The Florida Panthers entered this season with little hope for the immediate, but armed with a fresh outlook for the future after hiring Dale Tallon as general manager in May and adding three first round picks at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. With 38 points and a seat in last place in the Southeast Division, the Panthers are where most could have predicted they’d be in January. They’ve got an elite goaltender to go along with a mix of serviceable-to-fading veterans and a quality group of youth and mid-age players. Hockey has never been an easy sell in South Florida, but if the 2011 World Juniors have signified anything for the Panthers – it’s that they’re on the right track in terms of prospects.
Tallon and co. added 13 players at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, four of which were invited by their respective countries to showcase their skills at the 2011 World Junior tournament in Buffalo. Erik Gudbranson’s physical play and shutdown style at the tournament has shown why he was taken 3rd overall in June, while 25th overall pick Quinton Howden has displayed both a flair for the dramatic and some great two-way play in helping Canada reach Wednesday’s final.
The Panthers’ impressive crop of prospects doesn’t end with Canada either. 2010′s 19th overall pick Nick Bjugstad has been one of the brightest stars with the American squad, too. His American teammate Drew Shore has scored just one goal in the tournament, but the 2009 second round pick has been a beast at the University of Denver this season with 25-points in 20 games. Rounding out the Panthers’ presence at this year’s tournament is Finland’s Joonas Donskoi, who registered six points in five games.
Combine Florida’s exciting crop of junior standouts with current roster players that include Stephen Weiss, Michael Frolik, David Booth, Shawn Matthias, Dimitry Kulikov, Evgeny Dadonov, and Keaton Ellerby – and there’s ample reason to believe that this franchise can turn its fortunes around… at least in terms of competitiveness. The club’s ‘goalie of the future’ Jacob Markstrom is still finding his feet in North America, but is brimming with potential. Veterans Tomas Vokoun, Bryan McCabe, Cory Stillman, Chris Higgins, and Radek Dvorak are all set to come off the books at season’s end – and it’s difficult to believe that any of them (save for Higgins, maybe) will be back in Florida next year.
Tallon is heading toward an offseason in which his team will be flush with cap space, something he’s sure to handle better than he did in Chicago, thus giving the Panthers an opportunity to retool for the 2011-12 season. The Florida Panthers’ ticket sales are by no means sexy (they’re currently 21st in the league in attendance figures), but the road to respectability in the NHL starts with putting a quality team on the ice. Florida’s restocked system looks like it can provide the talent, now it’s up to Tallon and ownership to put all of the other pieces in place.