The Florida Panthers have gone eight years without a playoff berth.
Their offense may have taken a step back with the loss of Olli Jokinen, but their defense has become stronger, and the hiring of head coach Peter DeBoer will enable the Panthers' young stars to play up to their potential.
Here are the five reasons I think the Panthers will be in the playoff hunt:
The Panthers will be extra motivated this year, to prove that their offseason acquisitions were a step in the right direction. The criticism from the hockey experts will give the Panthers extra incentive to get off to a fast start. This would allow the Panthers a chance to pick up important points and stay in the playoff hunt.
The Panthers have a lot of talent in their prospects. Talented young forwards Shawn Matthias and Michael Frolik look to provide offensive firepower for a defensive-minded Panthers team.
Matthias most likely will see the more playing time of the two, but look for Frolik to have an impact this season as well.
The young Panthers team will be able to stay in games with their speed and smooth-skating abilities. Players like David Booth, Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and Kamil Kreps will provide exciting playmaking—and hopefully offensive production for the Panthers.
This is the season where the Panthers' young talent needs to reach their potential and bring a playoff run to South Florida.
The Panthers seem to have the best goaltending in the Southeast Division. Tomas Vokoun is, in my opinion, a more reliable goalie than Kari Lehtonen, Cam Ward, Mike Smith, or Jose Theodore.
Backup goalie Craig Anderson is also solid, and was responsible for rejuvenating the Panthers' playoff hopes last season, with his stellar goaltending and stoic demeanor.
Defensively, the Panthers have made big improvements. Last season, defense was the Panthers' Achilles heel—but this season it may become a strength. The acquisitions of Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, and Bryan McCabe will definitely add talent to the Panthers' defensive corps.
The Panthers defense seems to be the best in the Southeast Division. McCabe adds offensive presence to the Panthers' power play. Along with veteran Boynton and up-and-comer Keith Ballard, it seems the Panthers defense has taken a step in the right direction.
The Southeast Division seems to be wide open for all five teams. Washington seems to be the favorite, but teams like Florida, Carolina, and Tampa Bay could surprise the hockey world with playoff runs.