Oh-so-close to a playoff spot in 2008-2009, the Florida Panthers will have to be active this summer in order to avoid falling back, especially since they are faced with the prospect of losing their workhorse defenceman.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Panthers and what they could do this summer.
The overriding issue for the Panthers this past year has been the status of defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. It's widely expected that Bouwmeester is going to leave Florida in search of a contending franchise in a more hockey-friendly market, but that is just speculation at this point.
What the Panthers will need to do, however, is have another plan of attack when the Bouwmeester situation finally plays out.
While losing Bouwmeester is harly the ideal situation, the Panthers have bolstered their defence corps to the point that they should be able to manage. A more glaring need at this point is to make moves for proven scoring talent.
If the Panthers can make the right additions this summer, though, the roster is young enough that there is reason to expect further improvement and that would be enough to finally end their eight-year playoff drought.
"There's a good foundation here," head coach Peter DeBoer told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel at season's end. "And the key is to keep it and add some pieces. Because I think we're close."
Jacques Martin/Peter DeBoer
Top Prospects: Michal Repik (19-30-49, minus-13 in 75 GP; Rochester-AHL), Shawn Matthias (10-10-20, minus-34 in 61 GP; Rochester-AHL), Evgeni Dadonov (11-4-15, plus-2 in 40 GP; Chelyabinsk Traktor-KHL)
Stephen Weiss's gradual development since he was drafted fourth overall in 2001 has led to his being underrated in recent seasons, but that shouldn't be the case any longer after he put up a career-high 61 points and plus-19 rating last season. Weiss needs to keep improving offensively if he's going to become a bona fide No. 1 centre.
Concussions posed some problems for veteran Cory Stillman in his first season with the Panthers, but he was productive in the 63 games he played, tallying 49 points and his first plus rating (plus-1) since the lockout. He's lost a step, but the 35-year-old has fine hockey sense and, at the very least, is an asset on the power play.
Michael Frolik was terrific in his rookie season, improving throughout the season, showing game-breaking potential to go with a sound all-around game.
Power forward Nathan Horton was supposed to take the mantle as franchise forward when Olli Jokinen was traded, but Horton got off to a slow start, struggling some with his move to centre. Throw in a couple of injuries and Horton ended up with just 45 points, his lowest total since his rookie season.
It would go a long way for the Panthers to take the next step as a team, if they could get Horton to realize his potential as a first-line goal-scorer.
Greg Campbell developed a lot in his fourth NHL season, setting career-highs in virtually every category. He's a gritty player with good speed and now seems to be a nice fit as a checking centre.
Injuries limited Kamil Kreps at times in his second season and his production dipped, but he remains a viable checker who hasn't yet reached his potential.
A groin injury kept Rostislav Olesz out of action for more than half the season and he was terrible in his fourth season. The 23-year-old has only played more than 60 games once in his career, but the Panthers obviously have high hopes for Olesz, having signed him to a five-year contract extension. He simply has to make a bigger contribution next season.
With just one goal in 45 games, Nick Tarnasky has a limited effect. He's a willing combatant, but isn't likely to have more than a part-time role.
After four straight seasons with at least 30 points, Brett McLean fell to 19 points and a career-worst minus-12 last season. He's still a serviceable pro, but the Panthers may consider if he's worth the cost.
David Booth just continues to get better, improving his speed and leading the Panthers with 31 goals last season. He may have already surpassed his expected ceiling when he entered the league, so who knows how much better he will get? A restricted free agent, Booth could draw some interest from other teams, but the Panthers' first priority this summer should be to get Booth signed to a long-term deal.
There has been little to indicate that Anthony Stewart is capable of providing anything more than depth at the NHL level. He has just four goals in 105 NHL games and, while the Panthers could easily walk away and let him start fresh somewhere else, Florida's dearth of quality prospects could make it worth keeping Stewart for another season.
While the Panthers wouldn't necessarily figure to be an ideal destination for marquee talent, they would certainly have some room to spend if Jay Bouwmeester leaves. Perhaps Jacques Martin would be intrigued by Chicago's Martin Havlat, who played for Martin in Ottawa. Otherwise, scorers like Nik Antropov, Alex Kovalev, Brian Gionta or Steve Sullivan would all be useful additions to a team that had just one player finish with more than 22 goals.
To solidify a checking line, particulary if the services of solid vets like Ville Peltonen and Radek Dvorak aren't retained, the Panthers could look to guys with size like Mike Grier or Travis Moen or guys with speed like Marty Reasoner or Chad LaRose.
In any case, the Panthers need more scoring, whether it comes from outside additions, internal improvement or, ideally, both.
Top Prospects: Keaton Ellerby (3-20-23, minus-8 in 75 GP; Rochester-AHL), Colby Robak (13-29-42, plus-30 in 65 GP; Brandon-WHL), Jason Garrison (8-27-35, minus-14 in 75 GP; Rochester-AHL)
The centrepiece of the deal that sent Olli Jokinen to Phoenix, Keith Ballard rose to the challenge in his first year with the Panthers, scoring 34 points and leading all Florida defencemen with a plus-14 rating. Ballard plays an in-your-face game and could see more of an offensive role if Jay Bouwmeester leaves.
Bryan McCabe was a pleasant surprise after coming over in a trade from Toronto, scoring 15 goals and 39 points and recording the fewest penalty minutes (41) of his 13-season NHL career. At this point of his career, it's best not to force McCabe into heavy minutes, but he's certainly a valuable component because of his power play work.
A knee injury limited Bryan Allen to just two games last season and his return will be crucial to the strength of the defence corps as a whole. The 28-year-old has good size and is an effective defensive defenceman when healthy.
Steve Eminger, who (like Weiss and Campbell) played for head coach Peter DeBoer in junior, played for three NHL teams last season and didn't make much of an impact in nine games with Florida. However, Eminger was decent in Tampa Bay, running the power play at times and finished with a career-high 26 points, possibly earning a better look next season.
The Panthers also have prospect Keaton Ellerby ready to push for a spot, even if it's in a depth role. How much the Panthers need from Ellerby could be decided by their success on the free agent market.
Obviously, if Florida manages to convince Bouwmeester to stay, that would minimize the blueline needs. If, however, Bouwmeester heads elsewhere, the Panthers would need to add at least one top-four calibre defenceman. Mattias Ohlund, Jaroslav Spacek and Jordan Leopold (who was Ballard's teammate at the University of Minnesota) are all veterans who could help fill the potential void on the back end.
If the Panthers don't bring back Nick Boynton, Karlis Skrastins and Jassen Cullimore, then more reinforcements will be required. Some that could fit on the Panthers blueline may include Ville Koistinen, Rob Scuderi or Kent Huskins, guys that would help while not likely to be outrageously expensive.
Top Prospect: Jacob Markstrom (2.38 GAA, .917 SVPCT, 3 SO in 35 GP; Brynas-SEL)
Goaltending was an obvious strength for the Panthers last season, allowing the most shots in the league, yet tied for ninth in goals against.
Tomas Vokoun was brilliant at times and finished with a career-best six shutouts and .926 save percentage. If he's not an elite NHL goaltender, he's not too far off that level.
Last year's backup, Craig Anderson, was outstanding and, justifiably, could be looking for a chance to start somewhere else next season. If Anderson leaves, the Panthers may look for a veteran backup to spell Vokoun and allow the Panthers to groom Swedish Jacob Markstrom at a more reasonable pace.
There should be no shortage of capable veteran backups as Ty Conklin, Mathieu Garon and Brent Johnson are but a few of the veterans who should be available at a relatively bargain rate.
14th - Ryan Ellis, Scott Glennie, Zack Kassian, Simon Depres.
The Panthers have approximately $35.2-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: one top six forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman, two other defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Panthers needed last year: One top six forward, one top pair defencemen, one depth defenceman
Who did they add? Cory Stillman, Michael Frolik, Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton.
Nathan Horton, Tomas Vokoun.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca