The Florida Panthers made the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000, winning the Southeast Division crown last season.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Panthers team that had 32 regulation and overtime wins (the same as Colorado, Buffalo and Carolina) and had the worst goal differential of any playoff qualifier, so there remains much room for improvement.
This isn't to undermine the success that the Florida Panthers enjoyed in 2011-2012, as the team's 94 points ranked as the second highest in franchise history, but it serves as a warning because the odds are against the Panthers returning to the postseason on the strength of overtime and shootout points while finishing that far below break-even on goal differential.
What shouldn't come as a surprise is that the Panthers overachieved because their new head coach, Kevin Dineen, made a career of doing just that. A tough, blue-collar player who was drafted in the third round, Dineen was a two-time 40-goal scorer who tallied 355 career goals in 1188 career NHL games. That he finds a way to extract the most from his players, then, shouldn't be altogether surprising.
Even if that is one of Dineen's gifts as a coach, he has a roster that needs to be upgraded if the Panthers are going to remain contenders. Long-term, the picture is promising, with a good list of prospects in the system, ready to make an impact in the next few seasons.
However, when it comes to next season, there may only be a couple prospects (Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom come to mind immediately) that are ready to make a difference at the NHL level.
That means more work for GM Dale Tallon, who has done a fine job stocking the Panthers' system, and probably has earned some patience after the team secured a playoff berth, but if Tallon is going to keep the Panthers pressing forward instead of taking a step back, then he'll need to find some pieces that can help immediately while the prospects continue to mature.
After signing several free agents to long-term contracts last summer, the Panthers ought to be wary about handing out such contracts this time around, since there is no need to block the path of their top prospects. That should make Tallon's work this summer even more challenging, but that's the delicate balance that the Panthers are dealing with as they wait for the future, but try not to ignore the present.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Dale Tallon/Kevin Dineen
Having overcome an embolism Tomas Fleischmann enjoyed a wonderful season, scoring a career-high 27 goals and 61 points, while playing a career-high 19:06 per game. Expecting first-line production may be a lot to ask of Fleischmann, but after what the 28-year-old accomplished last season, he's a vital part of the Panthers' attack.
The days of suffering outside the playoff realm are over for Stephen Weiss, a quality two-way centre who is asked to handle a lot of responsibility on a Florida team lacking other skilled options down the middle. Weiss is a four-time 20-goal scorer, has topped 55 points in three of the last four seasons and played a career-high 20:31 per game last season. He's the de facto No. 1 centre, but might be an ideal No. 2 on a stronger team.
Just as Weiss is asked to do a lot down the middle, so too was Marcel Goc, one of the Panthers' underrated free agent signings amid last summer's free agent extravaganza. Over the last three seasons, Goc has 81 points and is plus-25 in 181 games. He logged a career-high 17:37 per game last season and dealt with tough assignments but, on a quality team, Goc probably fits as a third-line centre.
Sean Bergenheim earned wide acclaim for his performance in the 2011 playoffs, scoring nine goals in 16 games, but was well compensated as a free agent addition and responded with a career-high 17 goals, despite playing just 62 games. Like Goc, he's ideally suited to a third-line role.
While Tomas Kopecky didn't match his career-high 42 points from 2010-2011, he played a significant role (a career-high 17:16 per game) and finished with 32 points. He has size and can be a physical presence, even if his offensive ceiling is relatively modest.
24-year-old Shawn Matthias scored a career-high 24 points last season, establishing his credentials as a regular NHLer, but he was better off before finishing the year with one point in the final 20 games, the kind of stretch that could leave him in a battle for regular playing time going into next season.
Handsomely rewarded with a lucrative free agent deal after a 22-goal season in 2010-2011, Scottie Upshall managed just two goals in 26 games last season, missing a bunch of time with upper body and sports hernia injuries. On a team chock full of overachievers, Upshall underachieved, yet that could be a positive since, with good health, he could be a prime candidate to bounce back next season.
The seventh overall pick in the 2005 draft, Jack Skille has never scored more than 19 points in an NHL season and now that he's 25-years-old, it's evident that he may not be much more than a fourth-line winger.
Following a break-through 20-goal, 41-point season in 2010-2011, Michael Santorelli saw his role reduced (by more than four minutes per game) last season and 11 points in 60 games doesn't exactly assure him of a role for next season.
A concussion cut short Matt Bradley's season, so the veteran checker could use a fresh outlook next season, a chance to re-establish his role as a veteran fourth-line presence.
With one goal in 69 games, Jerred Smithson has to bring other skills to the table and he is a standout in the faceoff circle, winning better than 56% last season and better than 52% in each of the last five seasons. That alone may not be enough to warrant a full-time role, however.
Despite missing 11 games, Kris Versteeg scored a career-high 23 goals and 54 points, playing a career-high 19:55 per game, establishing himself as one of Florida's most dangerous offensive threats. Versteeg's production dipped in the second half of the season, so there is some question about whether or not he's a go-to first-line guy, but it's tough to be too critical after a season with career-best production.
26-year-old Wojtek Wolski may be running out of chances, as the Panthers are his fourth team and, while he's skilled, he hasn't shown enough consistency to stick with his last couple clubs and if the Panther are going to keep him around, it's unlikely that it will be at a salary that matches Wolski's current cap hit.
The Panthers could definitely use more skill up front and they do have a healthy group of prospects -- led by Jonathan Huberdeau -- on the way, but if they are looking to make more immediate improvement, free agents like ex-Panthers Olli Jokinen and Kristian Huselius or others, including Andrei Kostitsyn and Kyle Wellwood could help in the short-term while the Panthers wait for their prospects to arrive.
Turned loose offensively once again, Brian Campbell finished with 53 points, his most since a career-high 62 in 2007-2008. He plays an exceptionally clean game (12 penalty minutes in 147 games over the last two seasons) and can both run the power play and play in a defensive role when it's required. It appears, however, that Campbell is more comfortable generating offence from the blueline and the Panthers need it, so he's a great fit.
He doesn't have the size of a typical shutdown defenceman, but Mike Weaver has thrived in that role for Florida, taking on the toughest matchups while playing more than 20 minutes and dressing for every game over the last two seasons. He also three goals in 354 games over the last five seasons, so he had better get the job done without the puck.
Returning to Florida resulted in Ed Jovanovski getting paid more than played, as his 16:42 of ice time per game was a career low. What's somewhat alarming, given the Panthers' investment in Jovanovski, is just how sheltered his minutes were. According to www.behindthenet.ca, only enforcer Krystofer Barch faced a lower level of competition.
Jovanovski's partner, Erik Gudbranson was eased into his NHL action, playing just 14:12 per game. The third overall pick in 2010, Gudbranson has potential to grow into a shutdown role, but the 20-year-old is not there yet, so next season just needs to show progress.
21-year-old Dmitry Kulikov was on his way to a breakthrough season, and still finished with a career-high 28 points in 58 games, but he wasn't the same after suffering a knee injury in late January. All things considered, though, Kulikov is one of the bright lights on the Panthers' blueline, considering that he's improved steadily and is still so young to be playing nearly 22 minutes per game.
Keaton Ellerby didn't play a lot, but wasn't protected much when he did play, taking on reasonably difficult opposition and providing steadier play than he had the year before as a rookie. He's still in a battle for a regular spot on the blueline.
If the Panthers lose Jason Garrison, who tallied an impresive 16 goals from the blueline last season, there may be a need to add a more proven veteran defenceman in free agency. Free agents Shane O'Brien and Aaron Rome both played in the AHL for Kevin Dineen and could come at a reasonable price.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
Given the chance to start, 35-year-old Jose Theodore made the most of his opportunity, his .917 save percentage ranking as his best since 2003-2004, with his 53 games played tied for his second-most over the last seven seasons.
Going into next season, Theodore could very well retain the starting job, but he will be pushed by Jacob Markstrom, a second-round pick in 2008 who has played well in the AHL and didn't look overmatched in seven games with the Panthers last season.
At the very least, Markstrom figures to get a crack at the backup role, initially, with Scott Clemmensen poised to depart as a free agent.
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||30-42-72, +53, 37 GP
||25-17-42, +21, 40 GP
||Denver University (WCHA)
||22-31-53, +21, 42 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||17-12-1, 2.32 GAA, .927 SV%, 32 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||1-1-2, -5, 4 GP
||Red Deer (WHL)
||12-36-48, -10, 68 GP
||Moose Jaw (WHL)
||30-35-65, +10, 52 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||9-30-39, +15, 73 GP
||29-56-85, +15, 65 GP
||18-25-43, +23, 40 GP
Injuries limited Jonathan Huberdeau to just 37 games, but 72 points and a plus-53 rating for a powerhouse Saint John team was more than enough indication that the third overall pick in 2011 is ready for more. Considering the Panthers' lack of high-end offensive talent, Huberdeau should play, and likely in a significant role, for the Panthers next season.
A first-round pick in 2010, Nick Bjugstad took a step forward in sophomore season at the University of Minnesota, but he has not signed with the Panthers yet, so he could be a Golden Gopher for another season. A towering centre, Bjugstad should dominate college hockey next season, but the long-term goal is to have him anchoring a scoring line in the NHL.
Drew Shore signed with the Panthers after his junior season at Denver University and he got into some late-season and playoff games with AHL San Antonio. Shore has good size and scored 99 points in 82 WCHA games over the last two seasons, so the 21-year-old may not be far off from challenging for a job in Florida.
A goaltender with prototypical size, 22-year-old Jacob Markstrom played well in both the AHL and NHL, when given the opportunity, last season to the point that he should be ready for NHL employment next season and he may even challenge for the starting job, but if he doesn't land the starting job, it's also possible that he spends another year in the AHL, where he would get a starter's workload.
Diminutive centre Rocco Grimaldi only played four games as a freshman at North Dakota, thanks to a knee injury. Assuming he is healthy, he'll have an opportunity to put up points and show that he was worthy of being the 33rd overall pick last summer.
A defenceman with size, skill and toughness, Alex Petrovic impressed in the postseason with San Antonio (scoring six points in nine games) and the 20-year-old is one of the few defence prospects among the Panthers' top 10, but he could use some time in the AHL to continue his development.
Quinton Howden is a well-rounded two-way player and, for that reason, is safer to project as an NHLer in some capacity, even if he doesn't have the same kind of offensive upside of some other prospects.
Offensive defenceman Colby Robak could use his size more effectively, but had a strong second pro campaign nevertheless. The 22-year-old got into three games with the Panthers last season, though that effectively showed that he has more work to do in order to compete for an NHL job.
Playmaking centre Vincent Trocheck has been making steady progress in Saginaw and while he's not at the level of some other top Panthers' prospects, 18-year-old Trocheck could prove to be fine value for a third-round pick last summer.
Another third-round pick from last summer, Kyle Rau worked extremely well with Bjugstad at Minnesota, even though Rau is undersized, practically the opposite in stature of the imposing Bjugstad.
John McFarland and Yaroslav Kosov are a couple of forward prospects that might be considered sleepers, but have enough talent to keep them on the prospect radar.
23rd - Brady Skjei, Tomas Hertl, Stefan Matteau, Tom Wilson
According to www.capgeek.com, the Panthers have approximately $40.6M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 16 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Panthers roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three top six forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Panthers needed last year: Three top line forwards, two top-four defencemen, an additional defenceman and a starting goaltender.
They added: Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Matt Bradley, Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson, Jose Theodore.
TRADE MARKET Shawn Matthias, Jack Skille, prospects.
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.