Panthers look to ascend from the basement once more
Bobby Butler, Joey Crabb, Matt Gilroy, Scott Gomez.
T.J. Brennan, Filip Kuba, Peter Mueller, George Parros, Jack Skille, Jose Theodore, Stephen Weiss.
Last year: One year after their reprieve of basement-dwelling, non-playoff performances when the Panthers surprisingly won the Southeast Division, the team took a step back last season, finishing with the worst record in the league.
Everything that went right the year prior failed to materialize after the lockout.
The “big line” featuring Stephen Weiss centring Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann never got on track due to injuries, Jose Theodore couldn’t duplicate his strong 2011-12 performance and the defence struggled after losing Jason Garrison to free agency.
One of the few bright spots was 2011 third-overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau looking like a bonafide star in the making. Huberdeau skated to a 14-goal, 31-point effort en route to winning the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie.
But on a team chock full of top prospects, Huberdeau was one of just a couple to have a promising showing in South Florida last year.
Top goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom struggled to an 8-14 record with a .901 save percentage and 3.22 goals-against average.
Erik Gudbranson’s slowly progressed while Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden combined for a single goal in 29 combined games with the Panthers.
This Year: For the longest time, experts have raved about the stable of prospects the Panthers hold in their system. This should be the year we finally get to see them. Save for a few still marinating in the minors, all of Florida’s highly touted youngsters should break training camp with the main roster.
Second overall draft pick Sasha Barkov could start the season as high as first line centre alongside Huberdeau while Bjugstad and pleasant surprises from last year Shawn Matthias and Drew Shore also figure to be involved down the middle.
Meanwhile, Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak could join Gudbranson and fellow youngster Dmitri Kulikov in a defensive corps getting younger and Markstrom should get a full year to prove himself in net.
Florida does have a number of veterans sprinkled into their lineup with Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell and newly-acquired Scott Gomez to help guide the growing process, but make no mistake, this is the kids’ team in Florida now.
Sean Bergenheim, lost for all of last year due to injury, should be ready to go this year while Versteeg is expected to miss the start of the season recovering from knee surgery. The team made headlines during camp by inviting goaltender Tim Thomas. The two-time Vezina winner could be the perfect mentor for Markstrom. Brad Boyes, also at training camp on a tryout contract, could get a shot.
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Panthers' performance after a shortened season?
There will be a lot of time to grow for the Panthers now very green roster with an 82-game schedule, but there will also be a lot of time for players to hit the “rookie wall.”
Florida still figures to be a couple of years away from contention, so this season will be a great opportunity to see what they have in their young players on the biggest stage. Markstrom will be given every chance to seize the No. 1 goalie job while the prospects on forward and defence will time to work through any growing pains and establish their worth.
That being said, if things go better than anticipated and Florida is still challenging for a playoff spot come March, the team’s veterans could be relied upon more heavily with some young players still not used to the longer season.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Panthers make to get themselves back in cap shape?
Florida is in no trouble of exceeding the league’s salary cap, but could be walking a fine line with their self-imposed salary cap.
The team spent the off-season re-signing some of their restricted free agents to sensible deals and handing out close-to-minimum type deals to veterans.
Defenceman Filip Kuba was bought out (though not with a compliance buyout) which will ding the team $1.2 million this year and $1.4 million next year, but until guys like Huberdeau, Markstrom and Gudbranson are up for big raises in a couple of years, salary cap ceiling concerns are non-existent in Sunrise.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Panthers after realignment.
The Panthers lucked out with their new division. They may be facing stiffer competition, but for a team that struggles to draw crowds, having the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, and Boston Bruins in the same division is a win.
The Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and the state rival Tampa Bay Lightning also round out Florida’s divisional competition.
While it’s hard for most to see the Panthers finishing much better than sixth or seventh in the eight-team division, having four of the historic Original Six teams come to their building on a regular occasion is a big win for the team’s fans, or perhaps more accurately, the “snowbird” fans of those teams living in South Florida.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Kris Versteeg, RW - Recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season, Versteeg is looking to bounce back to the form he showed in 2011-2012, when he scored a career-high 23 goals and 54 points while playing with Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss on the Panthers' number one line.
The Panthers are a young team with few proven performers, so Versteeg, a fourt-time 20-goal scorer, is crucial to any hopes that they have of being competitive this season and, even though Weiss is now gone, first-round pick Aleksander Barkov might be a suitable replacement.
Click here for the latest Fantasy News!
Pressing Question: With most of the club’s top prospects now graduated onto the team’s roster, can the Florida Panthers surprise in 2013-14?
Take a look at the Panthers’ depth chart and it’s a virtual who’s-who of players fresh of the league’s top prospects list of prior years.
Huberdeau proved last year he should be a force to be reckoned with moving forward while big things are expected of guys like Barkov, Shore, and Bjugstad up front, and Kulikov, Gudbranson, and Petrovic on the blue line.
And despite his struggles last year, Markstrom still has the talent be a top goalie in the league.
But while these players have all shown enough maturity to crack the team’s lineup, all of them have yet to hit their prime, something that likely won’t happen for another 2-3 years.
Will the combined young talent in Florida be enough to make the Panthers playoff contenders right away, or do they need to wait and add experience alongside talent before they become players in the new Atlantic Division?
- Florida Panthers Preview by Ben Fisher, TSN.ca