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Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Updated: October 3, 12:16 PM ET
Florida Panthers season preview

ESPN.com

THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com

No surprise that GM Mike Keenan went out and got a couple of tough veterans with a bunch of Stanley Cup rings to show the young turks in Florida what winning is all about. Can Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Martin Gelinas (among others) transform unrefined talent such as Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester into a playoff team? It's a tall order even for men of character.

Offense: The fact that captain Olli Jokinen signed a one-year deal that could see him become an unrestricted free agent next summer isn't likely to be a distraction if he's as serious about staying in Florida as he says he is. Jokinen already has agreed to move from center to wing, where he'll start the season on the team's top line with Nieuwendyk and Gelinas. Keenan is betting Nieuwendyk, Roberts, Gelinas and Jozef Stumpel cash in. The problem is most of them are on the downside of their careers, and the question is whether they see Florida as a place to win games or a place to get a good base for that retirement tan.

There were mixed reports on forward Weiss and defenseman Bouwmeester during their stint in the AHL. Motivation and focus were issues for both players, according to some scouts. Still, both played well when lent to the Chicago Wolves during their run to the Calder Cup final.

Defense: Keenan has done a nice job of bringing in the veteran help he wanted when he was coaching here 2001-03. Sean Hill, Alexander Karpovtsev, Eric Cairns and Joel Kwiatkowski will give the team much-needed stability, although they'll struggle to provide much offensive assistance.

Goaltending: Much will be made of Keenan's handling of top netminder Roberto Luongo, taking him to arbitration in order to ensure that Luongo was in camp from the start. That Luongo turned down a lucrative long-term deal worth $25 million over five years, says more about Luongo's stubbornness than Keenan, and one assumes it could have a bearing on Luongo's play this season.


WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
10th YES … Luongo is an elite netminder used to facing a ton of shots and he'll benefit from a much more stable defensive corps in front of him.
BUT … Lack of scoring from the back end will be a problem and the durability of Nieuwendyk and Roberts will be an issue.

PLAYER TO WATCH
Nathan Horton. Teams that squander top picks usually pay for their mistakes with years of retarded growth. Twice in less than a year, Horton's gimpy left shoulder required surgery. He must prove to the Panthers that they didn't make a mistake with the third overall pick in 2003. The winger has size (6-foot-2, 201 pounds), soft hands and great puck sense. Now, he has to deliver.

HEY, COACH!
The theory in bringing in Jacques Martin, a longtime associate and friend of Keenan's, is that he has the right temperament for a team with a solid corps of young talent similar to that Martin inherited when he got to Ottawa midway through the 1995-96 season. The problem is he doesn't have four or five years to build a contender in Florida. The team has to develop in a hurry, which explains the addition of veterans.



FACEOFFS
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> HEY JOE!
We love Joe Nieuwendyk. During the veteran center's last two stops, with Toronto and New Jersey, it was Nieuwendyk who insisted players not be given game reports and media clips, the message being that stats don't matter and what the media say doesn't matter. Nieuwendyk is the consummate team player.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> NO 'D' IN DEFENSE?
With money to spend, it was surprising the Panthers couldn't find themselves a puck-moving defenseman in the free-agent market. In a wide-open NHL, having defensemen who can move the puck will be a must, and Florida lacks that.

Florida Panthers
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Comings & Goings
Key Acquisitions:
G Jamie McLennan; D Eric Cairns; D Alexander Karpovtsev; D Sean Hill; D Joel Kwiatkowski; C Joe Nieuwendyk; LW Gary Roberts; LW Martin Gelinas; C Chris Gratton; C Jozef Stumpel; D Dan Focht.

Key Departures:
C Matt Cullen; D Mathieu Biron; C Byron Ritchie; D Andreas Lilja; LW Darcy Hordichuk; D Lyle Odelein; D Burke Henry; LW Eric Beaudoin; RW Christian Berglund; RW Mikael Samuelsson; RW Donald Audette; LW Eric Messier; G Steve Shields; D Pavel Trnka.
When we last saw them …
Olli Jokinen, C
Jokinen led the team with 26 goals and 32 assists in the 2003-04 season.
Roberto Luongo, G
Luongo took on most of the load in 2003-04, finishing with a 25-33-14 record and seven shutouts.
Quotables
We're all still getting our feet wet with this team. But our goals are high, no doubt about it.
Joe Nieuwendyk on his move to Florida