Panthers: Five Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
We think the Southeast Division may be one of the most compelling races in hockey, with Florida, Washington, Tampa and Carolina all capable of winning the division and the Winnipeg Jets looking to shoulder their way into that group. But let's start with the defending Southeast champs from Florida, who got their first-ever division title and first playoff berth since 2000 last season. Not that it's all about us (really, it's not) but we liked what GM Dale Tallon was doing before last offseason, stockpiling an interesting collection of players that included Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski, Jose Theodore and Brian Campbell. Under rookie head coach Kevin Dineen, the Panthers developed some instant karma and got off to a strong start before holding off a furious charge by Washington to win the division title. In the postseason, they fell to eventual Eastern Conference champs New Jersey. Now Tallon will be returning basically the same lineup and hoping it leads to the postseason once again.
1. No Complacency
People forget how achingly close the Panthers actually came to winning their first playoff round since going to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. After taking a 3-2 series lead over the Devils, the Panthers lost Games 6 and 7 in overtime. Although disappointing, the experience should stand as a learning experience for a Panthers team that came together in admirable fashion under Dineen's tutelage. The Panthers, of course, will have to guard against letting last year's successes make them complacent, but there's enough veteran leadership in that room to ensure that doesn't happen.
2. Young Talent
In some ways, Tallon's spending spree in the summer of 2011 was seen as an exercise in bridge building to buy time until the team's impressive cadre of young talent matures into NHL personnel. Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, played 72 games for the Panthers last season, and you can expect Jonathan Huberdeau, the 2011 third overall pick, to be in the lineup when the puck drops on this 48-game season. Knocking at the door in short order will be Quinton Howden, Rocco Grimaldi, Nick Bjugstad, and Alex Petrovic. The good thing for Tallon is that, if his current roster can continue to stay playoff-worthy, it will lessen the pressure on him to promote those young assets before they are good and seasoned.
3. Shot Of Offense
Tallon is determined to give his roster a shot in the arm in the hopes of avoiding the offensive drought that plagued his team when they were nicked up toward the end of the season. Huberdeau, a center, will join the big club, and he's got the tools to be special. Peter Mueller hopes to put his concussion issues behind him and, if he does, is a mid-20s guy in terms of goal production. The Panthers have also extended invitations to veteran Alex Kovalev and Marek Svatos. Andrei Kostitsyn could also find his way to the Panthers as well, although his stay in Nashville ended as a train wreck during the playoffs. By hook or by crook though, Tallon would like to improve an offense that finished 27th overall. "I think we're going to need to score more to move up and have a better year," Tallon told ESPN.com.
4. Luongo Option?
Hard to pin the blame for the Panthers' playoff loss on either Theodore or Scott Clemmensen, who turned in save percentages of .919 and .920 respectively despite each losing two games in the series. That said, goaltending looms large for the Panthers with Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings and the specter of Roberto Luongo hanging over the proceedings. The former Panther netminder lives in Florida in the offseason and has made no bones about the fact he would look favorably on a return to the Panthers. The former Vezina Trophy finalist would provide an upgrade in goal, but it's hard to imagine Luongo fitting in financially because of Vancouver's asking price. The interesting thing will be whether the Panthers decide to go to Markstrom early, given that he's been playing in the AHL and neither Clemmensen nor Theodore played during the lockout.
5. Cultural Revolution
If there is one player who symbolized the change of attitude in Florida last season, it was defenseman Brian Campbell, who won the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play but led with a fierceness that defied the award. Campbell was tied for second among all defensemen with 53 points. He was tied with former teammate Duncan Keith in average ice time per game and played every game for the Panthers. More importantly, when asked to waive his no-trade clause and come to Florida, he did so willingly. He and veterans like Jovanovski and Bergenheim may be creating the kind of culture that makes this a hockey destination in short order.
Prediction: No one liked the Panthers to win the Southeast last year and few will pick them to repeat. But why mess with a good thing? Cats return to the top in a tight, tight race.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering second season as NHL head coach
Stanley Cup titles: 0
Great Expectations: Jonathan Huberdeau
Huberdeau is going to have to play some pretty amazing hockey to satisfy all of the Florida Panthers fans salivating for his debut. There is no question that he has offense to spare. After tallying 105 points in 67 games with the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs during his draft year, Huberdeau put up an even more impressive 72 points in just 32 games while missing time with a broken foot last season. Huberdeau's team has won the QMJHL equivalent of the President's Trophy in each of his three seasons, won the QMJHL championship the past two seasons and took home the 2011 Memorial Cup. There is little doubt he will be the team's second-line centerman to begin the campaign, but Stephen Weiss better watch his back closely; nothing short of a start like Weiss had last season will save him from being passed on the depth chart.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Panthers:
• July 1: Signed D Filip Kuba and RW George Parros.
• July 1: Re-signed G Scott Clemmensen.
• July 5: Signed LW Jean-Francois Jacques.
• July 6: Re-signed D Keaton Ellerby.
• July 12: Signed C Peter Mueller.
• July 20: Acquired C Casey Wellman from NY Rangers.
• July 23: Re-signed RW Kris Versteeg.
• D Jason Garrison (unrestricted free agent, signed by Vancouver)
• RW Krys Barch (unrestricted free agent, signed by New Jersey)
• RW Mikael Samuelsson (unrestricted free agent, signed by Detroit)
• C Bracken Kearns (unrestricted free agent, signed by San Jose)
• LW Wojtek Wolski (unrestricted free agent, signed by Washington)
• RW Michal Repik (restricted free agent, skating for KHL club HC Lev Praha)
• C Mark Cullen (unrestricted free agent)
• C John Madden (unrestricted free agent)
• LW Marco Sturm (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Bill Thomas (unrestricted free agent)