2008-09 Team Preview: Florida Panthers
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideWe were about to say that this may be the year the Panthers finally realize their potential and jump back into the playoffs. Then, we realized exactly the same thing was written last year, and the year before.
There is always a little Groundhog Day feeling around the Panthers, though, and this offseason was no different: a new coach, this time hot rookie coaching property Pete DeBoer, a shuffling of the deck chairs with captain Olli Jokinen off to Phoenix for Keith Ballard, and one-time Canadian Olympian Bryan McCabe in for Mike Van Ryn.
Cory Stillman, who thrived in two previous Southeast stops in Tampa and Carolina, is on board to try to provide veteran scoring leadership. Still, this is a team that lacks anything approaching an identity, let alone a following. But then again, you've heard that story before.
The Panthers were a tepid 20th overall last season as they missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season. With Jokinen and his team-leading 71 points gone, GM Jacques Martin is hoping Stillman, who has point-a-game potential and a strong power-play presence, will fill some of that void. But the real question for the Panthers is whether talented young forwards Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and David Booth can take big steps forward now that Jokinen is gone. The trio combined for 144 points last season and it will have to top the 200-point mark if the Panthers are going to stay in the hunt.
The wild card in the group might be left winger Rostislav Olesz, who signed a six-year deal worth $18.75 million. If he can chip in 75 points or so playing on the second line, likely with Stillman, that will push the Panthers closer to the postseason. Strangely, the Panthers boasted the sixth-ranked power play last season and expect McCabe, who got the yips playing under the microscope in Toronto, to settle down and unleash his booming slap shot more frequently in South Florida. Franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is slowly developing his offensive game, as well, and had a career-best 15 goals last season. That number should go up if he's around all season.
The Panthers were a respectable 14th overall in goals allowed per game last season. No surprise given former coach Martin's penchant for defense-first hockey. With Bouwmeester maturing and the addition of solid, gritty blueliner Keith Ballard along with nice complementary pieces in Nick Boynton and McCabe, the Panthers should see that number improve.
If Bouwmeester continues to play with Bryan Allen, it would allow DeBoer to mix and match McCabe, Ballard, Boynton, Karlis Skrastins, Cory Murphy and 6-foot-4 prospect Noah Welch, who has recovered from shoulder injury and could make a push for playing time with the big club. If the Panthers can crack the top 10 defensively, they could be a surprise team in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
One of the reasons last season's finish -- 11th in the East -- was so disappointing is the Panthers looked to have regained a franchise netminder in former Nashville backstopper Tomas Vokoun. He went through a stretch from late December to late January during which he won just twice in 13 games. That contributed to the Panthers falling out of the playoff hunt, although they did make a late run, something of an annual occurrence.
Vokoun remains a topflight goaltender, though, and, with an improved defense in front of him, should improve on numbers (2.68 GAA and .919 save percentage) that were already respectable. Craig Anderson is a more-than-capable backup and turned in an 8-6-1 record with 2.25 GAA and .935 save percentage.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterIt's tough to determine whether the biggest improvement in South Florida is: a) the acquisition of Bryan McCabe, Cory Stillman, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton; b) addition by subtraction in moving former captain Olli Jokinen; c) ownership's confidence in GM Jacques Martin to allow him to move Jokinen and hire his own coach; or d) new coach Pete DeBoer. The correct answer, of course, is e) all of the above.
While ownership removed Martin as coach, it seemed to show confidence in him as a manager by allowing him to do what he believed necessary to remake his team. The Panthers desperately need stability at both the management and coaching levels. The revolving door of GMs and coaches has been counter-productive, and it appears Martin and DeBoer may get a chance to be there for the long haul.
Cory Stillman is going to help this hockey team, both on the ice and in the locker room. A two-time Stanley Cup champ who can still put the puck in the net, he will also help mentor the young stars-in-the-making. Goalie Tomas Vokoun keeps them in every game. This could be the year the Cats finally get to the dance.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 38-35-9
• Division: Third in the Southeast
• Conference: 11th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• From Nov. 30 to Dec. 18, the Panthers will play seven of nine games on the road, including a swing through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver Dec. 11-14. Merry Christmas!
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Not only do the Panthers boast a bevy of top prospects, they also boast the hottest young coaching property in the NHL. A number of teams, including Los Angeles and Ottawa, were in hot pursuit of the junior coaching sensation, but DeBoer ended up in Florida and it should be a good fit given the Panthers' youth. Like any coach who's never been at the NHL level, DeBoer will have to earn the respect of his players. Given the coaching carousel that has dominated the team's history, commanding respect won't be an easy task. But if there is a young coach who looks capable of turning this moribund franchise around, we think it's DeBoer.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Stephen Weiss
The decision to move Nathan Horton from wing to center suggests the impatience the Panthers are feeling toward Weiss, who has struggled to find his groove after the Panthers selected him with the fourth overall pick in 2001. After marking 20 goals two seasons ago, Weiss dropped back to 13 last season although he was plus-13, which suggests he is learning to play at both ends of the ice.
F -- Nathan Horton
The third overall pick in the 2003 draft, Horton is the closest of the young Panthers forwards to achieving his potential. He has 58 goals over the past two seasons and will be asked to do even more this season. The fact DeBoer wants to try him at center reinforces that Horton is the team's most important forward.
F -- David Booth
The Detroit native came out of nowhere to notch 22 goals in his first full NHL season in 2007-08. His strong play earned him a spot on the U.S. team at the World Championships. If he can reproduce that kind of production, it will give DeBoer a nice complement of forwards to deploy.
D -- Jay Bouwmeester
The young defenseman is the face of the franchise -- but for how long? The third overall pick in 2002 is starting to resemble a young Chris Pronger. He hasn't developed Pronger's nasty streak, but he is using his 6-foot-4 frame more liberally and his offensive game is maturing. Bouwmeester eschewed a long-term deal and instead signed a one-year contract that will see him become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Rumor has it he is tired of the perpetual losing in a nonhockey market and is looking to move on.
D -- Bryan Allen
Allen is the final piece of the misguided deal that sent franchise netminder Roberto Luongo to Vancouver at the 2006 draft. The 6-foot-4 defenseman has matured into a team leader and wore an "A" for alternate captain last season.
Answer: If, as most believe, Bouwmeester wants out, Martin has already started the process of filling the gap by first acquiring Ballard, and then adding McCabe in anticipation of dealing the stud defenseman. If the Panthers get off to a good start, Martin may be tempted to hang on to Bouwmeester and hope he can convince the defenseman to stay. If they struggle early, look for Martin to try to make a move to bring in a collection of top prospects, position players and draft picks long before the February trade deadline. If the Panthers are in the playoff hunt at that point, Martin risks keeping Bouwmeester and seeing him walk away without returning any assets. Watch for Bouwmeester to finish the season in another jersey.
Outlook: The Panthers have a mix of veterans and rookies that could prove to be disastrous if they don't bond properly, but could also have them on the brink of the playoffs if they do. Without Jokinen, it's time for Nathan Horton to put up or shut up. His 62 points in each of the last two seasons are good, but as the offense's best weapon now, he has to get closer to 80. -- Sean Allen