Florida Panthers: 5 Reasons the Cats Will Repeat as Division Champs

Alex Gruber@agruber6Featured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2013

Florida Panthers: 5 Reasons the Cats Will Repeat as Division Champs

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    With the 2013 season already in full swing, the Florida Panthers will be looking to do something they haven't done in 16 years: make the playoffs for a second straight year. 

    After more than a decade of frustration, the Panthers finally made the playoffs last season, the franchise's fourth playoff appearance. They did so by winning the Southeast Division for the first time in their history.

    With new head coach Kevin Dineen at the helm, and general manager Dale Tallon's signing spree, a new-look Panthers squad jumped from last in the division to first, with a 22-point increase over 2010-11.

    The season came to a heartbreaking end with a double-overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils in the first round, but it was the club's most successful season since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

    And now that this lockout-shortened season is finally underway, the Panthers will be looking to defend their division title. They certainly got off to an excellent start, raising their banner at the opener before demolishing one of their division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes, 5-1.

    A disappointing 4-0 loss on the road against the Ottawa Senators was a less-than-ideal follow-up, and the subsequent 4-1 loss at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens was a harsh blow. Only two points from three games isn't a great start.

    Still, we're just three games into the season, and a lot can happen from now until the postseason. But for now, despite the rough early patch, the Panthers should be considered favorites to reach the postseason as division champions once again. Here's why.

A Positive Mindset

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    Perhaps the biggest factor that will spur the Panthers to a division title this season is that they did it last season. Remember that this is a team that went 12 consecutive years without reaching the postseason before last season.

    But under new coach Kevin Dineen, a new roster was introduced, as well as a new playing style and attitude. A hard-working side that was well-organized, the Cats became one of the better power-play teams after being one of the worst in years past.

    This was evidenced in Game 2 of their playoff series. They earned a power play just over 10 seconds into the game and scored at the game's 23-second mark through Stephen Weiss.

    Entering the second period on a nearly full-length five-on-three, the Panthers scored twice in that time to take a 3-0 lead less than 22 minutes into the game and held on to win in front of a sellout crowd.

    The 2010-11 squad would not have converted those chances. But this squad knew they could hit the Devils hard and fast, and they did just that. They did that throughout the season en route to a superb finish.

The Core Is Back

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    When entering a shortened season, it's important to hit the ground running. A big factor in this is continuity. Specifically, you want to have a group of guys that has familiarity with the system as well as with each other.

    This is exactly what has happened in the Panthers' case.

    The top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg are slated to roll along once Versteeg returns from injury. Other forwards including Scottie Upshall, TomአKopecký, Mike Santorelli and Shawn Matthias also stuck around to keep this team going strong.

    Speaking of strong, that's what the Panthers defensive unit is. Led by All-Star Brian Campbell and 1996 Eastern Conference champion Ed Jovanovski, the unit also returns the underrated Mike Weaver, up-and-coming star Erik Gudbranson (injured) and established talent Dmitry Kulikov.

    And of course, the team would not be complete without its goaltenders, and the Panthers' situation there is perfectly solidified. José Theodore played a monumental role in the successful campaign last season, with Scott Clemmensen proving an able deputy. Much-hyped Jacob Markström waits in the wings as well.

Crafty Signings

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    As with any season, offseason transactions can be pivotal to a team's success. The Panthers proved this last year, with players like Versteeg, Fleischmann, Campbell and Theodore driving the club to undiscovered success.

    While this offseason did not bring the same quantity of players, there is certainly not a lack of quality in the ranks of the new Panthers.

    The biggest name among them is long-time NHL player Alexei Kovalev. A member of the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup-winning team in 1994, the Russian brings a great skill set and veteran know-how to a fairly young locker room.

    Joining Kovalev is his former teammate in Ottawa, Filip Kuba. The Czech international was actually drafted by Florida in 1995 but played fewer than 20 games there. Kuba will bring a hard-working attitude as well as a solid offensive presence from the blue line.

    Peter Mueller suffered through multiple seasons largely lost due to concussions before the lockout, but he returned healthy near the end of last season for the Colorado Avalanche. Now back to full speed, the 24-year-old will be a dynamic presence as a top-six forward.

    Veteran enforcer George Parros also joined the Panthers to bring some extra grit to the lineup, as well as some extra facial hair

An Abundance of Young Talent

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    Perhaps the biggest new addition to the Panthers roster is a guy who was signed two years ago: Jonathan Huberdeau. The former third overall pick impressed in his time in the QMJHL and notched nine points at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.

    Playing on a line with wily veteran Kovalev, the rookie scored his first NHL goal on his first career shot against Carolina. He then added two assists and was named first star of the game. Not bad for a rookie, huh?

    And don't forget, established players like Gudbranson (21), Kulikov (22), Matthias (24) and Keaton Ellerby (24) have made their presence felt in some way over the last couple of seasons.

    Goaltender Jacob Markström also fits in with the young guns. Just shy of his 23rd birthday, the towering Swede was solid in a brief stint as an injury fill-in last season and is among the reasons why the Panthers might not trade for Roberto Luongo.

    Twenty-one-year-old Drew Shore was recently called up to fill in while Kris Versteeg is on IR, and he deserves his shot after a strong start to the AHL season. The former second-round pick was a standout at the University of Denver and looks a promising prospect.

    Also among the youth ranks are two of the Panthers' three first-round picks from 2010, Nick Bjugstad (currently attending University of Minnesota) and Quinton Howden (with the Panthers' AHL squad, San Antonio). The third? Gudbranson.

The Competition

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    Yes, the Panthers won the Southeast Division last season. But they kept it interesting, picking up just nine points from the final 10 games to finish with just a two-point cushion over the Washington Capitals.

    Examining the other four teams in the division can give us an idea of how the competition stacks up.

    The Washington Capitals look the biggest threat despite having endured a disappointing season last year, slumping to seventh in the Eastern Conference. They lost Alexander Semin to Carolina but picked up Mike Ribeiro to center the second line.

    New coach Adam Oates is likely to bring a more offensive style of play than predecessor Dale Hunter, which could see Alex Ovechkin bounce back to a 50-goal pace with little issue.

    The Carolina Hurricanes made some noise during the offseason, signing Semin as well as Jordan Staal, who links up with brother Eric. The 5-1 opening day result may shed some light on how this matchup will turn out, though Carolina has given Florida trouble in the past.

    The Tampa Bay Lightning have a solid core built around 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos, aided by vets Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. But a shaky defense could leave newly signed goalie Anders Lindback exposed in his first full-time starting gig.

    Finally, the Winnipeg Jets were a nice story last year, in that, well, they moved to Winnipeg. On the ice, the end product was fairly successful, considering how poor Atlanta had been in recent years. In the end, they kept close but faltered at the finish line, finishing 11th.

    All in all, there is no reason why the Florida Panthers can't overcome this opposition and win its second consecutive Southeast Division crown. The rats will fly, the red will rise and the playoffs will await them once again.