New coach Peter Horachek has a tough road ahead.
The firing of coach Kevin Dineen was the start of the shake-up. The other skate dropped with the trade of Kris Versteeg. Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is rebuilding for the second time in his tenure.
By all accounts, the Panthers should have come out of the gate a lot stronger—maybe not as a playoff-bound squad, but at least it could have been more competitive than last season's underperforming, injury-riddled team.
With a quarter of the season gone, it has been more of the same, although the team has shown more cohesiveness since the coaching change. The addition of this year's second overall draft pick, Aleksander Barkov, and the return to health of veterans like Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim and Mike Weaver did not ignite the team.
Versteeg, who had offseason surgery, and Bergenheim, who had multiple surgeries, never got on track. Shawn Matthias, who came to life last year and was rewarded with a new multi-year contract, has but two goals at this juncture.
The underachieving Scottie Upshall looks like he is finally playing to his ability under new coach Peter Horachek. Horachek previously coached Upshall in the minors and in Nashville.
Nick Bjugstad started slowly after a training camp head injury but has become a dominant power forward of late.
Horachek entered the picture in the most negative of circumstances. The team was on the road, mired in a seven-game losing streak. Horachek was behind the bench for three games before he was able to conduct a full practice with the team.
After his initial win, an unlikely come-from-behind victory over a streaking Anaheim team, Horachek discussed his priorities with the media. "We're pushing for consistency and mental toughness. You have to play with high emotions but under control," he said, per Panthers.com. This was an obvious reference to the games in which the Cats played well but lost due to careless mistakes.
The most glaring weakness has been in goal. Jacob Markstrom, whose tagline for three years has been "goalie of the future" and who was pressed into duty last year with Jose Theodore's season-ending injury, has shown a few flashes of brilliance but many inconsistencies and has surrendered too many soft goals. He is back in the minors. The newly acquired Tim Thomas will be No. 1 as long as he continues to play well and stay healthy.
If there is a bright spot, it is that the potential is still there and the team has shown some grit, though it has been erratic. During one stretch of seven games they managed to overcome third-period deficits five times to force overtime.
The bad news is that they lost four of the five.
The team went 13 games between regulation victories before the Anaheim win. At this writing, they outscored the opposition 23-18 in the third period, but through the first 21 games they've scored the initial goal but five times and have been outscored in the first period by a 22-9 margin, putting them in a constant come-from-behind situation.
Despite the comebacks, the overtime and shootout record during the multi-year rebuilding phase has been horrendous. This season, young Calder Trophy-winner Jonathan Huberdeau, who had been effective in shootouts last season and early this year, seems to have been cooled by opposition goaltenders.
Newly acquired veteran Brad Boyes, with a reputation as a deadly shootout performer, has been the best Panther in shootouts.
Scoring is problematic at even strength and during the power play. Last season's sixth-ranked power play has dropped to last in the NHL. The team averages only 2.14 goals per game, ranking it 26th in the NHL. On the bright side, it's an improvement over the early-season average of less than two goals per game.
One of the few bright spots has been the 18-year-old Barkov, who is just what general manager Dale Tallon said he would be when he made the surprise draft selection. He is a big power center with the maturity to fit right in at the NHL level.
On the negative side, Tallon passed on higher-ranked defenseman Seth Jones, citing a wealth of defensive talent in the system. Unfortunately, young defenders like Mike Caruso, Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic did not play well enough in training camp to earn a berth. This forced Tallon to add free-agent veteran blueliners Matt Gilroy, Ryan Whitney, Mike Mottau and Tom Gilbert.
Other promising youngsters still have not played to their potential.
Drew Shore, Quinton Howden and Vincent Trocheck, who all had opportunities in training camp to make the club, are playing for the farm team in San Antonio. To bolster the offense Tallon acquired Boyes and Scott Gomez. As insurance, he also signed vets Jesse Winchester, Bobby Butler and Joey Crabb. Winchester has played well of late. Butler and Crabb are playing in the AHL.
Although Tallon maintains a stoic demeanor, the Panthers' new ownership had made it clear that the performance has not been acceptable. After the reluctant dismissal of Dineen and staff, Tallon promised that a change of playing personnel will be next.
He kept his word. After trading Versteeg for prospects Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen, George Richards of the Miami Herald quoted Tallon. "We're excited about where we're headed, the foundation being built. We added two young pieces to an already deep foundation of players and prospects. This is a step in the right direction for the Florida Panthers.''
The Panthers will eat half of Versteeg's salary through 2016. Bergenheim, Upshall, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Ed Jovanovski (who has yet to play a game this year) have high-dollar, multi-year contracts, which limits their trade value, but look for some more movement the near future.
Although Gomez is on a one-year, bargain deal, to move any of the others may require the Cats to again absorb some of their salaries in the remaining years of their contracts or give up promising young talent.
Stayed tuned. We will soon know if the new-look team represents the real Panthers or if it will revert to its early-season form.