Panthers: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
It's been easy to dismiss the Florida Panthers because they've made it easy to ignore them through years of poor play, poor coaching, poor managing and poor ownership. "Poor" pretty much sums up the team's history in South Florida. But we are here to tell you that is all about to change.
Yes, there were a lot of jokes about GM Dale Tallon's July 1 spending spree and how any player within 100 miles of Tallon got a fat multiyear contract. Know what? For all his wheeling and dealing (there will be as many as a dozen new faces in the Panthers' lineup come early October), Tallon has taken the first steps toward rebuilding this team's self-respect.
With all those new faces and a rookie coach in Kevin Dineen, the road won't be smooth, but it's not supposed to be easy. Still, with its influx of talent and veteran experience, this team is poised to be one of the surprise squads this season. Playoffs? You bet.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. Hello, my name is
Welcome Kris Versteeg, former rookie of the year nominee, Ed Jovanovski, former Florida Panthers franchise defenseman, Sean Bergenheim, playoff scoring hero in Tampa Bay this past spring, Brian Campbell, former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore, two-way center Marcel Goc, Tomas Kopecky, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Matt Bradley, former first-round draft pick Jack Skille and, well, we probably forgot someone. But you get the point. If the culture still stinks around the Panthers, it won't be because Tallon was taking the offseason off to work on his golf game.
2. That chemistry thing
OK, the knock on the Panthers is they just threw a bunch of money around to get to the salary-cap floor, and it will amount to what it usually amounts to in South Florida. So, perhaps the biggest challenge is to find out exactly what the Panthers have. Traditionally, the team has taken off to hither and yon during training camp because it has never paid economically to stay around during camp. But the Panthers have suffered as a result, so they stayed close to home this camp in the hopes of building some team chemistry and giving Dineen a shot at figuring out what exactly he has in his dressing room.
3. Woes at home
The Florida Panthers have managed the almost impossible feat of missing the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. Throw in the lockout year, and it's been 11 years since a playoff game was held at whatever they're calling the team's barn in Sunrise, Fla. (It is now Bank Atlantic Center, for those keeping score at home.) You have to go back to the team's one shining moment in 1996 to come across the last time a Panthers team won a playoff game, let alone a series.
Hockey has been bad in South Florida for a long time. The bottom line: The team plays poorly at home and fans stay away, or fans stay away and the team plays poorly. It's a recipe for disaster that will only change with a better product on the ice. Last season, the Panthers were 16-17-8 at home; only Edmonton won fewer games in its own building. In 2009-10, Florida was 16-16-9, dead last in the league. If this current edition of the Panthers accomplishes anything this season, it will be to restore some sense of buzz to the area's sports scene. It's no small task.
"I don't know what to expect, but I do know we're going to be a lot more fun to watch," Tallon said.
4. Woes on the power play
Speaking of struggles, there was also the Panthers' power play, or what posed as one last season. The Panthers capitalized on 13.1 percent of their man-advantage opportunities. Was there a team with a worse efficiency? No. But this season's team should be much more dangerous on the power play, starting with the puck-moving skills of Campbell on the back end and including Fleischmann, Versteeg and Upshall joining David Booth and Stephen Weiss up front. Dineen should be able to mix and match and still have lots to choose from for two productive power-play units.
So, just for fun, if the Panthers scored 20 more power-play goals, it would put them among the top 10 power-play units in the league. Of the top 10 units last season, seven teams made the playoffs. We're sure the Panthers will take those odds.
5. The holdovers
There are just a couple of holdovers from Florida's earlier generation of players who were supposed to lead the Panthers out of the darkness. Weiss acknowledged that not making the playoffs has been wearing on him since the Panthers made him the fourth overall pick in 2001. Booth hasn't been around as long but has not really regained his touch after suffering a concussion two seasons ago, courtesy of a Mike Richards blindside hit. Both should benefit from the infusion of talent, especially Weiss, who has been asked to do too much given the paucity of talent in recent years.
6. Jose Theodore
If there is a singular reason that many observers are dismissive of the Panthers other than muscle memory, it's because they believe that there has been a definite downgrade in goal. You can't argue that Tomas Vokoun put up impressive numbers in a less than ideal situation the past couple of years in Florida. But give some credit to former coach Peter DeBoer, who had the Panthers playing a pretty decent defensive system. (They ranked 14th in the league in goals allowed per game.)
During his last season in Washington in 2009-10, Theodore was a rock (30-7-7) for the Caps. In his final 24 starts that regular season, Theodore did not lose in regulation. Last season, he was 15-11-3 for a pretty ordinary Minnesota Wild team. Yes, Boudreau and the Caps seemed not to have much confidence in the former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner in the postseason, but the Panthers would gladly face that dilemma in the spring.
7. Brian Campbell
It has become a trend in the NHL to criticize players based on their contract as opposed to simply basing assessment on their level of play. It's a salary-cap thing. But perhaps no one has been more scrutinized in recent years than Campbell, who went from top free-agent bauble to a salary-cap joke after Tallon signed him to an eight-year deal worth a shade more than $57 million when the GM was in Chicago.
Maybe that weighed on Campbell, maybe it didn't. Regardless, he helped the Blackhawks win a Cup in 2010 and agreed to waive his no-trade clause to come to Florida when Tallon called. That speaks volumes about Campbell's character and loyalty. We expect a monster season from a player who was in the shadow of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in Chicago.
8. The kids
No one is suggesting that kids like Erik Gudbranson, Quinton Howden (who has been hurt and almost certainly will return to junior) and Jonathan Huberdeau will become Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but there are some parallels. When Tallon was GM in Chicago, he used high picks to grab two cornerstone players. Exactly how good the talent is in Florida remains to be seen, but we're about to find out pretty quickly, as Gudbranson and Huberdeau likely will break camp with the Panthers.
Gudbranson, like Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay, may take a while to assert himself at the NHL level, but all eyes are on Huberdeau, the superskilled winger selected with the third overall pick in June. He told ESPN.com that he's not worried about things like contracts. (If he stays with the team beyond the nine-game limit that would trigger the first year of his entry-level deal.)
9. A healthy Fleischmann?
Of Florida's many intriguing moves, the one that ultimately could provide the greatest upside is Fleischmann. Is there risk? Of course. Fleischmann was sidelined for the second half of last season with a blood-clot issue. Earlier in his career, Fleischmann had suffered a clotting issue in his leg. But Tallon and Fleischmann insist that everything is now controlled by medication.
It was difficult to assess just what kind of player he was on such a deep Washington team. Skilled? Undoubtedly. And when Fleischmann was traded to Colorado a quarter of the way through last season and given top-six minutes and lots of power-play time, he responded. Before the clotting issues ended his season, Fleischmann had 21 points in 22 games. Fleischmann told ESPN.com that he is looking forward to picking up where he left off in Denver.
10. Starting on the right foot
The Panthers have never been a "flying out of the gate" kind of team; more like slumping, stumbling and bumbling. Those chaotic October games have been preceded by onerous training camp travel. But this year, the Panthers will be homebodies before the regular season starts. Their schedule included almost a week of straight practice time in Sunrise, where the ice went in early at the team's practice facility.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering first season as NHL head coach
Stanley Cup titles: N/A
• Kevin Dineen's name has been in the air for four or five years since the longtime NHLer first went to Portland of the American Hockey League. It took a bit longer than many had expected, but Dineen landed in a place where he is expected to be a bit of everything -- mentor to teenage prospects and coach who can identify with veterans who have been around the block.
Dineen said he thinks his experience as an offensive forward (he twice scored 40 or more goals in a campaign in 1,188 regular-season games) and a player who had to accept different roles later in his career should put him in good stead in his first NHL gig.-- Scott Burnside
Best bet: Stephen Weiss
Weiss had a down season in 2010-11, but, to be fair, the Panthers were without his usual partner in crime, Nathan Horton. Given the several able and young wingers that Weiss will have to choose from, odds are he will find linemates who will help boost his positive attributes and return him to the 60-point threshold. The plus-minus might not be too pretty, though. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Brian Campbell
An impressive power-play presence since entering the league, Campbell will be looked on to anchor the top special-teams unit alongside young Dmitry Kulikov and produce more shots and minutes. If all goes smoothly, a return to 50-point-plus form is not too optimistic a hope. The one knock on Campbell is he hasn't managed to play over 68 games in the past two seasons. A healthy campaign will be a fruitful one for Campbell's owners. -- Victoria Matiash
Sleeper pick: Tomas Fleischmann
Fresh off medical treatments to solve a blood-clotting problem and having inked a four-year contract with the Florida Panthers, Fleischmann is looking to make good on the potential he flashed so briefly with the Avs. Given his speed and hockey sense, he will be a top candidate to be on the Panthers' first line with Weiss. If all breaks well for Fleischmann, he does have the talent and opportunity to put up around 70 points. -- S.A.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Panthers:
• Apr. 27: Re-signed D Keaton Ellerby.
• May 31: Re-signed RW Jack Skille.
• June 1: Named Kevin Dineen head coach.
• June 20: Re-signed LW Tim Kennedy.
• June 24: Selected C Jonathan Huberdeau with third overall pick in draft.
• June 25: Acquired D Brian Campbell from Chicago for LW Rostislav Olesz.
• June 27: Acquired rights to C Tomas Kopecky from Chicago for a conditional 2012 seventh-round pick.
• June 29: Signed C Tomas Kopecky.
• July 1: Signed LW Scottie Upshall, G Jose Theodore, D Ed Jovanovski, C Marcel Goc, RW Tomas Fleischmann, D Nolan Yonkman and LW Sean Bergenheim.
• July 1: Acquired RW Kris Versteeg from Philadelphia for conditional second-round pick and San Jose's 2012 third-round pick.
• July 2: Signed RW Matt Bradley.
• July 6: Re-signed C Mike Santorelli.
• July 7: Named Craig Ramsay assistant coach.
• July 9: Acquired C Angelo Esposito from Winnipeg for LW Kenndal McArdle.
• July 9: Re-signed C Ryan Carter.
• July 15: Signed 2010 first-round pick D Erik Gudbranson.
• Sept. 9: Re-signed C Shawn Matthias.
• G Tomas Vokoun (unrestricted free agent, signed by Washington)
• C Marty Reasoner (unrestricted free agent, signed by NY Islanders)
• LW Rostislav Olesz (traded to Chicago)
• RW Niclas Bergfors (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)
• LW Darcy Hordichuk (unrestricted free agent, signed by Edmonton)
• D Alexander Sulzer (unrestricted free agent, signed by Vancouver)
• RW Byron Bitz (unrestricted free agent, signed by Vancouver)
• LW Kenndal McArdle (traded to Winnipeg)
• RW Steve Bernier (unrestricted free agent, invited to New Jersey camp for tryout)
• LW Sergei Samsonov (unrestricted free agent)