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Off-Season Game Plan: Florida Panthers

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Scott Cullen
4/30/2010 10:57:13 AM
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For the ninth consecutive season, the Florida Panthers missed the playoffs and, while there are some pieces to build around, there is work to be done if the Panthers are going to compete for a playoff berth next season.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Panthers and what the rebuilding process could entail this summer.

There was actually optimism in Florida at the end of the 2008-2009 season, when the Panthers narrowly missed the postseason. Then, Jay Bouwmeester was traded so that he could sign a long-term deal in Calgary and the Panthers didn't make up for the loss.

Florida's most consistent performer, centre Stephen Weiss, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "I really thought this was going to be a breakout year for us after last year. We had a lot of momentum coming into this year and just couldn't get it done."

The Panthers operate with little margin for error, or bad luck and they got dealt some bad luck when David Booth suffered a concussion that kept him out for three months. Then, Nathan Horton broke his leg and missed more than a month.

Some teams might overcome that, but the Panthers just didn't have the horses to make up for all that lost scoring.

That leaves plenty of work to do this offseason and the Panthers, who promised wholesale changes before the trade deadline, could be one of the more intriguing teams to watch this summer -- to see whether they are still committed to big changes, or if shuttling out Jordan Leopold, Dennis Seidenberg and Dominic Moore was enough.

Tomas Vokoun has been a stalwart in goal for the Panthers but, going into the final year of his deal, could be an attractive commodity if the Panthers are going to dig in for the rebuilding process.

"Year after year we keep saying the same stuff and it never happens," Nathan Horton told the Sun-Sentinel.

When players are that frustrated, and it's only natural with so many years out of the playoffs, change is needed and it's up to General Manager Randy Sexton to make the moves that will give the Panthers a better shot at the playoffs next year.

GM/COACH
Randy Sexton/Peter DeBoer

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Nathan Horton 78.34 $4.0M
Stephen Weiss 76.06 $3.1M
David Booth 73.09 $4.25M
Cory Stillman 72.83 $3.533M
Michael Frolik 71.59 $1.275M
Steven Reinprecht 69.69 $2.05M
Rostislav Olesz 69.45 $3.125M
Radek Dvorak 67.46 $1.7M
Shawn Matthias 63.34 $795K
Byron Bitz 61.03 $688K
Victor Oreskovich 58.93 $575K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Gregory Campbell 66.37 RFA $800K
Kamil Kreps 61.46 RFA $800K
Nick Tarnasky 57.45 RFA $550K
Steve MacIntyre 54.34 UFA $550K

Nathan Horton should be entering his prime, a soon-to-be 25-year-old power forward with a scoring touch but, to this point, still seems like he has a lot of unfulfilled potential.

Horton is responsible for the expectations that were placed on him after nearly identical productive seasons, in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, in which he played all 82 games, scored 62 points and had a plus-15 rating in each year.

Last season, Horton managed 57 points in 65 games, which is solid per-game production, but for the second straight year, he missed more than 15 games due to injury, and this isn't a team that has the depth to accomodate such injuries to top players.

With a no-trade clause kicking in on July 1, the Panthers at somewhat of a crossroads with possibly their most valuable asset. Signed for three more seasons, Horton could be on the cusp of an offensive breakout, which could make him a reasonably-priced 30-goal, first-line power forward, but the Panthers need to determine if Horton's declining physical impact is due to his injury or whether he's simply not as motivated to bang bodies as he was in his first five years in the league.

Possibly miscast as a No. 1 centre in Florida, Stephen Weiss is a very good two-way player, put up a career-high 28 goals last season and hit 60 points for the second straight year. Is there more than that? Can Weiss elevate his game to a point-per-game level, or is that asking too much, at least given this supporting cast?

Like Horton, Weiss is signed for three more years and would be plenty marketable if the Panthers chose to shop him, but considering Weiss' ties to head coach Peter DeBoer (who coached Weiss in junior), he figures to be one of the core players that this team builds around.

Following a breakout 2008-2009 season in which he tallied 31 goals, David Booth endured a miserable 2009-2010, missing 54 games thanks to two concussions, the second coming late in the season and just as he appeared to be rounding into form.

When healthy, Booth is a dangerous scoring winger who uses his speed to create a lot of scoring chances. For his sake, and for the talent-hungry Panthers, it would be a major boost if Booth is healthy next season.

Heading into the final year of his contract, 36-year-old Cory Stillman could be one of the Panthers shopped in the offseason, even if he does have a no-trade clause. It's not like Stillman doesn't produce.

He has 86 points in 131 games over two seasons with the Panthers, which is certainly enough for a second-line complementary scorer, but for a rebuilding club like the Panthers, perhaps Stillman's spot as a top-six forward should go to an up-and-comer and Stillman gets another shot with a more competitive team.

Michael Frolik didn't improve dramatically from his impressive rookie season, but back-to-back 21-goal seasons to start a career isn't too shabby. One of the few Panthers who has game-breaking-type talent, 22-year-old Frolik is a cornerstone piece for the franchise.

The Panthers were awfully aggressive acquiring Steven Reinprecht last summer so that they could get him signed before free agency hit and it's not like he performed poorly for them but, signed for two more seasons, the 33-year-old is a solid pro; not someone who is going to turn around the fate of the team.

Perpetual underachiever Rostislav Olesz did tie his career-high with 14 goals, but more is expected of him -- at least more than three points in his last 30 games. His long-term contract means he's stuck in Florida, so the Panthers at least have to figure out how to at least get serviceable third-line play and possibly coax a 20-goal season out of him.

Like fellow greybeard Reinprecht, Radek Dvorak is a solid pro, but probably not going to make the difference for this team. For his part, Dvorak remains a strong skater and effective penalty killer. If Olesz isn't going to develop enough offensively, he could at least strive to have a career like Dvorak has had, playing 1,052 games along the way.

A lanky young forward who hasn't been productive in the AHL, let alone the NHL, Shawn Matthias has 20 points in 75 NHL games over the last couple of seasons. He has skills, but needs to use his size more consistently and play with some competitive fire if he's going to be something more than a fringe NHLer.

Acquired from Boston in the Dennis Seidenberg deal, Byron Bitz has size and puts forth an honest effort. With 18 points in 87 career games, though, the 25-year-old isn't likely to rise above the fourth line.

23-year-old Victor Oreskovich hadn't played hockey for three years before trying out with the Panthers and earning a quick promotion to the NHL. He's a work in progress but, if nothing else, he can skate, hit and create turnovers on the forecheck.

Gregory Campbell's production dipped after his breakthrough 2008-2009 season, when he scored 13 goals and 32 points; modest totals, to be sure, but better than last year's two goals and 17 points.

When he produces some offence, the competitive and sometimes combative Campbell seems like a fit as a third-line centre. When he scores two goals in 60 games, that's closer to the profile of a fourth-liner.

A checker who has seen his point totals decline from 25 as a rookie, in 2007-2008, to 14 last season, Kreps has enough size and skill that more should be expected of him.

Working through the Panthers' forwards, it's all too apparent that there aren't enough overachievers in the group.

Then we come to a guy like Nick Tarnasky, a fourth-liner who scraps for every NHL shift he gets. Even if there's more to like about a player of limited talent earning his keep, compared to skilled guys who regress to third and fourth-line roles, Tarnasky is an interchangeable part.

Heavyweight Steve MacIntyre might be on the scariest guys on skates, but only dressed for 18 games and averaged 3:10 of ice-time per game. Safe to say, his presence isn't necessary for this team to turn things around.

Surely, the Panthers could use an upgrade in both skill and toughness up front. While the marquee free agents may not be inclined to sign with a rebuilding team, Alex Ponikarovksy might be the kind of hard worker that could help or speedy Matthew Lombardi could improve production down the middle.

A veteran like Mike Comrie might be able to provide some offence, or Adam Burish could add some bite in a checking role, but some players will have to be cut loose in order to create room for these types additions.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Bryan McCabe 72.80 $5.75M
Keith Ballard 70.77 $4.2M
Dmitry Kulikov 62.96 $1.325M
Bryan Allen 62.65 $2.9M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Jason Garrison 62.51 RFA $875K

He's gone relatively unnoticed, after spending years getting over-exposed in Toronto, but Bryan McCabe has been a quality top-pair blueliner for the Panthers.

The 34-year-old is heading into the final year of his contract and could have some value to a team needing a power play boost, closer to the trade deadline, if the Panthers aren't in the playoff mix.

Keith Ballard battles and is durable, playing all 82 games in four of his five NHL seasons. He takes on the toughest defensive matchups, which is a handful for a Panthers team that is frequently overmatched on talent. Signed for five more years, he's a good guy to build around, but needs help.

The upside on the blueline comes in the form of 19-year-old Dmitry Kulikov. He still has much to learn in his own zone, but he's poised with the puck and put up ten of his 16 points on the power play. With a thin blueline, there is the risk that Kulikov could be pressed to do too much too soon, but his development will mean a lot to this unit.

After playing just two games in 2008-2009, Bryan Allen played 74 games last season and was solid enough, though not to the level he exhibited prior to his knee injury. Ideally, with a full season of good health under his belt, Allen can return to more of a shutdown role.

Jason Garrison's role increased late in the season, once Dennis Seidenberg and Jordan Leopold were traded, and he performed well. He's earned a spot in the lineup for next season, but how much Garrison plays will depend on what other acquisitions the Panthers make.

Prospects like Keaton Ellerby, who saw minimal time in his 22 games with the Panthers and Colby Robak would figure to be next on the depth chart, though neither one is necessarily ready for NHL duty. They may want to give 26-year-old Clay Wilson a look after he put up 60 points and a plus-22 rating in 75 AHL games.

That means the Panthers need to do some shopping. Adding a proven top-four defenceman would give the Panthers more security, allowing them not to rush Kulikov and, eventually, consider trading McCabe. Perhaps Buffalo's Henrik Tallinder or Toni Lydman would hold some appeal, or even adding younger puck-moving types like Randy Jones or Carlo Colaiacovo would help.

With the third overall pick in the draft, the Panthers could be ear-marked for another defenceman, which isn't a bad lot considering the need for an upgrade on the back end.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Tomas Vokoun 82.33 $5.7M
Scott Clemmensen 68.23 $1.2M

Tomas Vokoun has been tremendous for the Panthers, particularly in the last two seasons, during which he has posted a .925 save percentage. The 33-year-old is going into the final year of his contract and, if the Panthers are willing to move him, he could fetch a decent return from a contending team.

If the Panthers are keeping Vokoun for this season -- and he does have a no-movement clause -- that would sure be a vote of confidence to the roster, but if the roster isn't upgraded in front of him, it may just be another season with 2,000-plus regular season saves.

The Panthers bought into Scott Clemmensen's breakthrough 2008-2009 season in New Jersey, even though he was 31 at the time, and signed him to a three-year deal.

Predictably, Clemmensen couldn't duplicate his results, struggling early before a much better finish late in the year. That finish at leats presents hope that Clemmensen can handle a 20-start backup role for the next couple of seasons.

The Panthers' future in goal is Jacob Markstrom, one of the game's top goaltending prospects. More on him below.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Jacob Markstrom G Brynas (SEL) 2.01 GAA, .927 SVPCT, 43 GP
Evgeny Dadonov RW Rochester (AHL) 17-23-40,+9,76 GP
Colby Robak D Brandon (WHL) 16-50-66,+56, 71 GP
Keaton Ellerby D Rochester (AHL) 6-13-19,-2, 58 GP
Michal Repik RW Rochester (AHL) 22-31-53,+14, 60 GP
Marc Cheverie G Denver (WCHA) 24-6-3, 2.08 GAA, .932 SVPCT, 35 GP
Kenndal McArdle LW Rochester (AHL) 3-5-8,+4, 18 GP
Alexander Salak G Rochester (AHL) 29-14-0,2.89 GAA, .910 SVPCT, 46 GP
Adam Comrie D Guelph (OHL) 14-26-40,-6, 68 GP
A.J. Jenks LW Plymouth (OHL) 23-40-63,+12, 52 GP

After a dominating season in the Swedish Elite League, 20-year-old Jacob Markstrom is a prized goaltending prospect. Whether he remains in Sweden for another year or spends a season in the AHL, getting used to the North American grind, he's on track to be the franchise's future between the pipes.

In his first season in North America, Evgeny Dadonov had a respectable showing in the AHL, earning a late-season call-up. The 21-year-old may need more seasoning, but he could challenge for a spot in the top-six forwards before long.

Colby Robak has shown steady improvement throughout his junior career and is a very capable puck-moving defenceman, but isn't aggressive in his physical play, particularly considering his size. With some development, though, Robak could be a big part of the future on the Panthers' blueline.

Though he doesn't possess the upside that might be expected of the tenth overall pick in the 2007 draft, Keaton Ellerby can move well for a big man, but could still get stronger if he's going to play the stay-at-home role in the NHL.

Michal Repik seems to been caught in a numbers game with the Panthers, though he has played 24 games with the big club over the last two seasons. Repik isn't big, but he's a blue-collar player who is coming off a nice AHL season. If there's room on the roster, he figures to have as good a shot as any to make it.

A seventh-round pick in 2006, Marc Cheverie was a standout performer for the University of Denver the last two seasons. The Panthers are deep in goal, but Cheverie is well worth a look.

Kenndal McArdle was a first-round pick in 2005 and has 22 NHL games to show for it, 19 of which came last season. He's a hard-nosed player, so he could carve out a fourth-line niche, but it doesn't appear the Panthers can expect more than that from him.

Adding to the Panthers' goaltending depth, 23-year-old Czech Alexander Salak was signed out of Finland, got lit up in a couple of early appearances with the Panthers and fashioned a solid season in the American Hockey League.

With Salak and Cheverie signed, it's conceivable that one would end up in the ECHL if Markstrom ends up ticketed for an AHL apprenticeship.

Another blueliner with good size, Adam Comrie has progressed steadily throughout his junior career. A year or two in the AHL would do him some good and give him his best shot at landing an NHL job.

Though he showed some offensive ability as a 19-year-old in the OHL, scoring 75 points in 61 games including playoffs, A.J. Jenks wasn't a big scorer in junior, so if the offence doesn't come, he may be more suited for a checking role and he does have the size and skating ability to make that a possibility.

Long-term, the Panthers can wait and see on collegiate prospects Drew Shore, at the University of Denver, and Josh Birkholz, at teh University of Minnesota, while Windsor Spitfire Scott Timmins was another of DeBoer's players from the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL.

DRAFT
3rd - Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler, Brandon Gormley.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Panthers have approximately $46.7M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 17 players.

Needs: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman.

What I said the Panthers needed last year: One top six forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman, two other defencemen, backup goaltender.

Who did they add? Steven Reinprecht, Dennis Seidenberg, Jordan Leopold, Ville Koistinen, Scott Clemmensen.

TRADE MARKET Nathan Horton, Steven Reinprecht, Cory Stillman, Kamil Kreps, Tomas Vokoun.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen 

Horton, McCabe and Weiss (Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
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