Southeast Division Preview: Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers Preview

Acquisitions/re-signings
RW Chris Higgins, signed for 2 years
C Marty Reasoner, acquired in trade with Blackhawks
RW Steve Bernier, acquired in trade with Canucks
LW Michael Grabner, acquired in trade with Canucks
D Dennis Wideman, acquired in trade with Bruins
LW Andrew Peters, signed for 1 year
D Nathan Paetsch, signed for 1 year

Departures
LW Steve MacIntyre, signed with Oilers
C Jeff Taffe, traded to Blackhawks
D Keith Ballard, traded to Canucks
RW Victor Oreskovich, traded to Canucks
LW Nathan Horton, traded to Bruins
C Gregory Campbell, traded to Bruins

It’s been nine years since the Florida Panthers last made the playoffs and it’s clear that things needed to be changed after last year. Thus, they hired a new GM in Dale Tallon who is looking to get this team back to the playoffs. He is doing it all through drafting so it could be awhile before this team is competitive again, but there is definitely a lot of promise within the organization. They hit the jackpot in the 2010 draft by having a top 3 pick and getting Vancouver’s first round in exchange for Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich. They also got one of Vancouver’s best prospects, Michael Grabner in that trade. However, this year it looks like they’ll end up being a lottery team unless some of their younger players overachieve.

They are going to have a lot of problems scoring with Nathan Horton being traded and David Booth’s health problems. Stephen Weiss had a great season last year, managing to rack up 60 points despite having two of his linemates out for a majority of the year. You could only miagine how many more he could have if Booth and Horton were healthy. Booth should be good fine for opening night and Florida better hope he can build on his 2008 form and stay healthy. Michael Frolik put together a solid season, too by scoring 21 goals. If he can get better then they’ve already found their Horton replacement. Aside from that, they don’t have much to offer. Cory Stillman can light the lamp every now and then but he’s getting old and is a liability in the defensive zone. Radek Dvorak is a better penalty killer than a goal scorer but he still capable of putting up around 30 points. Steve Reinprecht is a third line center at best and Florida has them on their second line. They did address this issue by signing Chris Higgins in the off-season but he’s coming off two nightmare seasons and is only getting worse. It’s possible that Grabner could produce more with a change of scenery but that’s a big question mark.

As I mentioned earlier, there will be a lot of younger players that will have to contribute if this team wants to surprise anyone. Grabner is still young and might get some more ice time on a team that’s full of question marks after their first line. Shawn Matthias and Michal Repik also have a lot of potential and are still in their early 20’s. The more time they have to play on the big club the better. It’s unlikely that first round pick Erik Gudbranson will get called up but he definitely has a lot of promise and is the organization’s best prospect. Rostislav Olesz is also still pretty young and has shown some flashes of promise for this team but he is likely a bottom-6 player for the rest of his career.

Even with Keith Ballard gone, defense is one of the Panthers stronger areas. Bryan McCabe and Bryan Allen make a solid 1-2 pairing and they added Dennis Wideman through a trade with the Bruins. Wideman had a woeful season last year but I believe that he can be a good defenseman. Like Grabner, maybe a change of scenery can help him rebound. Also there is Dimitry Kulikov who is likely to be the team’s PP specialist once McCabe retires. Kulikov put together a good rookie season even if it went under the radar for lots of people. There’s definitely a lot of depth here. Jason Garrison, Mike Weaver, Keaton Ellerby and Nathan Paetsch should be competing for the last threee spots. They’re all solid but unspectacular. The problem with this defense is that while they aren’t bad, there’s no big, shutdown defensemen except for maybe Allen. That’s the one point where Ballard’s presence will be missed.

The Panthers best player is the man between the pipes, Tomas Vokoun. He is the one player that keeps them in every game no matter how bad they are playing. This is also a contract year for him and there’s always the possibility of him being traded to a contending team if the Panthers are willing. As of now, he’s the best goalie in the division. Waiting in the wings is Jacob Markstrom who signed a contract this off-season. He probably wont see time with the Panthers until next year unless Vokoun or Clemmensen get hurt. Markstrom will be the goalie of the future and Florida fans are very excited about him.

The special teams of Florida needs to improve a lot, too. Both the penalty kill and powerplay were ranked towards the bottom last season. Not much was done to improve this but Kulikov will probably see time on the first PP unit knowing what he can do. If Matthias keeps improving then he could contribute to the PP as well.
It will be a surprise if this team is in contention this year but they could be a few years from now. Tallon knows how to build a good team through the draft and Florida had a great one this offseason. It’s going to take a lot of players playing over their heads for the Panthers to get into the playoffs this year, though. That or a lot of East teams tanking.

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