Preface: The Southeast division is a strange division: I mean, where else do you only get one representative in the playoffs because your division isn't good enough to send two?
Well the more we look at it this year, the Southeast may once again return to the days of sending two representatives, as a dose of healthy competition is just what the doctor ordered.
Right in the thick of the competition though, will be the Florida Panthers.
Last year, I thought that the Florida Panthers would actually hop over both Washington and Carolina and take the division title, or at least eek their way into eighth.
Well, I was wrong, but what the Panthers showed last year, is that they're finally on the right track, and the team may be one of the most-battle ready in the Southeast division.
Yup, the Florida Panthers.
Turns out all those years of high draft picks and just waiting it out does work.
Quick! Call Toronto! The myths of the rebuilding process are true! Young players ARE good!
Cory Stillman-F (F.A.), Rory Fitzpatrick-D (F.A), Keith Ballard-D (Trade), Nick Boynton-D (F.A.)
Branislav Mezei-D (Europe), Steve Montador-D (F.A), Jassen Cullimore-D (F.A), Oli Jokinen-F (Trade)
38-35-9, 85 points, 11th in conference, 3rd in Southeast
2nd in Southeast, top ten in conference, as high as 7th
Let's break 'er down...
The Florida Panthers always go about their business fairly quietly in the offseason, that is, unless they're trying to trade Roberto Luongo.
Granted there aren't many outside of Florida who are that concerned with what the Panthers do—unless they're trying to trade Roberto Luongo—but that just means a few more people are surprised when they have a quality offseason.
That's right: Trade a star and don't get caught up in the hype of an over-valued free agent class, and that's a fairly successful offseason.
This kitten’s got claws!
For a long time, the Florida Panthers featured something that didn’t look like a rose or smell like a rose, but it was still called a rose.
Now, they’ve started growing (and acquiring) some thorns, and they’ve finally got a pretty prickly defense!
Leading off the block, you’ve got Jay Bouwmeester who may be the most important cog in this machine. He’s big, he can play against the better forwards in the league, and he can score.
Last year, although there was a decline in his overall point totals, Bouwmeester was finding the net more frequently, totaling a career-high 15 goals. Bouwmeester also played his fifth (82 games) full season in his career, and went even further in cementing himself as one of the top tier blueliners of this generation.
The only problem for Florida, is that they’re having Jay commit long term, as after a ton of discussion on an extension, Bouwmeester ended up signing a one-year deal, as if to say “show me this team may actually go somewhere this season, and then maybe I’ll consider staying”.
If this is the season that could make or break whether Bouwmeester stays in Florida, then Jacques Martin and the Panthers certainly pulled out all the stops on the back-end.
Gone is the injury-riddled Mike Van Ryn, and in his place is Bryan McCabe. Although McCabe’s steps have slowed the past few seasons, and his defensive game had a well-documented deterioration, McCabe still has a place at the NHL level, and that place could be either alongside Bouwmeester with his booming slap shot, or leading the second PP unit into battle. A low-key season in a lesser-known market could be just the ticket to getting the 33-year old’s career back on track.
The Panthers also went out and traded Captain Oli Jokinen to Phoenix for Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. Although, last year Ballard only posted 21 points, he took the time to use the effort he took from his offensive game, and concentrate it in his own end, resulting in a career-high +7.
If Ballard becomes a 20-25 point defenseman with a propensity for +10’s, rather than a 30-point, -30 d-man, then he'll quickly find himself at home in Florida. And if he can get his offense back to the 30-point range without losing the D? All the better.
Boynton, meanwhile, will give the Panthers a huge presence that their defense has sorely needed for a few years. Boynton may not really shine in the offensive zone, but he more than makes up for that with his work-horse ways, and his ability to play a physical game against opposing forwards.
The last two defensemen, rounding out a Florida defense that has a solid top six for the first time in a while, are Karlis Skrastins and Bryan Allen. You may remember Skrastins as the former NHL Iron Man amongst defensemen, but Karlis is the kind of guy you need on your team—a gritty, hard-nosed, shot-blocking fiend who wants nothing more than to do the little things to help his team win the game.
Bryan Allen is simply going to continue to offer the Florida Panthers a solid defensive game, and a point or two every so often, and sound leadership.
It may surprise you, but this team has a pretty solid defense (along with Rory Fitzpatrick, Cory Murphy, and Noah Welch for depth).
Vacating Vokoun’s post for Vacation purposes…
If Florida wants to go anywhere this season, Vokoun better not be vacating his post, at least not anytime soon.
The former-Predator was fairly solid last season, posting a 30-29-8 season—his third time ever-reaching 30 wins. The crafty lefty also posted a solid .919 save percentage and a 2.68 goals against average, as Florida threatened to claw their way back into the post-season race for a while down the stretch.
At 32, Vokoun should have a few good seasons ahead of him, but in case something goes amiss, former Blackhawk Craig Anderson will be preparing to step in between the pipes as he continues his ascension back to the ranks of NHL keepers.
Last season Anderson was very impressive in limited action (8-6, 2.25 GAA, .935 save percentage), and could find himself flourishing if anything were to happen to Tomas Vokoun.
Weiss so glum, chum?
The Florida Panthers are finally starting to see the fruits of their early and often labors come to fruition.
For the past two seasons, Stephen Weiss has been a tremendous offensive presence for the up and coming Panthers, netting back-to-back forty-point seasons and a plus-14 season last year. If he can stay healthy this season), Weiss could be due for a big-time coming out party—maybe 55-60 points and 25 goals.
Both Anthony Stewart and Gregory Campbell are young, but versatile, big and strong, and two guys that aren’t afraid to mix it up in the corners and down the sides, with a bit of scoring touch.
The brunt of the offense up front though, will be coming from Nathan Horton. The fourth year power-forward has posted back-to-back 62 point seasons, while he’s got one 30 goal season (2006-07) and two near-misses (2005-06, 2007-08) in the past three seasons.
Although he won’t have Oli Jokinen to help open up some holes up front this season, the departure of Jokinen will also ensure that the brunt of the offensive load will rest on Horton’s shoulders—a pressure that will certainly determine how the 23-year old performs.
Bringing in a veteran presence will be Cory Stillman and the returning Richard Zednik. Last season, before his horrific neck injury, Richard Zednik was having one of his most productive seasons in recent memory.
After an off year in 2006-07 in which he only scored 18 points in 32 games, Zednik had 15 goals and 26 points, before having his season ended by an errant skate blade. How Zednik comes back is still unknown, but if he can provide 15 goals for the duration of the season, then it’ll be a welcome addition to the offense.
Stillman meanwhile, brings a decorated resume that includes two Stanley Cups—back-to-back championships with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes. After splitting last season between the ‘Canes and the Ottawa Senators, Stillman comes to Florida in hopes of helping lead the Cats back to the playoffs, and maybe providing 60 points and a good, hard shot to the mix.
Meanwhile, the Panthers also have some solid talent in Rostislav Olesz—a strong, playmaking winger from Czechoslovakia, David Booth—a scoring, physical presence who surprised a lot of people with his 20-goal performance last season, and Shawn Matthias—a young guy with size who can lead the play and score some goals.
Filling out the lines with a bit of depth will be Kamil Kreps, Stefan Meyer, Tanner Glass, and Ville Peltonen—all of which have a little scoring potential, and the chance to be contributing third and fourth liners, while David Brine, Drew Larman, Rob Globke, and Michal Repik could battle for spots in training camp.
So what’s it all mean?
The Florida Panthers look great on defense (and will probably be vastly underrated this year), and if Tomas Vokoun can stay healthy, then they’ll have a solid option in net.
The biggest problem for this team though, is that they still have a bunch forwards who will be trying to find their stride at the NHL level, as well as their hands.
The pieces are starting to come together, but they may need a few more years.
Finish: 3rd in Southeast
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to contact Bryan, you can do so through his profile, and if you want to check out his previous work, you can do so in his archives.