Fantasy Puck Preview: Florida Panthers

Scott Cullen
9/14/2008 12:24:23 PM
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A summer of change saw the Florida Panthers ship out their captain, meaning the responsibility for scoring falls on the next generation.

That next generation is going to be following Nathan Horton into battle. The 23-year-old power forward is on the cusp of stardom, and his production in the last two seasons (62 points and plus-15 while playing all 82 games in both 2006-2007 and 2007-2008) suggests that's he's ready to take the next step.

As it looks right now, Florida's number one centre will be Stephen Weiss, a 25-year-old who has yet to score 50 points in an NHL season. Nevertheless, Weiss has improved his all-around game and should be able to handle more responsibility. It's unlikely he'll blow up, but something in the 50-to-60 point range is fair.

Last season, the duo of Horton and Weiss were joined by hard-working left winger David Booth and Booth responded with a surprising 22-goal season. If he stays with Horton and Weiss, expect more than last year's 40 points from Booth.

Of course, the reason I'm qualifying whether Booth will stay on the top unit is that the Panthers did bring in veteran free agent Cory Stillman, who has scored 65 points or more in four of the last five seasons. At the very least, the 34-year-old Stillman can be expected to help on the power play.

Czech winger Rostislav Olesz has made steady progress in his three NHL seasons and he could be primed to provide more offence at this stage. Anticipating 20 goals and 40 or more points is a fair starting point.

The real wildcards up front are rookies Shawn Matthias and Michael Frolik.

Matthias impressed in a four-game stint with the Panthers last season and his game has developed rapidly since he was acquired in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi at the 2007 trade deadline. While Matthias should have every opportunity to make the squad, it would be surprising if he was an impact player right away.

Similarly, Frolik has a chance to be a big-time scorer, but he may need a little seasoning before he's ready to step into a scoring role. Track both Matthias and Frolik in the pre-season to have a better idea where they will start the season.

Florida completely revamped their defence, but they do still have Jay Bouwmeester leading the way.

Bouwmeester led the league in ice-time per game, but he's regressed offensively, going from 46 points to 42 to 37 over the last three seasons.

While Bouwmeester shouldn't be expected to suddenly break through with an offensive surge, he can stay in the 40-point range and improve his plus-minus (which was minus-5 last season) because the Panthers, if nothing else, improved their defence this summer. Signed to a one-year deal, there is also the suspicion that Bouwmeester will be prime trade bait if the Panthers aren't in contention.

Keith Ballard may be looking at big minutes on the bluelne but, like Bouwmeester, his production has dipped over the last three seasons, from 39 to 27 to 21 points. If Ballard can sneak in some power play time, he is useful in deeper leagues because his feisty style brings penalty minutes.

Perhaps the biggest boost to the Panthers power play will be expected to come from Bryan McCabe who was limited to 54 games in Toronto last year, with his 23 points registering as his lowest total since 1998-1999.

McCabe has well established his big shot from the point on the power play and, as much as he commits the glaring errors that end up on highlight shows, McCabe was a plus-63 in seven seasons with the Leafs, never finishing worse than last year's minus-2.

So, if McCabe comes to Florida and puts up 40 points with a respectable plus-minus and 100 or more penalty minutes (as he has in 10 of his 13 NHL seasons), that's still plenty valuable in the fantasy game.

With an overall upgrade along the blueline, the Panthers should be decent defensively in front of Tomas Vokoun. While the wins won't come easily -- he won 30 of 69 starts last season -- Vokoun should still be a viable fantasy goaltender because his goals against average and save percentage will be solid.

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