NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: 5 Reasons Florida Panthers Are a Playoff Team

Mark JonesSenior Analyst IJuly 31, 2011

NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: 5 Reasons Florida Panthers Are a Playoff Team

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    In all truth, it's hard to find an image from last season of the Florida Panthers celebrating a goal to headline this article, since they truly didn't get to celebrate too much, in the first place.

    The Panthers eventually finished last in the Eastern Conference with only 72 points, marking the tenth consecutive season they've finished outside of the playoffs and the second time in a row they've ended the year among the bottom two teams in the conference.

    Their miserable 30-40-12 record led to yet another overhaul of Florida's perpetually rebuilding roster at the trade deadline, letting Cats fans know that, once again, there was a new, probably-fruitless youth movement going on in Sunrise. But, as it turned out, what happened back then in late February was nothing in comparison to how recently-added general manager Dave Tallon handled the start of free agency.

    Tallon rocked the hockey world by coming out of the blue in a small market and signing or acquiring 10 different out-of-town players. Tallon handed out 33 years worth of contracts totaling over $120 million and utterly re-created an entirely fresh Panthers roster faster than it takes the U.S. Government to agree on something.

    The snowball of moves has received a lot of coverage by many analysts across the league already and taken plenty of admiration and denigration alike, as would be anticipated. However, putting the money aside (which was, for the most part, so the team could reach the ever-increasing salary floor), all of these transactions have done exactly what they was intended to do; they put Florida back in the continental spotlight, added boatloads of experience and talent to the lineup, and, most of all, delivered an earthquake of change to a franchise that's just never been able to get its act together before.

    Not only have the Panthers improved from a makeshift, still-developing team to a club that, what it perhaps lacks in the chemistry that comes from playing together, makes up for it in sheer skill that suddenly transverses throughout the entire roster. Florida isn't just a better team than they were in '10-'11, they have gone from the very darkest part of the league's cellar to a quite respectable, legitimate playoff team in one summer...and here's why.

    Note: This slideshow is Part 1 of a four-part series looking in-depth at a few specific teams who we believe have become new Stanley Cup contenders or new playoff teams with their offseason moves.

     Part 2, portraying why the Florida Panthers will be a playoff team in '11-'12, can be found here. Part 3, looking at why the Los Angeles Kings are Cup contenders next season, can be read here. Part 4, stating our reasoning behind calling the St. Louis Blues a postseason team, is available here.

A Top 10-Caliber Offense

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    Last year, the Florida Panthers offense ranked a dismal 27th in the league with a mere 2.33 goals-per-game average and were also dead last in powerplay conversion rate with a dreadful 13.1 percent mark.

    This season, we don't expect that to be the case.

    Team-leading forwards Stephen Weiss and David Booth both return from last season and will probably use their new playmaking teammates to build greatly upon their '10-'11 totals of 21 and 23 goals, respectively. 25-year-old breakout star Mike Santorelli, who hit the both 20-goal and 40-point plateaus in his rookie season a year ago, also remained on the team, as did fellow youngsters Evgeni Dadonov, Michal Repik, Shawn Matthias and Jack Skille.

    The headline-makers, though, will undoubtedly be the massive class of new 2011 Panther signees that have taken Florida's unit of "top nine" forwards by storm. Other than fourth-liner Matt Bradley, age 33, every one of the other six offensive additions are right in their prime—between ages 25 and 29.

    25-year-old Kris Versteeg, visiting his fourth team in a little over two calendar years, is a three-time 20-goal scorer and should take the final top line spot alongside Weiss and Booth. Two other past 20-goal scorers, 27-year-olds Scottie Upshall and Tomas Fleischmann, will likely take the wings on either side of the aforementioned Santorelli to fill out the top six.

    Farther on down the roster, Tampa Bay Lightning playoff hero Sean Bergenheim will look to transform another Southeast Division team's third line into one of the league's best. Meanwhile, Tomas Kopecky, 29, who broke career records with 15 goals and 42 points a season ago, should be edged down to join him and leave the center spot open to either Marcel Goc, a 30-point scorer in '10-'11 with Nashville, or another prospect.

    Florida has given themselves an insanely strong and well-rounded group of forwards with this crop, and it wouldn't be any surprise to us to see them jump into the top 10 in the NHL in scoring next season. The sheer quantity of talented goal-scorers in this bunch should easily be able to make up the 50-ish goals needed to bridge that gap.

Amazing Flexibility Among Forwards

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    The previous slide went into this as well, but one of the better aspects of having such a balanced group of forwards is the incredible flexibility they provide.

    Six of the seven new additions to the forwards unit are wingers, and five of those are, more accurately, right wings. Despite the fact that this will cause one of them to have to flip to the left side during normal situations—though that's often no difficult task for wingers—it also opens up a lot of shifting that can be done to make up for injuries, tendencies of the opponent, or merely a need to shake things up a little bit.

    Florida will also be able to keep their younger players in the rotation, as well, with an expected two roster spots, at least, open for prospects to compete for during training camp.

    Evgeni Dadonov is an almost-sure bet to make the team, and, even though he may spend more time on the fourth line than anything else, the equality factor of this team could allow for him to move up to the middle lines from time to time, additionally. Michal Repik, Jack Skille and current RFA Shawn Matthias will also see an increase in playing time and even 2010 first-round draft pick Quinton Howden, now under an entry-level contract, could make his NHL debut.

Genuine Defensive Top Pairing

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    Back on defense, the Panthers made only two additions this offseason—but they were almost as crucial to the success of this unit as could be imagined.

    Despite the strong netminding of Tomas Vokoun supporting them, the Cats 'D' used to be horribly inexperienced and not the best bunch, either. The unit ranked 22nd in shots allowed, 20th in blocked shots and 20th in takeaways last season. With Ed Jovanovski's return from Phoenix (he was a Panther from '95 to '99, too) and Brian Campbell acquisition from Chicago, however, the back end suddenly finds itself with a very hardened top pairing, at worst.

    Jovanovski, 35, and Campbell, 32, can both contribute reasonably well from the blue line but are truly best defined as defensive defensemen. Jovanovski missed 32 games this season, dropping his goal total down to five, but he had managed 42 tallies, including 25 with the man advantage, in the four seasons prior (all with the Coyotes). Campbell is more of a playmaker, having averaged about 38 assists and 45 points each season since the lockout.

    Nevertheless, based on the most recent seasons ('08-'09 and '09-'10) where he's been healthy, Jovanovski has finished 6th and 3rd, respectively, on the team in hits and 3rd on Phoenix both years in blocked shots. Furthermore, Campbell has had impressive showings with the Blackhawks in recent years in terms of blocked shots, ranking third on the team in '09-'10 and fifth this past season.

    Those two veterans join a defense still reeling from the losses of past leaders Dennis Wideman, Bryan McCabe and Bryan Allen. 20-year-old Dmitri Kulikov remains a standout, though, as he enters the last year of his entry-level contract, while Keaton Ellerby, 22, seems to be prepared for his first full NHL season. Jason Garrison, 26, and Mike Weaver, 33, make up the bottom pairing, while well-documented prospects Erik Gudbranson and Evan Oberg should see some playing time, additionally.

    Florida's defense would be bordering on a complete mess if not for Jovanovski and Campbell, but their additions to the squad, even with the quite bulky salary they bring, turn this unit into a respectable one that can make up for the replacement of Tomas Vokoun with a rotation of aging Jose Theodore and young Jacob Markstrom in goal.

New Infusion of Winning Experience

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    It's tough to deny that any of the new players Dave Tallon has brought in to the Sunshine State are lacking the necessary talent for their role, but an even bigger aspect of the class of signings is the tremendous success they've each experienced with their prior clubs.

    Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and Brian Campbell were all members of the Hawks' 2010 Stanley Cup title, something that will hopefully rub off well on all of their new teammates. Tomas Fleischmann, Matt Bradley, and 34-year-old goalie Jose Theodore were all solid contributors on the Washington Capitals team that won the 2010 President's Trophy for best regular season record, too.

    Elsewhere, Ed Jovanovski arrives in Florida coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, Marcel Goc joins the team looking to continue a streak of never missing the playoffs once over his seven-year career, and Sean Bergenheim travels cross-state after helping carry Tampa Bay make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals this past May.

    All in all, the Panthers' 10 new players together combine for 47 playoff appearances of experience. The 12 remaining roster-spot players—the ones who were on the team at least at the conclusion of last season—have just five all together.

    That's a whole lot more winning experience that's just been tacked on to the team total.

Reputable Coaching Staff and GM, at Last

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    In addition to hiring Dave Tallon to replace Randy Sexton as GM, owner Cliff Viner also fired old head coach Peter DeBoer. To fill the hole, Kevin Dineen was brought in as the new boss.

    Dineen will make his NHL coaching debut this autumn for the Cats but is coming off six consecutive seasons of coaching the AHL Portland Pirates. Being the head coach for a minor league team, with all of its roster fluctuation due to call-ups, send-downs and waivers, can be tough, but Dineen obviously managed it quite well, compiling a 266-155-70 (a 63.2 winning percentage, not including overtime/shootout losses) with the Pirates.

    Assistant coach Gord Murphy is entering only his second year with the team, as well. Together with Tallon and Dineen, they make a very new trio, but, in Florida, new sounds pretty good right now. The three staff members are also probably the most reputable group the Panthers have had manning each of those positions in quite a long time.

    With such a talented and re-made squad to work with, as well, their jobs might be getting a little easier next season. The Panthers have come a long way since having a D-grade roster, and we figure it won't take much more time before the rest of the league learns that these Cats really are deserving of a playoff spot.

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    Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 34 months so far with the site, he has written over 300 articles and received more than 340,000 total reads.

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