NHL Lockout Can Derail Recent Success of Florida Panthers

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NHL Lockout Can Derail Recent Success of Florida Panthers
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
Cats went to a Game 7 double OT before succumbing to Devils.

The lockout has to be a bittersweet pill for Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers. On one hand, they were planning to celebrate and build upon last season's success by raising the Southeast Division banner on opening night.

The team is to be commended for their 22-point, regular-season improvement and for taking the New Jersey Devils Cup finalists to a match with seven double overtimes in the first round.

But on the other hand, their success was in a weak division, and the reality is that they didn't qualify for the playoffs until the penultimate game. They clinched first place in the Division on the final day.

Had the current season started on time, there would have been numerous question marks. The Cats had two key power-play members in Mikael Samuelsson and breakout D-man Jason Garrison, which they lost to free agency. Samuelsson couldn't wait for Tallon to determine if he had cap space, so he opted a return to Detroit where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 2008.

Garrison had the perfect opportunity to test free agency, and he received an offer he couldn't refuse from his hometown Canucks. For his sake, let's hope his success in Florida last year wasn't solely due to being partnered with puck handler extraordinaire Brian Campbell.

Lost in the departure of Samuelsson and the lack of an offer to UFA Marco Sturm is the reality that there is now zero to show for last season's trade of David Booth to Vancouver.

The loss of Garrison particularly stung, but Tallon chose to accept it and move on. "It's part of the business. You don't get many kicks at the can of free agency."

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Jason Garrison will be firing his rockets on the Vancouver power play.

The other uncertainties concerned injuries.

Kris Versteeg—who had his best season and was rewarded with a multi-year contract extension—had offseason hip surgery and would not have been ready for the season opener.

Young defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who had developed a lot of maturity by late in the season, injured his shoulder during an informal pre-training camp workout (an injury not reported until the story was broken by Harvey Fialkov of the Sun-Sentinel). He had surgery and will be out for around four months.

Given the unavailability of Versteeg and Gudbranson, a delayed start to the season may be a blessing.  Also on the uncertain side are Tomas Fleischmann's recovery from a broken hand during the playoffs and emerging RFA defenseman Dmitry Kulikov remaining unsigned.

All of the negatives threaten to derail the momentum, but back to the positive side: Florida has one of the best group of prospects around, thanks to Tallon's stockpiling draft picks.

Jonathan Huberdeau, who can become the team's best breakout scorer since Pavel Bure, was a lock to make the team. He's back in juniors for the duration of the lockout. Over the next several seasons, there will be an influx of young blood to be added to the 28 draft picks from Tallon's first two seasons.

Back to the present and the realities of the lockout.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Jonathan Huberdeau will start the season back in juniors.

Some of the Panthers continue to practice on their own, renting ice at the team's training facility but sans any coaches or use of the team's facilities or equipment. They use the same dressing rooms as the peewee players.

Panthers' player-rep Mike Weaver has been candid with the media on the prospects of a quick settlement. Unlike prior CBA negotiations, the players are more trusting of Donald Fehr than they were of former leaders, and they are unified behind him.

The difference between the last CBA and this CBA is us being educated. Don has done a great job of that. Having Don and the lawyers we hired in the last two years has made us more informed. I think that shows in the proposal we gave them. It fixes the problems that the owners were saying hurt them over previous years.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, but Weaver reiterated that the union was not being unreasonable.

We want a partnership. We want what's fair to both sides.  Bettman said last time it was a partnership but it wasn't. Our proposal really does say that…to partner with the high net worth teams and we want to help the teams that are not there yet.

He went on to opine that perhaps the owners are not as unified as the players and some acted contrary to the message they are sending by entering huge long term contracts with players. "They sign these guys to huge contracts, maybe hoping they will get them rolled back..."

After all was said and done, Weaver said of his far more unified membership, "We've been preparing for this for two years."

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Player-rep Mike Weaver said the players are well prepared for the lockout.

Florida had increased it's fan base with last year's success (attendance was up to 86% of capacity), and this break in momentum can wipe out all of the gains and a very effective offseason marketing campaign. The team has already announced layoffs of office personnel.

According to NHL.com, ESPN recently upped Cats' ranking to the 33rd top sports franchise nationwide (up from number 111), second only to the Miami Heat in South Florida and surpassing the Dolphins.

Stay tuned.

 

Alan Greenberg is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.

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