Florida Panthers' Youngsters are Their Only Bright Lights

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Florida Panthers' Youngsters are Their Only Bright Lights
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Jonathan Huberdeau - NHL Rookie of the Month for February

When the Florida Panthers managed to finish atop the Southeast Division last season, and then take the New Jersey Devils to double overtime in the seven-game first-playoff round, Panthers followers were saying that Dale Tallon's long-term rebuilding plan was ahead of schedule. Maybe so. Tallon made a few seemingly ingenious moves by stockpiling draft choices and selective veteran acquisitions.

As credible as the first-place finish had seemed—in reality, they barely qualified for the playoffs—it might have hurt them by dropping them to No. 23 in the 2012 draft. In the previous two years, the low finishes gave the Cats the No. 3 pick each year, which landed them Erik Gudbranson in 2010 and Jonathan Huberdeau in 2011. These two have already established that they are ready for the NHL, with a formidable group behind them still in juniors or college.

Unfortunately, with the disastrous start to the shortened season, the hopes built up last season have been deflated. It's been the perfect ice storm. After 20 games, the Panthers are No. 27 in NHL points and, among other dubious stats, have given up the most goals and have the highest negative differential of goals for and against.

The youngsters have impressed, but the veterans, most of whom represent Tallon and assistant general manager Mike Santos' acquisitions since Tallon came aboard, have been having a hard time. Injuries and slumps have turned this short season into a nightmare.

Long-time Panther Stephen Weiss had been the face of the team during the transition to the Tallon era. Last season he centered a top line which sizzled the first half of the year and fizzled in the second half. Weiss was split from Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann intermittently later in the season when their productivity fell. Versteeg had offseason hip surgery, which would have prevented him from starting the season based on the original schedule. The lockout gave him some more recovery time, but on the eve of opening night he suffered a groin injury, followed by a chest injury when Alex Ovechkin clobbered him. He has missed seven of the first 20 games and is now day-to-day.

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Stephen Weiss - Struggling this season.

To compound the situation, Scottie Upshall, who missed the bulk of last season, has played only seven games due to an ankle injury. Veteran Ed Jovanovski, who was recently named team captain, performed well last season but has had nothing but problems this year due to a knee injury. Jovanovski, who received a plush four-year deal when Tallon had to reach the cap floor, has only played five games this season.

Then, there is the strange case of Sean Bergenheim, who the Panthers have been mum about. Purportedly, he was injured playing in Europe during the lockout and is now a non-roster suspended player. The rumor is that he is done for the year, if not permanently, in Florida.

Tallon's premier acquisition, Brian Campbell, has played some stellar games this year but, defensively, is deep in minus territory. His new partner, Filip Kuba, was brought in as a replacement for Jason Garrison but has not provided the same offensive spark. On the bright side, Campbell has been shooting more and has six goals.

Another of Tallon's risky acquisitions, Fleischmann (Flash), led the team in scoring last season while playing the full compliment of games after overcoming serious health issues. "Flash" has been shifted a few times by coach Kevin Dineen but has been the one steady force through the team's slump. Finally, Marcel Goc, Jack Skille and Tomas Kopecky, all Tallon acquisitions, play their reliable and gritty two-way game, but none are gamebreakers.

In goal, Tallon acquisition Jose Theodore has been struggling this year, as is his backup Scott Clemmensen. After two consecutive games in which Dineen saw the need to pull a goaltender, he told a post-game media gathering, "I have two quality veterans who know the game and how to step it up. That's not happening for us right now." Heir apparent Jacob Markstrom played well in his two-game trial, which was probably designed to shake up the two regular goalies.

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Sean Bergenheim - Missing in action.

To round out the series of personnel disasters, the two players acquired in the David Booth trade last season, Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm, are gone with nothing in return. Alex Kovalev was awarded a one-year contract based on a strong camp but, after opening night, he has fizzled and has been a frequent healthy scratch.

The latest in the chain of misfortune is defenseman Mike Weaver, who was injured in Thursday's shootout loss to Buffalo. He has been a steady force on defense and has been able to compensate for freewheeling Dmitry Kulikov's defensive lapses. According to Dineen, at the same post-game briefing, "Mike Weaver's got a lower body injury which will take quite a while."

The situation has gone from bad to worse.

Now for the good news.

The future is bright. Markstrom has a bright future, but is not being rushed to action. Huberdeau is among the team leaders in goals and scoring. He has all the moves of a potential superstar.

Gudbranson is an intimidating presence on the blue line, as he proved in last year's playoffs and is mature beyond his 21 years.

Young Drew Shore, an undrafted college prospect playing in the AHL, got a break due to all of the injuries and has sparkled on a line with Huberdeau and Peter Mueller. Shore is third of all rookies in shots on goal, behind Huberdeau and Ottawa's Jakob Silfverberg. Mueller, who has been plagued by concussion issues, played well in a partial season at Colorado last year but when the Avs didn't make him an offer, Tallon took a chance and has been rewarded for it.

The Cats are well-stocked with Tallon draft picks maturing in college and juniors.

Nobody will ever accuse anyone playing for Dineen of not hustling or of avoiding those dirty areas. The glaring weaknesses have been in goal and four-on-four situations (four losses—no wins in five-minute overtimes).

As the shortened season moves on, Tallon will have some more critical decisions to make. Does he stick with his remaining veterans or does the rebuilding go back to square one?  My guess is that unless the Panthers rally for a playoff berth there will be many new faces next season.

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