The 2006-07 season produced some very memorable hockey. The 07-08 season so far has been just as enjoyable, that is, unless you live in Florida.
The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lighting both missed the playoffs this year.
The Tampa Bay Lighting have already begun rebuilding with the acquisitions of two way forward Jeff Halpern, shoot-out specialist Jussi Jokinen, and new number one goaltender Mike Smith at the trade deadline.
With Kari Ramo showing enough strength to be a reliable backup goaltender, and the almost inevitable arrival of future first overall pick Steven Stamkos, Vincent Leclavier and Martin St. Louis just might have a team behind them for the 2008-09 season.
Could the same be said for the Florida Panthers?
Possibly. Depending on what Panthers management decides to do during the offseason, I predict a return to the post-season for the franchise that guys like Pavel Bure and Roberto Luongo once called home.
In the closing weeks of the season, the Panthers actually made a last-minute push that almost saw them clinch a playoff birth.
This season saw the return of a number one goaltender to the franchise in Thomas Vokoun, who arguably carried the team through its darkest hours this season and kept their faint playoff hopes alive.
Captain Olli Jokinen saw a 20-point drop from last year, but he was still Florida's best forward. Jay Bouwmeester once again carried a very weak blue line. But take the following into consideration, and you may find that the Florida Panthers are not very far off from returning to the postseason...
More than anything, the Panthers need chemistry between their forwards. An offseason acquisition of a secondary scoring winger will complete a strong offensive Florida team.
If the Panthers can get continued development from guys like David Booth and Stephan Weiss, they wont have to rely on guys like Nathan Horton and Olli Jokinen to carry the team offensively.
However, the Panthers will need the return of the Olli Jokinen who had 91 points only a season ago and another strong season from Horton.
With the eventual return of forward Richard Zednik, the Panthers will have six or seven solid scorers up front, juggling Zednik and youngster Rostislav Olesz between the second and third lines.
But this Florida team wont be complete without strong play from two-way guys like Kamil Kreps and Greg Campbell. Look for Jozef Stumpel to assume a type of "Jeremy Roenick" role as a third or fourth line center.
Without question, this is where the Panthers need the most improvement. Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan Allen carried their blue line, and need some more consistent help other then the surprising resurgent Jassen Cullimore, who was better than great for them down the stretch.
Expect an offseason acquisition of a more offensive minded defensemen to compliment Bouwmeester and maybe a No. 6 or 7 defense men to share time with guys like Karlis Skrastins and Steve Montador.
Don't fix what isn't broken. With a stronger defensive group, expect a great season from Thomas Vokoun and a breakout season from Craig Anderson. He earned extended playing time next year with his back to back 50 save shutouts this season.
As insurance in case of a season-ending injury, the Panthers' organization should investigate the whereabouts of one Robert Esche, who could be looking for the type of role Brian Boucher had with Philly for most of this season.
Putting it all together
In the offseason, the Panthers need a stronger blue line. An offensive minded defenseman who can move the puck and a two way defenseman who can play power play and penalty kill should be No. 1 and 2 on the Panthers shopping list.
Also, a secondary scoring winger who can be juggled between the first two lines to play with either Jokinen/Horton or Weiss/Booth.
More importantly, the Panthers youngsters need to produce. David Booth's speed and ability to finish this season leaves him with the expectations of a 25-30 goal season next year.
Stephan Weiss needs to return to the 20-goal mark after only lighting the lamp 13 times this season and finish somewhere in the 55-60 point area.
Finally, Bouwmeester needs to remain healthy and Florida's best defenseman.
If he can quarterback the Panther power play somewhere into the top 10 or 15 in the league and keep a strong penalty killing unit together with guys like Greg Campbell and Rob Globke, the Panthers should have no problem reclaiming their place in the post season.
There's no question the Florida Panthers have talent. Whether it be strong performance night after night from Thomas Vokoun, the speedy youth of David Booth, or the combination of grit and skill that makes Nathan Horton a goal scorer, the Panthers are definitely talented.
All that remains is taking this talent and molding it into a solid unit. The Florida Panthers have some of the important tools to be a Cup contending team by next season.
If the Panthers can band together, and receive the proper backing from their management, their fans just might be rewarded with a return to the post-season.
And who knows, maybe an introduction to Lord Stanley himself.
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