Florida Panthers: 5 Factors to Lead the NHL Eastern Conference Next Season

Suraj Sukumar@Sukumar_S87Correspondent IIAugust 2, 2012

Florida Panthers: 5 Factors to Lead the NHL Eastern Conference Next Season

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    The Florida Panthers shocked the hockey world last year by winning the Southeast Division, beating out teams like the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning

    Was this a fluke? Doesn't seem to be the case. 

    Judging by the roster heading into the 2012-13 season, if all goes well, the Florida Panthers could have a legitimate chance at challenging the best teams in the Eastern Conference for the overall lead.

    On top of everything, Hockey's Future ranks the Florida Panthers first in organizational rankings. This not only makes the Panthers good for now, but presumably for years to come. 

    If the following five elements go right for the Panthers, they should be considered a dark-horse candidate to place first in the Eastern Conference.  

5. A Repeat Season from Brian Campbell

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    Brian Campbell was once considered the most overrated and overpaid player in the NHL

    Oh, how far we've come. 

    After taking the role of blue-line magician with the Florida Panthers, Campbell has re-found his forte at the NHL level. 

    While he only had four goals, Campbell was able to dish 49 assists, 30 on the power-= play.

    This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we refer to as a power-play quarterback, and he just may be the best at it. 

    Losing Jason Garrison was rough, but If Campbell can ride his success from last season, the Florida Panthers could be one of the top five power-play units in the league.

    This will surely help them lead the Eastern Conference next season, but much more is needed.

    Moving on... 

4. Peter Mueller

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    Peter Mueller may be one of the forgotten talents of the NHL.

    Here is his draft video, found on the WHL's Everett Silvertips website. 

    In his junior career with the Silvertips, Mueller had great numbers heading into the World Junior Championship for the United States.

    Given his performance at both levels, Mueller was drafted eighth overall in the 2006 NHL draft by the Phoenix Coyotes.  

    Sadly, Mueller is one of many victims to suffer from chronic head injuries.  The worst part for Mueller was it came at such a young age.

    After his rookie campaign, he has yet to play anything close to a full season.

    Now, after getting a new contract with the Florida Panthers, the questions surrounding his health will come alive in the Sunshine State, but his talent will remain inarguable. 

    At a price tag of  $1.7 million for one year, this is a win-win for both parties.

    Mueller can try to prove his worth at the NHL level, while the Florida Panthers reap the benefits. 

    If he does play to his full potential for the entire season, the Florida Panthers may have not only captured the steal of the offseason, but also a chance at winning the Eastern Conference. 

3. The Up-and-Coming Defensemen

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    The Florida Panthers could have one of the most underrated defensive corps in the entire NHL. However, this will completely depend on the output provided by the following three players.  

    Erik Gudbranson

    • Drafted third overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
    • Will be a very tough, shut-down defenseman in the NHL
    • Had a successful junior career with the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL
    • Had a stellar showing in the 2010-2011 World Junior Championships for Canada
    • Will need to improve on his rookie campaign to reach his full potential in the NHL

    Dmitry Kulikov

    • Drafted 14th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
    • Uncanny offensive instincts, big-hit ability and above-average defensive awareness
    • Health concerns have arisen, needs to be able to play a full season at such a young age
    • Played just one year of junior hockey before getting called-up to the pros

    Keaton Ellerby

    • Drafted 10th overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft
    • Has spent most of his last three years splitting time between the NHL and AHL
    • Only played 40 games with the Panthers last year, but was re-signed to a one-year contract
    • Will most likely play in the bottom-four on defense, playing a strictly defensive role for the team

    With Ed Jovanovski, Brian Campbell and Filip Kuba in Florida, these young players will have all the guidance they need to flourish in the coming season.

    Jason Garrison benefited from such a group, and these guys will too. 

    Florida was the only division winner in the Eastern Conference with a negative goal differential. That could easily change based on the play of their young defensemen next year.

    If they succeed, this is just another reason the Panthers have a shot at leading the charge in the Eastern Conference.  

2. Goaltending

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    As mentioned, the Florida Panthers were the only division winner in the Eastern Conference to possess a negative goal differential.  

    Though the up-and-coming defense will help rectify that, the goaltenders are key to preventing the same numbers from happening. 

    With the trio of Theodore, Markstrom and Clemmensen, the Florida Panthers have a great group between the pipes. 

    Clemmensen is one of the most reliable back-ups in the NHL, and Theodore will be able to cover his share of the starts going forward. 

    Though the final slide has a larger part to play with the rankings on Hockey's Future, Markstrom is considered one of the better goalie prospects in the NHL.  

    If Markstrom comes out guns-a-blazin', the Panthers are looking very good in net. 

    Meaning, if the Panthers' trio perform exceptionally well next year, they could be the X-factor in winning the Eastern Conference. 

1. Jonathan Huberdeau

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    If Jonathan Huberdeau gets the call next year, which seems certain, he will surely be a favourite to win the Calder Trophy.

    Huberdeau was drafted third overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Panthers and has been given significant time to develop.

    Interestingly, in the next five years, the 2011 draft class could be considered one of the best ever, with names like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog in the mix. 

    Huberdeau is right up there with all of these elite youngsters, and if he performs to his full capabilities, he will be a force for years to come. His junior stats and accomplisments suggest that he is a dynamic offensive talent and could become one of the NHL's best.

    Surely, the Florida Panthers feel the same way.

    If all five of these stipulations fall into place, the Florida Panthers will be an underdog candidate to finish first in the East for the 2012-13 NHL season.