Florida Panthers: Optimism After a Dismal Season

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Florida Panthers: Optimism After a Dismal Season
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
It was a frustrating season for head coach Kevin Dineen.

I can't quite remember who said it because it was so long ago, but I believe it was an Original Six coach who, while lamenting his team's poor performance because of an inordinate amount of injuries. said, "When my regulars get back, some of these guys will be sent so far away that even The Hockey News won't be able to find them."

You couldn't blame Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen if he uttered similar thoughts.

What should have been a most promising season, based on last year's improvement and the addition of rookie sensation Jonathan Huberdeau, turned out to be a disaster from before day one. In a fine example of Murphy's Law, everything that could go wrong did go wrong en route to the Cats finishing dead last in the NHL.

When Dineen spoke to the press on locker clean-out day, he cited the frequent unpreparedness and lack of conditioning among some of his players when the shortened season began, hinting that a number of his players were admonished to come to the next training camp in better shape. In reviewing the team's weaknesses, he lamented, "We were porous at times and too easy to play against."

According to the website mangameslost.com, there were a whopping 271 official man games lost to injury (most in the NHL) based upon team reports. At no time during the season did the team have all of the prior season's returning defenders on the ice in the same game. 

Captain Ed Jovanovski played all of six games. Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver and promising youngster Erik Gudbranson all lost extended time. Gudbranson's preseason injury was not even hockey related.  

Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images
Ed Jovanovski played only six games this season.

Up front, last year's top line was decimated.  Although Tomas Fleischmann had a relatively good year, his former linemates, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, had lost seasons. In addition, Sean Bergenheim didn't play a single game due to a sports hernia sustained while playing in Europe during the lockout. Only Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, Jonathan Huberdeau and Shawn Matthias played the full 48-game slate.

 

Things were so bad that they often bordered on comical.

Take the case of NHL hopeful Eric Selleck, who was brought up for one game as an injury replacement. He succeeded in instigating a fight in the last five minutes of the game with his team up 3-0. The end result was a concussion for Selleck after a TKO by Carolina's Kevin Westgarth, a suspension, an automatic $10,000 fine for Dineen because Selleck left the bench and for goalie Jacob Markstrom, the loss of a shutout on the ensuing power play.

To add to the irony, since Selleck was injured in an NHL game, the only one of his career at the time, the Panthers were forced to keep him on the roster during his recuperation, paying him an NHL salary. A similar situation happened with Michael Caruso, a promising defender who was an early-season injury replacement. He suffered a broken arm in the second game of the season and remained on the varsity roster drawing big league pay until he was healthy enough to return to San Antonio (AHL) at the end of March.

On the positive side, with the number two pick in this June's draft, either Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin would look mighty good in a Panthers' uniform.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
What was Eric Selleck thinking?

 

Opportunities Were Plentiful

Of the 30 players who wore Panthers red this year, 14 had played in the AHL at some time during the season, and eight players made their NHL debuts. The injuries provided audition opportunities for youngsters.

 

Undrafted rookie Drew Shore managed to become a regular. He showed signs of brilliance before slowing up with a wrist injury, which required offseason surgery. Quinton Howden displayed a lot of speed and hustle but didn't register a point in his 18 games. Nick Bjugstad signed a contract after his college season was over but managed only one goal in 11 games.

In short, there was a steady group of commuters between San Antonio (AHL) and South Florida.

One of the more impressive call-ups was 6'4" 21-year-old defenseman Alex Petrovic, who joined the Cats for the final six games of the season. Petrovic was a second-round draft pick in 2010, the year general manager Dale Tallon was able to stockpile a generous supply of draft picks. He might have been called up earlier had he not been injured in San Antonio.

He probably expressed the sentiments of all eight who made their debuts. "The first couple of games felt a little surreal out there but now that I've got my feet under me and know the guys, I just want to go out there and play hockey. When your chance comes, you've got to just go out and seize the moment."

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Alex Petrovic impressed his coach.

In an unheralded mid-March transaction, Tallon may have plugged a gaping hole. By acquiring Buffalo farmhand and frequent healthy scratch T.J. Brennan for a third-round 2013 draft pick (acquired from Los Angeles for Keaton Ellerby), he might have solved the problem of a replacement for Jason Garrison to partner on the power play with playmaking D-man Brian Campbell. Like Garrison, Brennan has a booming shot that draws people to him, thus giving Campbell more time and space for his own very effective shot.

Brennan managed nine points in 19 games with the Cats.

 

Brennan was grateful for the opportunity. "In Buffalo, they were just going in a different direction. Having played for Kevin before (Portland of the AHL), he knows my style of play. I appreciate the opportunity."

 

Big Offseason Decisions 

Tallon will be faced with several dilemmas in the offseason.

Stephen Weiss, the face of team and a 10-year veteran, struggled early on this year and then abruptly ended his season by opting for long-deferred wrist surgery. As a UFA, it is conceivable that the popular Weiss has played his last game as a Panther. Tallon must decide whether he can afford the risk of re-signing him, given his difficulties. Maybe a short-term deal will be in the works, which could be extended based upon performance.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Dale Tallon has some big decisions ahead.

The goaltending situation is more perplexing. Jose Theodore had season-ending knee surgery in March. The veteran netminder, who had a good season prior but was shaky much of this year before the injury, is now a UFA. My guess is that Tallon will not re-sign him, with Jacob Markstrom emerging as the No. 1 netminder and a year left on backup Scott Clemmensen's contract.

While Markstrom has been brilliant at times, he has also been erratic. His GAA is fair, but then again, he had a largely AHL roster in front of him. He's done his apprenticeship in the minors, so Tallon and his brain trust must decide if they need insurance via a free agent or trade, given the possibility that Theodore will not be back.

 

Both Weiss and Theodore have stated publicly that they would like to return, but Tallon has been noncommittal. Talking to the media at his postseason briefing, Tallon said, "There's a business to this and we're going to do what's best for our franchise long term." 

Not a great endorsement. Tallon must also decide on whether or not to attempt to extend RFAs Peter Mueller, Shawn Matthias and Jack Skille, all of whom are noted for their hard work. Mueller had a great comeback season after suffering from concussion issues, and Matthias, given the ice time, had a career year.

Perhaps the biggest decision will be what to do with that No. 2 draft pick. With Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and  Jonathan Drouin the top three available, the Cats are guaranteed a potential future star. On the surface it would seem that MacKinnon, a center, would be the top choice, but with young centers Huberdeau and Bjugstad likely here for the long haul, it may make more sense to go for a potential top defender like Jones, if he isn't selected by Colorado with its No. 1 pick.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
Shawn Matthias was a bright spot.

 

Room for Optimism

It's hard to find bright spots for a team that finished dead last in the NHL in points, goals against, goal differential and penalty-killing efficiency. They were only one tally above last in goals for, but on the positive side, the power play was a healthy No. 6, so there is room for optimism.

 

This year's first-round draft pick, no matter who the Cats choose, will be significant to the long-term future of the team, along with the multitude of draft selections already in the organization. 

At Tallon's press briefing he said, "There are a lot of failures in this business before you have success." He went on to cite the upcoming draft and a few more "pieces to the puzzle" and concluded with, "Our future is bright."

 

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

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