The Florida Panthers are certainly going to have their work cut out for them this season.
Amidst yet another rebuild, Florida has been forced to watch the teams that were around them in the standings get better: The Toronto Maple Leafs added a bit of punch with Kris Versteeg, the Chicago Blackhawks single-handedly made Atlanta better, and Steve Yzerman has a plan for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Dale Tallon has a plan in Florida too, but it requires patience.
Everyone knows about Stephen Weiss and Tomas Vokoun—they're Florida's most-talented and recognizable players. But soon enough, the Panthers will trot out another round of recognizable superstars who can hopefully lead the Panthers to the playoffs.
Until that day arrives though, there's time for a few bold (and not so bold) picks.
1) Mike Duco Clocks 225 Minutes in the Box
Keith Ballard, Nick Tarnasky, and Gregory Campbell are all gone—they were providing the primary muscle for Florida last year. If the desire is to have a heavyweight skate with the team, then it's going to be Duco, who tallied 50 minutes in 10 games last year.
Actually? Forget Duco. Just sign these kids.
2) Dmitry Kulikov Finishes with the Best Plus/Minus on the Team
Kulikov steadily developed last year and was at his best when he was playing 20+ minutes a night. This year, he'll have to play top-four minutes with a light blueline. He recorded a minus-2 in games he played 20 or more minutes. With the mark to beat from last year at plus-5 (Jason Garrison), Kulikov could be in for a big year.
3) Scott Timmins Wins a Job with the Florida Panthers
Are their flashier prospects? Yes. But Timmins has excelled as a shut-down forward throughout his junior career, and the Panthers could use him.
Yes, there's Steve Reinprecht and Marty Reasoner and some other young forwards to beat out, but if there's a smart enough prospect to pull off an NHL job successfully against stiff competition, it's Timmins.
4) Wideman and McCabe Form a Deadly (Offensive) Duo
This won't be the Wideman or McCabe of old (37 assists for Wideman or 15-19 goals for McCabe), but if they're paired together on the power play, they could be deadly.
McCabe could still settle in to the 10-12 goal range, and if Wideman can start feeding the puck into McCabe's wheelhouse, he could be good for 30 assists. This doesn't mean that the two-way play of either will magically improve though.
Some of the goals-against may be hard to swallow if they're paired together on even strength shifts.
5) Steve Bernier Scores 20
Throughout his career, Bernie has topped out as a 15 or 16 goal scorer.
The years where it looks like he could hit 20 (06-07 and 07-08), he's cooled off, gotten hurt, and gotten traded midway through the year to throw his momentum off.
Last year, he looked like much of the same, notching 11 goals in 59 games. Bernier could realistically end up on the first or second line on this team, meaning plenty of opportunities for goals.
6) David Booth Comes Back with 25 Goals
If he hadn't played the rest of the season, then the likelihood he accomplishes the feat is drastically lower. Booth did come back last year and towards the end of the year was looking comfortable again with four goals over his last five games.
He carries that over in to this year, becoming one of Florida's only major goal-scoring threats.
7) Florida Trades Away Four Recognizable Players, but Not Stephen Weiss
Outside of Nathan Horton, Weiss was the one with the most speculation surrounding him this offseason.
Those rumors will only intensify if the Cats play without claws and are way out of it come the Trade Deadline.
Part of rebuilding though is having someone to build around, and Weiss is that building block up front for the Panthers.
8) Florida Drops to the Bottom Five in Penalty Killing
Not a monumental drop, considering that they were 23rd overall last year, but a younger team all-around means that there will be a few growing pains for this roster.
The penalty kill will be one of those, especially with the learn-on-the-fly defense.
9) Tomas Vokoun Scrapes Together 28 Wins
If there's something that we've learned from watching Tomas Vokoun over the past few years, it's that he's one of the best at making something out of a bad situation.
His goals-against average has never been above 2.70 since he's been in Florida, and his Panther save percentage is well above .920.
The wins have gone down the past few years (30, 26, 23), but that's hardly Vokoun's fault. This year, he pulls that total up a bit.
10) Two Rookies, Two Different Ways
For Erik Gudbranson and Jacob Markstrom, they're in for two different NHL experiences.
The burly defenseman might get an early season look but will ultimately find himself back in the OHL this season.
Markstrom meanwhile will get into some games and perform well, getting the Panthers at least a point in each of his first three NHL games.
The Stretch (Remember...this is for fun): Keith Ballard returns to Florida and realizes he's on the opposite team. Meaning it's ok (well, not ok, but it makes more sense) to do this to Vokoun again.
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