As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
First up, the Florida Panthers.
D Dennis Wideman, RW Steve Bernier, RW Michael Grabner, C Marty Reasoner, LW Christopher Higgins, D Mike Weaver, D Nathan Paetsch
RW Nathan Horton, LW Gregory Campbell, D Keith Ballard, LW Victor Oreskovich, RW Jeff Taffe, C Kamil Kreps
After seasons of mediocrity and disappointment in Florida, the Panthers have finally decided to go the route that fans had been waiting for all this time. Announced at the trade deadline this past season, Florida has finally decided to completely rebuild and overhaul the team from the ground up.
Clearly, draft picks intended to be big names and key free agent signings have left the team with little more than where they started in the past decade.
Perhaps the biggest acquisition for Florida is new general manager Dale Tallon, fresh off his build of (and subsequent dismissal from) the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Peter DeBoer is returning for his third season behind the bench as well, in hopes that he can recapture the near miss of the 2008-09 season or better. In that year, the Panthers finished with 93 points but were narrowly edged out of the postseason in the final days of play. For DeBoer, however, the challenges may be far more numerous than he can coach his way out of.
The Panthers haven’t made the playoffs in the past decade. They’ve never won their own division, and had it not been for one fly-by-night season in 1995-96, they would never have seen playoff success.
Building from the ground up starts with the few members of the Florida core who will resume wearing the jersey this season.
At its core, Florida is a team comprised of journeymen and B-list stars constantly playing in designated roles with contending teams. Think of the Panthers as a patchwork quilt of sorts.
After being unable to resign Jay Bouwmeester two seasons ago (and subsequently trading him to the Calgary Flames), Florida parted with another top-10 pick in Nathan Horton this offseason. They also dealt key defender Keith Ballard to Vancouver. In exchange, the Panthers are loaded with draft picks and prospects, two things GM Tallon is best at building on.
The current roster, at least for the upcoming season, however, is as bare-bones as it gets.
Star winger David Booth has a proven track record of lighting the lamp, but a new string of concussions and injuries may stifle Booth and the Panthers offense. Booth’s second in command, Stephen Weiss, should have a fun time cycling wingers that could include Booth and several dozen others, including but not limited to Christopher Higgins, Steve Bernier, Cory Stillman, and Radek Dvorak.
Coincidentally, the Panthers are one of the deepest teams up the middle thanks to their recent moves.
Behind Weiss is Michael Frolik, who is poised for a breakout year after consecutive 40-point affairs by the age of 22. Steven Reinprecht will likely find himself relegated to third-line duties unless Frolik swings out to the wing while Marty Reasoner, fresh from a stint in Chicago via Atlanta, is a penalty specialist with third/fourth line capabilities.
The Panthers are defensively working to get better, but need significant time for their young stars. As the overpaid, underachieving Bryan McCabe falls further into the background this team becomes Dennis Wideman’s (acquired in the Nathan Horton deal) to control.
From the blue line, Wideman got several cracks on the power play and will see ample time given his lack of competition.
Florida then has a plethora of defenders age 18-25 looking for their chance to make an impact, including Keaton Ellerby and Dmitry Kulikov.
Kulikov, 19, played in 68 games last year and showed more poise than most at his position on the team. Though the ever-looming question with Kulikov is his affiliation with Russia and the KHL. Should he choose to stay, he’ll become a cornerstone of the Panther defense during the reconstruction.
Florida’s first-round pick in the 2010 draft, Eric Gudbranson, will be thrown into the fire quickly, too. In a draft that was heavy on defensemen early on, Gudbranson can emerge as a leader and eat up ice time the way Jay Bouwmeester used to for the squad.
The Panthers goaltending situation has changed the least in this renovation, as stalwart Tomas Vokoun is expected to start the season between the pipes. Vokoun was nothing close to stellar last year, posting only 23 wins for the team. That said, he’s faced over 10,000 shots since joining the Panthers, more than any goalie over that three-year span. His .925 save percentage was among the best in the league by season’s end.
While Scott Clemmensen is inked to be the backup to Vokoun this season, Swedish-born Jacob Markstrom could dethrone both goalies by the end of the year if he plays his cards right. The 20-year-old Markstrom signed straight out of the Swedish Elite leagues and at 6’4”, he could be the latest in a recent string of Swedish starters carrying the team.
The Panthers have the pieces in place to start all over again, and will likely be big sellers at the trade deadline this year. Why? Because they’ll be hard pressed to keep up with the Eastern juggernauts while they toil in the cellar. Fifth in the Southeast, 15th in the Eastern Conference.