Florida Panthers season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:31 PM ET
ESPN.com

Florida Panthers

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

No other team in the NHL carries more questions and more possibilities than the Panthers do. One thing is certain in a sea of uncertainty: Success or failure, it all stops with Jacques Martin. The quiet (some would say stupefyingly boring) Martin emerged the winner in an ugly power play in South Florida that saw longtime friend and associate Mike Keenan depart (the official line is that he left of his own volition; the truth is that he was forced to resign) a few days before the team's rookie camp opened. With his reputation hanging in the balance, Martin will have to make do without franchise netminder Roberto Luongo and will have to keep order in a dressing room that includes combative Todd Bertuzzi and veteran Gary Roberts who wanted out, in part because he was at odds with Martin last season. By the time the season is over, the Panthers might make the old battling Yankees look like a Kumbaya club.

Offense: Only three teams in the Eastern Conference scored fewer than the Panthers' 240 goals last season. Not surprisingly, none of those teams managed to qualify for the postseason. When Florida struggled out of the gate, there were complaints that Martin had not adjusted quickly enough to the new NHL. Part of the problem was injuries to Roberts and pal Joe Nieuwendyk. The team did enjoy a resurgence in the second half of the season, and Martin will hope to capitalize on that. He'll also hope to capitalize on a reborn Bertuzzi, who languished in Vancouver last season and tried unsuccessfully to put the Steve Moore incident behind him. Bertuzzi has the potential to be a force; the question is whether he's a destructive force on the team or an offensive force that could help propel the Panthers into the postseason. Bertuzzi, Nieuwendyk and Roberts will set an important tone in the dressing room for the real nexus of Florida's future, young forwards such as Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and Anthony Stewart. We love the addition of Ville Peltonen, who was sensational playing on a line with captain Olli Jokinen as the Finns earned a surprise silver medal.

Defense: Defensive-minded Martin helped shore up a porous defense that finished sixth in the conference in goals-against. If the Panthers can keep up that standard while getting more out of the offense, the playoffs will be a possibility. Of course, that was with Luongo in goal. It stands to reason the team defense will have to be much improved in front of Alex Auld and Ed Belfour to reduce the number of shots and scoring chances allowed if they hope to reproduce those satisfactory goals-against numbers. Jay Bouwmeester hit a bit of a wobble early last season, but he is a Norris Trophy winner in the making. Mike Van Ryn has turned into a reliable defender, and newcomers Ruslan Salei and Bryan Allen -- who arrive from Anaheim and Vancouver, respectively -- should provide much-needed depth.

Goaltending: This should make for an interesting dressing room dynamic. Auld, big (6-foot-4), talented and determined to prove himself, sharing quarters with Hall of Fame shoo-in Belfour, who's out to prove the career train hasn't arrived at the final stop. Belfour isn't the monster many make him out to be, but he's not all fuzzy-wuzzy, either. Belfour has the biggest hurdle after a desultory 2005-06 campaign that saw him turn in an eye-popping 3.29 GAA and .829 save percentage. Still, he's only a couple of seasons removed from a Vezina Trophy nomination, and if Florida ever makes it to the postseason, Belfour's among the best money goaltenders in the history of the game. Auld is technically sound and appears to have adjusted well to the new NHL, which means more traffic and more side-to-side play.

Coaching: One of the reasons GM Keenan reportedly tried to have Martin fired early last year was the team's passive offensive scheme. By the end of the year, Martin had the team working very well, and he is a man who let the Senators pour in the goals in his final years behind the Ottawa bench, so he's not a complete stick-in-the-mud when it comes to offense. In the wake of the sudden departure, Martin continues as coach and inherits the GM post. He is the only person in the NHL to hold both jobs, and there's a reason: It can't be done (a) without a terrific staff and (b) without parts of both jobs suffering.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
10th Who knows. They could be on the cover of the Record and Guide Book, holding the Cup over their heads, but we don't think so. Not enough goaltending and too much potential for internal combustion will keep the Panthers third in the Southeast and 10th in the East.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Down
Stock down. Ownership has done little to re-establish the early credibility the team earned with a surprise run to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals. The Keenan mess (let's start with hiring him as GM months after firing him as coach) merely reinforces the lack of hockey acumen at the very top. Attendance reflects the team's instability.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
A change of scenery should do wonders for Todd Bertuzzi, and likely being paired with budding superstar Olli Jokinen could help him approach the 97 points he totaled in 2002-03, the season before the Steve Moore incident. Comparisons to Dany Heatley, who topped the century mark in points after a move to Ottawa, are inevitable, and Bertuzzi should still go in the top 50 fantasy picks overall. On defense, Alex Auld is untested in net, but former first-round pick Jay Bouwmeester looks primed for a breakout campaign. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Panthers:
1. Anthony Stewart, 21, RW, Rochester (AHL)
Statline: 4 GP, 2 G, 3 A, 0 PIM
2. Kenndal McArdle, 19, LW, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Statline: 72 GP, 28 G, 43 A, 135 PIM
3. Kamil Kreps, 21, C, Rochester (AHL)
Statline: 61 GP, 13 G, 19 A, 20 PIM
4. Stefan Meyer, 21, C, Rochester (AHL)
Statline: 68 GP, 12 G, 16 A, 139 PIM
5. David Shantz, 20, G, Peterborough (OHL)
Statline: 16-3-0 record, 2.61 GAA, .925 SV%
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Florida Panthers
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record37-34-11 (85 points)
DivisionFinished fourth in Southeast
ConferenceFinished 11th in East
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Stephen Weiss
The Panthers have been waiting since drafting him five years ago for the talented center to grow into his NHL skates. Time's a wasting, Stephen.
Winger: Ville Peltonen
The talented playmaker never quite got it right during his first run through the NHL, unable to find a role in San Jose and Nashville. But if his play at the Olympics is any indication, he's ready to make a significant contribution.
Defense: Ric Jackman
What to make of the troubled yet talented defenseman, who has plenty of offensive skills but has bounced from Toronto to Pittsburgh to Florida in the past three NHL seasons.
Goalie: Alex Auld
It wasn't Auld's fault the Canucks collapsed down the stretch last season, but he'd better prove that with a solid, consistent effort in South Florida.

Key Moves
You don't get any more key than swapping out your franchise netminder (Luongo) for a gifted, if troubled, power forward (Bertuzzi), a youthful if unproven netminder (Auld) and a top-four defenseman (Allen). This deal will be discussed and dissected from training camp until the final day of the season.

SportsNation
Rating the Panthers
The Florida Panthers finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Panthers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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