nathan Paetsch is a pure utility player who will do whatever's asked of him whenever (you can bet he came to Florida with a guarantee for more ice time, though) and will likely round out the defensive pairing.
These guys have Erik Gudbranson waiting in the wings (he'll be NHL ready when he can break 220 lbs) and have solid prospects such as Keaton Ellerby developing in their system. They should be sent as far as defense goes.
Goaltending: Tomas Vokoun is entering a contract year and while he would no doubt love to play of a high-caliber team, the team in front of him might be able to build off his performances long enough to finally get some games in mid-to-late April. If anything, the team could stand to use Scott Clemmensen more often, who proved to be a solid goaltender for the New Jersey Devils and put up respectable numbers as a backup last season. Jacob Markstrom's been signed during the off-season and though he will likely start the season off in the minors, he could start making noise should injuries occur.
With that said, the Panthers have their goaltending needs met and are good to go.
Management: DeBoer's been somewhat inconsistent during his two years as a coach and will have to get the team to get off to a hot start in order to ensure his job security. GM Dale Tallon comes over from the Chicago Blackhawks and is looking to apply the forumla that made the Blackhawks successful to the Panthers (just without the offer sheet drama that came with it.) He's made some shrewd moves in the off-season and could make this team the next Phoenix Coyotes.
Prediction: Third in the Southeast Division and on the playoff bubble.
Call me crazy but I like them. Their defense and goaltending is solid so it's really up to the forwards to perform their roles well enough so they can get into the playoffs (and increase the arena back to it's original capacity.) If the young guys can elevate their game and the veterans can do what's expected of them, they could be the surprise story of the season.