Understandably, most of the so-called experts picked the Florida Panthers to finish at the bottom of the NHL again this year. Last year's disastrous season, combined with the tough realignment, does not, on paper, bode well for the Cats.
Let's not rush to judgment. The 2012-13 season was the perfect storm. Injuries to regulars devastated the team more then any other NHL entry. Some of the key injuries did not even happen during the NHL season, such as Erik Gudbranson's wakeboarding accident or Sean Bergenheim's abdominal problems which began while he was playing in Europe during the lockout. Injuries reached the ludicrous stage when goaltending coach Rob Tallas had to sign a one-day contract and sit on the bench as the spare goalie while awaiting the arrival of Jacob Markstrom who was delayed en route from San Antonio.
Eleven players had surgery last season, if you count Aleksander Barkov's offseason shoulder operation. This year has already included one surgery (Scott Clemmensen). Underlying all of the other variables required for a successful season will be how well the body parts healed and how the team can stay healthy during the year.
In 2012-13 Florida had the most porous defense and the weakest offense. Both regular goaltenders, Jose Theodore and Clemmensen saw far too much rubber before Theodore's season was ended with a knee injury. Heir apparent Markstrom showed signs of brilliance but was inconsistent. In all fairness, when the burden fell on him to carry the team he had a minor league defense in front of him and only a few games of NHL experience behind him.
As the current training camp began optimism prevailed. General manager Dale Tallon, coach Kevin Dineen and most of the returning veterans prefer to think of last year as an aberration and the true team as the unit which captured the Southeast Division title the season before.
There are three big "ifs." If the prospects Tallon has been carefully stockpiling perform to their potential, this team is going places. Last year's bright spot, Jonathan Huberdeau, captured Rookie of the Year honors despite playing with an injured hip all season. The hip has been repaired and he beefed his frame up another 10 pounds. Third-year man Gudbranson is maturing and will hopefully make fewer mistakes on defense. He already established himself as an intimidating presence. This year's first pick, big center Barkov, is purportedly ready for the NHL now. Although only 18, he has two years of Finnish Elite experience playing against men.
The Panthers will likely have an opening-day roster featuring their top picks in four of the last five years: Barkov, Huberdeau, Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov. This is the way good teams are built. Behind the first picks are other draft selections ready to break out with an NHL scoring touch. Big Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden (first-round picks acquired via Tallon deals) and Vincent Trocheck were impressive in the 2013 Prospects Tournament. They will battle veterans for jobs.
"If" No. 2 is how the veterans perform, especially those losing so much time to injury the prior year. Kris Versteeg was probably the biggest surprise of the division championship season. Other veterans carefully selected by Tallon were major contributors, such as Tomas Fleischmann who hasn't missed a game in two seasons, or steady grinders Tomas Kopecky and Marcel Goc.
For the puzzle to be complete big contributions will be needed from newly acquired rebounding vets Scott Gomez, who was signed to a bargain contract, and Brad Boyes who came to camp on a PTO (professional tryout) and has impressed. If he sticks he will help the power play, which at No. 6 in the NHL last year was a bright spot. It definitely will help if Scottie Upshall stays healthy and finally gets untracked. In two injury-filled seasons he managed just six goals.
Versteeg came off a career season, only to be limited to 10 games last year due to groin, chest and knee injuries. After offseason ACL surgery he is ready to go. At day 1 of training camp he told a media gathering, "Look at the guys we were missing last year. They're big parts of what we did the previously year." He went on to express gratitude that most of the injured are back. "With the guys we got we can prove a lot of people wrong this year."
The Panthers are deep with blue-line talent. Behind stalwart Brian Campbell and Gudbranson, young Kulikov showed flashes of stardom and Mike Weaver, whose season was also limited by injury, is the steady stay-at-home type.
The remaining positions are open, with plenty of young talent, such as Alex Petrovic (second round/2010 draft), Colby Robak (2nd round/2008) or Mike Caruso (4th round/2006) ready to move in and compete for jobs. Team captain Ed Jovanovski has resumed training after being limited to six games last year and undergoing hip surgery. Jovo is still a big unknown. As backup for his defense corps Tallon brought in a few free agent signings, including Matt Gilroy and Mike Mottau.
Another X-factor will be the performance of Shawn Matthias, now a seasoned veteran by NHL standards. He is penciled as top-line center. Injuries to others last year, including departed center Stephen Weiss, brought Matthias to center stage. Thanks to a March hot streak he finished with a career-high 14 goals and a lot more confidence as a player. It is critical to the Panthers that he continues his offensive presence. At training camp Matthias said, "There are ups and downs every season. The big thing for me this year is to play the 82 games together and be consistent."
The biggest "if" is the goaltending situation, last year's major weak spot. The concern might have been ameliorated with Tim Thomas reporting to Florida as a PTO. With backup Clemmensen injured in a pre-camp workout and not ready for the start the season and Markstrom still unproven, Tallon was forced to seek a bargain-priced veteran as insurance. He talked to Theodore, Ilya Bryzgalov and Thomas before getting the 39-year-old former Vezina winner to accept a tryout and a potential return to the NHL.
Coach Dineen was delighted with Thomas' decision to come to Florida. "We just got better by having him in camp. His intensity and compete level is a great example for our whole team."
As for Thomas, he called himself "rejuvenated" and ready to play. At his first press briefing he likened the Panthers to the Boston team when he first joined the Bruins. "This organization is right on the verge of a big bounce back." Until such time as Thomas actually signs a contract, the Panthers face opening the season with a No. 1 goalie who played only 31 NHL games and minor league backups with no NHL experience. Florida goalies surrendered the most goals in the NHL last year (the team was tied with Nashville for the fewest goals scored) and if this doesn't improve no amount of adjustment elsewhere will help.
Look for a very interesting season. IF the pieces fall into place Tallon will again be cited for his genius in building a winning team.
Alan Greenberg is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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