The Florida Panthers ended the 2009-2010 season in the same way they’ve ended every season since 2000, by failing to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They finished last in the Southeast Division, second last in the Eastern Conference and third last in the entire league, with a 32-37-13 record and 77 points. They were just good enough to be left out of the Taylor/Tyler sweepstakes but bad enough that they still received a high draft pick.
The Panthers’ hopes were dealt a huge blow last year when David Booth was hit by Mike Richards. Booth was one of the Panthers’ top scorers in 2008-2009, but his concussion troubles last season saw him play only 28 games all season. His absence made it difficult for the Panthers to score goals and win hockey games.
To be honest, it was tempting to place a photo of Lisa Simpson’s “FLOREDA” costume as the main image in this preview. That would probably best represent the Panthers right now.
The Panthers’ biggest addition in the offseason came in the front office. The team hired former Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon in an attempt to remake the team in Florida in the same way he remade the Blackhawks. Tallon immediately set out to change the Florida Panthers.
The team signed free agent wingers Christopher Higgins and Nathan Paetsch to a one-year contracts. He also made trades to acquire Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner, Dennis Wideman and Marty Reasoner.
Nathan Horton was shipped away from the Panthers in the trade that brought Dennis Wideman to Florida. Horton was the team’s second leading scorer last season with 57 points. The Panthers do not have much offensive firepower and the loss of Horton will hurt them in that department. Defenseman Keith Ballard was also traded away. While Ballard is perhaps most known for his ruthless attack on Tomas Vokoun, he also ranked third in the league in blocked shots last season and played an average of over 22 minutes a game.
The Panthers also bought out defenseman Ville Koistinen and traded Jeff Taffe and Victor Oreskovich. Tough guy Steve MacIntyre left as a free agent to sign with the Oilers.
The Florida Panthers need help scoring goals, especially with Horton no longer on the team. They scored only 208 goals all season which made them the third worst team in goals for in the league. A healthy David Booth might be able to replace the lost offense, but Booth’s health has to be considered a question mark at this point. Unfortunately for the Panthers, there isn’t a lot of offense in their line-up. The leading scorer on the Panthers’ blue line is team captain Bryan McCabe. After McCabe, it falls off considerably.
Along with McCabe, Bryan Allen will be a fixture on the Panthers blue line. He is a strong defensive player with an aggressive streak that helps strengthen the Panthers’ defense. New Panther Dennis Wideman has a touch of offensive ability and decent defensive skill. 2009 first round draft pick Dmitry Kulikov should have a big year as well, despite his age.
The Panthers are clearly attempting to rebuild the team with a strong defensive corps. They’re not quite there yet, but their defense is certainly better than their offense.
Besides having pads that clash horribly with the team’s third jerseys, Vokoun has been the backbone of the Panthers’ organization in years. Even playing with last year’s poor team, Vokoun managed impressive statistics. He finished third in the NHL with a .925 save percentage and recorded seven shutouts, only two fewer than league-leading Martin Brodeur. On a team that likely will not score many goals, Vokoun has a difficult job ahead of him once again this year.
Best Case Scenario
The Panthers rebuilding process is definitely underway. However the team will have to deal with the reality of being a relatively poor team in a non-traditional hockey market. While the best thing for Florida to do at this point might be to shed salary, stockpile draft picks and hope to select some high-ranked talent in the 2011 draft, the pressure to be financially stable may result in some short term decision making. Ultimately the best thing that could happen to the Panthers is a poor season in the standings and another high pick next year. This team is not making the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario
Tomas Vokoun and David Booth both go down with injuries. The Panthers do not have enough depth in the organization to replace these two key players. Even if they both remain healthy, it will likely be a long, painful season in Florida. When you add the fact that Vokoun will be a free agent next summer, things could get even worse.
The Panthers had three picks in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. They are clearly looking to rebuild with young players and one of the few upsides to this team is its deep prospect pool. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom is in line to replace Vokoun in the future if the Panthers current goaltender decides to move on at the end of the season, or if he’s traded before then.
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson was drafted third overall this summer as the team continued to try and strengthen its defense. He will likely spend at least another year in the OHL. Nick Bjugstad, also drafted in the first round in 2010, is a strong forward prospect who could develop into an effective power forward. The Panthers also have forward Michael Grabner who was acquired from Vancouver this summer. The Panthers lack of offensive talent will likely mean Grabner will see serious ice time this year.
All Eyes On
Dale Tallon is often credited as being the architect behind the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks. Whether or not her can do the same in Florida will be a true test of his talents. The Panthers are looking to rebuild into a serious contender, so Tallon’s performance will impact the team more than any player on the ice.
He climbed up top to find that she was slipping
Let her go, let her go, let me go
How long must we leave before we’re winning?
They don’t know, they don’t know, they just don’t know
– Our Lady Peace, “Hope”