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Facing a Decade Without the Playoffs, Florida’s Rebuild Goes On and On

Futility in Sunrise has persisted for far too long, with the Florida Panthers on the brink of a dubious record after nine consecutive non-playoff seasons. Incoming general manager Dale Tallon has moved quickly in putting his stamp on the team with several transactions since taking over, but nothing to this point appears bold enough to turn his club from last season’s Southeast Division cellar dwellers into a postseason participant.

Sadly, more patience may be in order for long-suffering Panthers fans.

Even so, all is not lost for the NHL’s southernmost franchise, with several key pieces already in place for the future (and others right around the corner) and it isn’t as though the current roster is without talent as is. Still, a couple of major stumbling points remain for the Panthers. The 24 games they will play versus fellow Southeast clubs, three of whom look to be vastly improved and the fourth being the stalwart Washington Capitals, certainly won’t help and the expiring contracts for defenseman Bryan McCabe and goaltender Tomas Vokoun will have to be dealt with (and quite possibly dealt altogether), without either situation becoming a distraction.

2009-10

Florida was part of the Eastern Conference’s glut of also-rans for much of the season, hanging around the general vicinity of the playoff cut line for some time. Losing the emerging talent of winger David Booth twice to concussions for 50+ games in total was a major blow for the Panthers, who struggled offensively without many options up front. Vokoun was his usual self in net, keeping his club in games they otherwise had no business being in on several occasions. A trio of young defensemen earned significant looks at the NHL level and Keaton Ellerby, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov all held their own to varying extents.

BIENVENIDOS A MIAMI (WELL, ALMOST)

A pair of Tallon deals landed a potential boost to a troubled power play in defenseman Dennis Wideman and two former first-round draft choices in forwards Steve Bernier, now with his fourth NHL franchise, and Michael Grabner, who posted 11 points in 20 games last season with Vancouver.

The Panthers are hoping for a rebirth for free agent signee forward Chris Higgins, whose three consecutive 20+ goal seasons seem like forever ago, after a difficult 2009-10 campaign split between the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames.

Hard-working center Marty Reasoner landed in Florida as well in a deal with Chicago, who had previously acquired the veteran of 600+ NHL games from the Atlanta Thrashers earlier this summer.

Defensive depth was addressed with the signing of Mike Weaver and Nathan Paetsch to free agent contracts and Florida added some toughness in former Devils and Sabres forward Andrew Peters.

HAPPY TRAILS

The biggest loss for the Panthers this off-season was dynamic forward Nathan Horton, who was shipped to Boston, along with Gregory Campbell, in the deal for Wideman. Horton’s absence strips the Panthers of the 20+ goals he’d posted five years running.

Defenseman Keith Ballard and winger Victor Oreskovich were the price for Bernier and Grabner and forward Kamil Kreps was the only other notable subtraction for Florida, having taken his game to Oulu Karpat in Finland.

YOUNG GUNS

Blueliner Erik Gudbranson, the third overall choice in last summer’s entry draft, will get every chance to crack the Florida lineup out of camp, giving the Panthers a formidable trio of young defenders along with Kulikov and Garrison if successful.

Grabner should play his way onto Florida’s top two lines and Michael Repik is in the mix at forward as well, while Shawn Matthias, having been slowly groomed into the NHL lineup over the last three seasons, could be primed for a breakout.

Goaltender Jacob Markstrom hits Panthers training camp as their undisputed netminder of the future and, if Vokoun is eventually moved out, that future could begin this year. After capturing Rookie of the Year honors in Sweden’s Elitserien, Markstrom is probably marked for full-time duty at AHL Rochester, unless (until?) Vokoun heads elsewhere.

STRENGTHS

In goal, where the Panthers boast Vokoun, capable backup Scott Clemmensen and, if necessary, the young Markstrom, there is little concern. Vokoun and Clemmensen each proved last season that they can keep their teammates in games, despite often facing an inordinate amount of shots against. There’s no reason to think they can’t do just that again.

WEAKNESSES

Up front, Florida needs Booth to find his former self and his likely linemates, Stephen Weiss and Michael Frolik to have career years to help offset the loss of Horton – and that’s just to get one line clicking. Elsewhere, they’re relying on a reclamation project in Higgins and a once-hot commodity in Bernier, whose progression seems to have leveled off, for secondary scoring.

On defense, the young talent is nice but inexperience almost always shows to a certain extent. And, though the addition of Wideman adds to the offensive talent of Florida’s rearguards, the group as a whole needs someone to emerge in a shutdown role.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

David Booth: Coming off a 30-goal campaign in 2008-09, big things were expected for Booth last year until those hopes were derailed as he was victimized by two separate headshots. His loss further crippled an already sluggish Panthers offense and his return to form is a key to their success. The ability is there and, if Booth can avoid further concussion woes, Florida will reap the benefits of his re-emergence.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION OUTLOOK

Plugging Booth back into their lineup should help the Panthers exponentially and the core of the future is on the way in Gudbranson and Markstrom. That’s the good news. Aside from that, the immediate future still appears bleak. Florida will be hard-pressed to even duplicate last season’s paltry offensive output (even if Booth does once again post 30 tallies of his own). The defense doesn’t look to be particularly adept at, well, defense and no goaltender can hold the opposition off for long on his own.

Down the road, Florida has enough to remain optimistic as Tallon molds what he inherited into his team. But, with the rest of the division clearly on the rise, these Panthers will lag behind once again, as the playoff drought reaches a full decade and they repeat their fifth-place finish of a year ago.

OTHER SE DIVISION PREVIEWS FROM JJ
Atlanta: Post-Kovalchuk Thrashers Deep on ‘D’, Look to New Faces and Young Guns for Offense
Carolina: Carolina’s Push Toward Youth is Both Promising and Perilous
Tampa Bay: Coming Sunday!
Washington: Coming Monday!

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
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The Bolts Beat podcast archive

Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: andrew+peters, bryan+allen, bryan+mccabe, chris+higgins, dale+tallon, david+booth, dennis+wideman, dmitry+kulikov, erik+gudbranson, gregory+campbell, jacob+markstrom, jason+garrison, kamil+kreps, keith+ballard, marty+reasoner, michael+grabner, michael+repik, nathan+horton, nathan+paetsch, scott+clemmensen, shawn+matthias, stephen+weiss, steve+bernier, tomas+vokoun

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About Kukla's Korner Hockey

Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

Email Paul anytime at pk@kuklaskorner.com