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Off-Season Game Plan: Florida Panthers

Scott Cullen
5/2/2011 6:09:37 PM
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The Florida Panthers didn't just miss the playoffs for a tenth straight season, they shredded their roster, preparing to build from the ground up.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Panthers team that may take some time to get to respectability.

After making a bunch of trades leading up to the deadline, the Panthers go into next season with loads of cap room and plenty of holes.

If money wasn't an issue at all, the Panthers would seem to be a player when free agency kicks off, but it's hard to imagine a team that hasn't made even a single playoff appearance since 2000 luring the best and brightest on the free agent market, no matter what Florida's income tax advantages may be.

That doesn't mean the Panthers won't be active -- they'll have to be just to ice a team next season -- but there will be hurdles facing General Manager Dale Tallon.

Tallon's first order of business will be to hire a new coach after firing Peter DeBoer. A popular name making the rounds is that of Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland, who Tallon is familiar with from his time in the Chicago organization.

Once the coaching decision has been made, the Panthers will have to fill out a roster that was decimated by season's end.

If the Panthers can bring in free agents to help in the rebuilding effort, great, but if not, the Panthers also have enough cap room that they could provide a landing spot for some teams with contracts that they aren't thrilled with.

For example, if Calgary wanted to deal Niklas Hagman or Minnesota offered Cam Barker, both making at least $3-million, the Panthers would have the room to take them, and could get a draft pick too, effectively as thanks for providing cap relief.

One thing is for certain: the Panthers don't need to lock up too much roster space in long-term contracts because the Panthers are bringing along a quality group of prospects that should start to make a difference on the NHL roster in the next couple of seasons.

"We're going to turn this around, we're going to have a great future, Tallon told USA Today. "We've got a good core of young people and we've got some flexibility moving forward in the free agent market. We've got a great draft coming up with 10 picks.

"How can you not be excited? We've got a great practice facility, a beautiful rink, great weather. This has got to be a destination. We want to make this a destination because we want to win a Stanley Cup."

Those objectives aren't unique to Florida and it's admirable that Tallon is aiming for a Stanley Cup but, with a roster in disarray, there's much work to be done before the Panthers are a playoff team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender.

GM/COACH
Dale Tallon/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Stephen Weiss 71.16 $3.1M
David Booth 68.26 $4.25M
Evgeny Dadonov 66.86 $875K
Rostislav Olesz 65.62 $3.125M
Steve Reinprecht 63.90 $2.05M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Mike Santorelli 67.64 RFA $600K
Sergei Samsonov 67.41 UFA $2.533M
Niclas Bergfors 67.29 RFA $900K
Marty Reasoner 66.85 UFA $1.15M
Jack Skille 64.73 RFA $600K
Shawn Matthias 64.38 RFA $822K
Steve Bernier 61.20 RFA $2.0M
Michal Repik 60.79 RFA $817K
Ryan Carter 59.75 UFA $625K
Darcy Hordichuk 57.35 UFA $775K
Byron Bitz N/A RFA $688K

The Panthers' leading scorer for each of the last three seasons, Stephen Weiss had just 49 points in 2010-2011, but he's a solid two-way centre.

Because he's a strong performer and reasonably priced, at a $3.1-million cap hit for the next two seasons, Weiss has been mentioned in more and more trade rumours but, even with Peter DeBoer (his junior coach) gone, Weiss shouldn't move unless he wants out.

After a concussion-plagued 2009-2010 season, it's a real positive that winger David Booth stayed healthy enough to play all 82 games last season, leading the Panthers with 23 goals, though his minus-31 rating was rather unsightly.

That's not all on Booth, as he's traditionally been a solid plus-minus player (plus-20 for his career entering last season) but, considering he's under contract for four more years at $17-million, the Panthers need Booth to be better.

Evgeny Dadonov started quickly when he was first called up, scoring eight points in eight games, but his performance dwindled, particularly after he suffered a broken finger.

He's a skilled 22-year-old winger, one that will be counted on to provide offence in the years ahead. At the very least, he'll get a good opportunity to prove whether or not he can do it.

For a forward that has yet to score more than 30 points in an NHL season, Rostislav Olesz has been rather well compensated but, given the gap between the Panthers and the salary floor, he's probably worth keeping around as he comes off a knee injury.

He's a serviceable player, though he's been entirely underwhelming throughout his career and it's a matter of adjusting expectations so that they aren't tied to his obviously off-the-mark salary.

Still under contract for another season, Steve Reinprecht finished the year with the Mannheim Eagles in the German League. Reinprecht will be 35 by the time next season starts and figures to be a likely buyout candidate, though it's not outrageous to think that he could get another chance with a new coaching staff.

Mike Santorelli responded well to increased ice time as the season went along, putting up 27 points in 49 games after Christmas.

The 25-year-old can shore up his play without the puck as he was minus-17 (minus-15 in February and March) with one of the worst shot differentials on the team, but he produced enough that he deserves an opportunity to show he could be a viable second-line centre.

Acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline, Niclas Bergfors is a talented winger who can create chances offensively, yet also managed one goal in 20 games with the Panthers after the trade.

He could certainly stand to get more involved, going to the hard areas but, at the very least, Bergfors should develop into a decent complementary scorer.

Jack Skille doesn't produce nearly enough for the shots that he generates, but figures to get a good opportunity in Florida. He has good size and speed and was a two-time 20-goal scorer in the AHL, so there's something here, but it remains to be seen if he's capable of providing any more than in a depth role.

Considering that Skille was minus-12 in 13 games with the Panthers after the trade -- admittedly, when the roster had been thoroughly depleted -- the jury is still out.

It's been a gradual process getting Shawn Matthias up to speed in the NHL and he performed well in a limited role last season, scoring 16 points with an even rating in 51 games before breaking his ankle.

The 23-year-old has size but, like Skille, has yet to prove he's able to handle a regular role that would require 15 minutes or more on a nightly basis.

It now appears to be a given that 26-year-old Steve Bernier will not fulfill the potential that he showed as a rookie in 2005-2006. His offensive game has regressed to the point that he managed just five goals in 2010-2011 and, at his salary, he could easily go without a qualifying offer, unless the Panthers just want to keep enough salary around in their bid to reach the floor.

Michal Repik has been up and down between Florida and the American Hockey League for three years, getting a 31-game trial in the NHL last season. He's an energy winger who should get a decent shot on the depleted Panthers lineup.

Byron Bitz missed the entire season with a sports hernia. He has the size to be an effective banger, but his presence one way or the other isn't likely to make a major difference on the Panthers' fortunes.

Not surprisingly, there are some unrestricted free agents to consider, but the Panthers may well let them all go as they try to revamp the roster.

Sergei Samsonov was productive in what was effectively garbage time at the end of the season, but should a rebuilding team offer up a spot on a scoring line to a 32-year-old winger who hasn't scored more than 16 goals since 2005-006?

If the Panthers were going to make a blockbuster move, and it would be shocking, they do have more than enough cap room to take on a scoring winger like Alexander Semin or Marian Gaborik, but that just doesn't seem to be the kind of move that will fit with the long-term plan.

Perhaps the most noteworthy move up front could be drafting a winger like Gabriel Landeskog with the third overall pick in the draft. Landeskog is a sturdy forward with some finishing ability and could be ready to make the jump straight to the NHL.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Dmitry Kulikov 66.19 $1.325M
Jason Garrison 64.52 $675K
Keaton Ellerby 61.66 $788K
Mike Weaver 61.00 $900K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Alexander Sulzer 59.29 UFA $650K
Joe Callahan 57.67 UFA $525K

20-year-old Dmitry Kulikov made nice strides in his second season and is poised to handle a bigger role on the Florida blueline, though he was overmatched late in the year, going minus-10 in the last ten games when he was playing more than 23 minutes per game.

With more power play time, Kulikov could emerge as an offensive producer, but the Panthers really need a stronger supporting cast to bring out his best rather than throwing him to the wolves at such a young age.

Jason Garrison isn't well-known, by any means, but he handled a heavy workload -- 22:18 per game for the season -- in a defensive role for the Panthers, ending the year just minus-2 while leading the team in hits per game and blocks per game.

Getting those minutes, at Garrison's cut-rate price, makes him valuable, even if his game isn't the prettiest.

22-year-old Keaton Ellerby has been making gradual progress and certainly has a combination of size and skating ability to think that he can be an effective NHLer, but he's been rather protected in the minutes he's received to this point.

Not unlike Garrison, Mike Weaver's game is very much rooted in the blue-collar blueline work. Weaver's small by defenceman standards, yet has carved out a career as a terrific penalty killer and effective defensive defenceman, finishing with a plus-1 rating while logging 20:48 per game.

Given how young the rest of the Panthers' defence corps is, having 33-year-old Weaver's experience around doesn't hurt either.

That doesn't exactly lock down the blueline, with only four signed. Unrestricted free agents Alexander Sulzer, Joe Callahan and Clay Wilson all saw some time with the Panthers, and any of them could be counted on in seventh or eighth defenceman roles, but the Panthers definitely need to look for longer-term solutions.

One of those solutions figures to be Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in last year's draft who effectively made the team out of training camp last year, but couldn't reach a contract agreement so he was sent back to junior.

It wasn't a stellar year for Gudbranson, but he has size, skill and plays with an edge, so he could end up playing big minutes for the Panthers immediately.

Should the Panthers decide to dip into the free agents waters, they could hope to lure some more talent to the blueline. Again, they have the cap room to do it. Anton Babchuk or Jonathan Ericsson are 27-year-old free agents that might be able to fit in with this group.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Scott Clemmensen 69.29 $1.2M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Tomas Vokoun 75.52 UFA $5.7M

Scott Clemmensen has developed into a decent backup goaltender, recording a save percentage better than the league average for three years running.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding the starter's role next season, Clemmensen is an important piece to have in place.

While the Panthers may want to bring back Tomas Vokoun, a 34-year-old unrestricted free agent, to help bridge the gap until prospect Jacob Markstrom is ready, Vokoun will have other suitors too.

Thus, if the Panthers need a stopgap starter, to hold the fort until Markstrom is deemed to be NHL calibre, then free agents like Johan Hedberg or Jose Theodore could do the trick.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Erik Gudbranson D Kingston (OHL) 12-22-34,-1, 44 GP
Jacob Markstrom G Rochester (AHL) 2.98 GAA, .907 SV%, 37 GP
Drew Shore C Denver (WCHA) 23-23-46,+29, 40 GP
Nick Bjugstad C Minnesota (WCHA) 8-12-20,+1, 29 GP
Quinton Howden LW Moose Jaw (WHL) 40-39-79,+7, 60 GP
Alex Petrovic D Red Deer (WHL) 7-50-57,+27, 69 GP
Colby Robak D Rochester (AHL) 7-17-24,-12, 76 GP
A.J. Jenks C Rochester (AHL) 8-12-20,+3, 63 GP
Garrett Wilson LW Owen Sound (OHL) 40-46-86,+33, 66 GP
Scott Timmins C Rochester (AHL) 10-12-22,+10, 45 GP

Gudbranson is the blue-chipper and the hope is that his up-and-down season with Kingston won't have hindered his development too much.

21-year-old Jacob Markstrom is the Panthers' goaltender of the future, though he could probably use another year getting used to the starter's workload in the AHL before being put into that role in Florida.

Drew Shore was a second-round pick in 2009 and coming off a superb sophomore season at the University of Denver. He's a big forward who can score, but has also said that he's going back to school, so the Panthers may have to wait another season before seeing what he can do in the pros.

An even bigger presence, Nick Bjugstad didn't dominate as a freshman and could also be returning to school, unless the Panthers can lure him out. He has a lot of long-term potential and the Panthers may want to ensure that they can keep closer tabs on their 2010 first-round pick.

Quinton Howden is developing into a power forward who can score (seeing a trend?) and has steadily improved throughout his WHL career. He could challenge for an NHL job, but a year in the AHL seems much more likely.

A tough defenceman, Alex Petrovic has improved nicely at Red Deer, adding a more offensive dimension to his game last season. Standing 6-foot-4 and playing with an edge, Petrovic is an intriguing prospect that should make life difficult in the corners and in front of the net for opposing forwards.

Colby Robak is a skilled puck-mover with good size, but will need to shore up defensively in order to make the jump to the next level. He does have the ability to quarterback a power play and that sets him apart from other Panthers prospects.

A.J. Jenks plays a sound two-way game. He may not have enough offensive upside to make a big impact as a scorer in the NHL, but could be useful as a checker and in a penalty killing role.

A 6-foot-3 winger with a scoring touch, Garrett Wilson has tallied 76 goals over the last two OHL seasons, though some of that is a benefit of playing with Joey Hishon in Owen Sound. Some time in the American Hockey League will allow him to prove he can skate well enough to have his offensive production translate to the NHL.

A responsible checking centre, Scott Timmins had a connection with former Panthers coach Peter DeBoer from junior hockey in Kitchener, but performed admirably in 19 games with the Panthers late in the year. Limited upside, but the 21-year-old could been in the competition for a job in the next couple years.

Check out a 2011-2012 Panthers roster, compiled on www.capgeek.com, here: http://bit.ly/mIA73p

DRAFT
3rd - Adam Larsson, Gabriel Landeskog, Sean Couturier.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Panthers have approximately $19.5M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 11 players.

Needs: Three top line forwards, two top-four defencemen, an additional defenceman and a starting goaltender.

What I said the Panthers needed last year: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman

They added: Mike Santorelli, Marty Reasoner, Christopher Higgins, Steve Bernier, Mike Weaver.

TRADE MARKET Stephen Weiss, Shawn Matthias, Steve Bernier, Keaton Ellerby.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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