|ESPN.com: NHL Preview 2009||[Print without images]|
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
By Scott Burnside
Since the Panthers entered the NHL in 1993, they have enjoyed one winning playoff season, advancing unexpectedly to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. They have managed to qualify for the playoffs just two other times and are riding an eight-season playoff drought (although they came achingly close last season, tying for the eighth and last playoff berth with 93 points but missing based on head-to-head competition with Montreal).
Former GM Jacques Martin, who slunk off on the eve of the draft to take the Montreal coaching job (there's some symmetry for you), rolled the dice and hung on to franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester instead of dealing him at the trade deadline. The Cats missed the playoffs but managed to obtain the rights to former Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold in exchange for Bouwmeester's rights (he later signed with Calgary), but that hardly ranks as full compensation for a player of Bouwmeester's stature.
It does, however, say a lot about the history of the team. Even with Bouwmeester's departure, there are reasons for optimism in South Florida, including a terrific young coach, a solid defense, good goaltending and promising young players.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Panthers this season:
1. Jay gone
Even with Bouwmeester's departure, it is the Florida blue line that offers optimism that this is the season the Panthers will bust back into the postseason. Sophomore coach Peter DeBoer acknowledged that the coaching staff has been thinking long and hard about how to replace the average 26:59 in ice time Bouwmeester logged every night -- most in the NHL.
"I think that question is yet to be answered," DeBoer said. "In my mind, he's one of the top five defensemen in the world. It's a hole."
But there are lots of moving parts for the coach to deploy, including Leopold, Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe, and newcomers Dennis Seidenberg and Ville Koistinen, all of whom give the Panthers more than adequate puck-moving skill on the back end. There's also rookie Dmitry Kulikov, drafted by the Panthers with the No. 14 pick in June, who is making a bid to join the big club out of training camp.
2. David Booth
If he were playing pretty much anywhere else in the NHL, Booth might well be on his way to becoming a household name. OK, maybe that's a stretch; still, you get the point with a young player, who, in his second full NHL season, led the Panthers with 31 goals, including five game winners, which tied for the team lead. He also led the team with 11 power-play markers. Tough and talented, Booth is pretty much a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team and, along with Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss, forms the team's most dangerous offensive unit, a trio nicknamed The Sunrise Express. We like that.
3. Bueller, Bueller? Anyone, anyone?
Every season, we write the Panthers preview and ask whether this is the year top draft picks Weiss and/or Horton finally will fulfill their promise. Horton, the No. 3 pick in 2003, had 31 goals in 2006-07 and seemed on his way, but his numbers have dipped the past two seasons (he had just 22 in 2008-09, losing 15 games to injury).
Weiss, the No. 4 pick in 2001, took a step forward last season in leading the team with 61 points and a plus-19 rating. That was a 19-point jump from the previous year, but is there more? The Panthers are hoping the answer is yes, loads more, from both young players. If Horton and Weiss can both deliver the goods, the playoffs will be a realistic goal. If not, well, thousands of empty seats are proof that fans have seen enough of that story.
4. Now if they can just show up for that other third
The Panthers were one of the NHL's top 10 teams in the final two-thirds of the regular season. The problem was that in the first third, they were among the worst in the league. DeBoer told ESPN.com he takes some responsibility, as he was still figuring out his personnel through the first 15 games or so. But the promising news is the team played well for an extended period of time. Not quite long enough, as it turns out, but long enough to think there will be more of the same right from the start this season.
5. Culture of losing
The past four years, the Panthers have averaged a shade better than 87 points, and they essentially missed the playoffs last season by the margin of one shootout loss. (For the record, the Panthers were tied for last in the league with just three shootout victories and are working on that element of the game.) Those aren't bad numbers; just not good enough in a market that somehow reflects the team itself, just not good enough.
Perhaps the most telling comment about the culture in Florida was made by Bouwmeester in a recent interview with ESPN.com before training camp when he described how much he was looking forward to playing in Calgary.
"It certainly beats playing in front of 5,000 people against Atlanta on a Tuesday night," Bouwmeester said.
We recall a conversation with Mike Keenan after he departed Florida. He believed that young players develop more slowly in South Florida because there is no outside pressure to perform, no media hounding them for poor performances or fans expressing their disappointment at failures. If the team is going to push aside the culture of losing, it will be because there are enough strong personalities on the bench and in the locker room to make it happen.
6. The power play
The Panthers are all too familiar with the thin margin between winning and losing, and DeBoer said he has identified two areas they will strive to improve upon. One is the aforementioned shootout, and the second is the team's power play. The Panthers were 24th with the man advantage (conversely, the Panthers were an impressive ninth in killing penalties), and the belief is a few more timely power-play goals could push them into the postseason.
7. Between the pipes
DeBoer wasn't afraid to give veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun a seat on the pine when the Czech netminder started to go sideways, and the coach was rewarded by strong performances from backup Craig Anderson that, in turn, pushed Vokoun to be better. Anderson used that confidence to earn a shot at the No. 1 job in Colorado, where he signed as a free agent this offseason. DeBoer has another more than capable backup in Scott Clemmensen, who performed magic last season in New Jersey when Brodeur was out with an elbow injury. Clemmensen (25-13-1) will push Vokoun for starts, which is always a healthy thing.
Who thinks this is a good idea?
Almost every season, the Panthers spend most of training camp flying hither and yon, in large part because hardly anyone will pay to see their preseason games at home. This season, the Panthers worked out in Halifax, Nova Scotia, then played preseason games across Canada and in Dallas before stopping off at home for clean duds before jetting to Finland for their turn in the NHL Premiere Games, taking on Chicago.
Is it any surprise the Panthers almost always get off to a slow start? Since the lockout, the Panthers have yet to compile a better-than-.500 record in October and November, forcing them to play catch-up the rest of the way."Poor starts for the Florida Panthers have been a real big issue for us," DeBoer said. "As a group, we're definitely looking at seeing if there's a correlation [between the heavy preseason travel and the poor start]."
9. A scheduling note
The Panthers open the season with two games against a good Chicago team in Finland and travel to Carolina before opening at home against New Jersey on Oct. 10. By the time October comes to an end, the Panthers will have played 12 games, almost all against top NHL talent. Can you say trial by fire?
10. Olympic exposure
Booth will be in Vancouver for the U.S. team. Vokoun is a good bet to be the starter for the Czechs, and countryman Michael Frolik also will get a look. Koistinen might get a shot with the Finns, and Seidenberg undoubtedly will be part of the German effort.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 41-30-11
• Division: Third in the Southeast
• Conference: Ninth in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• OK, not many people like the Panthers' chances of ending their playoff drought. We're not many people. We like them. They'll finish fourth in what will be an ultracompetitive Southeast Division and sneak into the postseason. Will anyone in South Florida notice? That's an entirely different question.
• Last season, Peter DeBoer arrived on the NHL scene as a highly successful, highly coveted major junior coach. Far from being timid, he wasn't afraid to bench veterans regardless of their experience or contract size.
More than being tough, DeBoer implemented a system that took advantage of the team's skill on the back end to help make up for the loss of captain and leading scorer Olli Jokinen. Now he'll have to overcome the loss of Jay Bouwmeester in pursuit of a playoff berth, but he has the tools to do just that.
"I can tell you I now know how to get to every visiting bench in the league," the coach quipped.
F -- Stephen Weiss
• The Cats' leading scorer from last season would like to build on his career-best 61 points.
F -- Nathan Horton
• Has all the tools to be a top-scoring winger. Now needs to do it consistently.
F -- David Booth
• Unsung hero of the Panthers. Won't be unsung if they sneak into the playoffs.
D -- Keith Ballard
• Playing to make up for U.S. orientation camp snub.
D -- Bryan McCabe
• Has the tools to help provide much-needed offense from the blue line.
Best Bet: Tomas Vokoun, G: Vokoun has always been an ace in the save percentage category, and the move to Florida only helped his cause (facing more shots). In fact, his goals-against average is always in the upper third of starters as well. So what has us suddenly ranking him among the top five goaltenders? Simply put, it's the increase in wins we are anticipating as the Panthers continue to thrive under coach Peter DeBoer's direction.
Risky Move: Stephen Weiss, F: Although Weiss may be very heavy on the assists, he has become reliable in the plus/minus department. He will open another season as the Panthers' go-to center, spearheading a very talented top six. While he may not again go over the 60-point mark, Weiss does enough damage to be a No. 7 or No. 8 forward.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Florida Panthers finish this season in Southeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.