2007-08 Team Preview: Florida Panthers
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideOne of these days, the Panthers will get it right. Their young talent will blossom; their veterans will provide leadership; and their coaching staff will implement a game plan that plays to the team's strengths. One of these days. In a division that is there for the taking, this looks like the perfect time for the Panthers to take that long-awaited step forward after missing the playoffs for six straight seasons and eight of the past nine. The tools are there in the form of young defensive stud Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton, who finally is emerging as the team's franchise forward. GM Jacques Martin, who also moonlights as the team's coach (or is it the other way around?), took advantage of the fire sale in Nashville to bring in netminder Tomas Vokoun, who might help folks in South Florida forget the ghastly Roberto Luongo trade. There's some added veteran support in Radek Dvorak, Richard Zednik, Jozef Stumpel and Ville Peltonen, and, of course, captain Olli Jokinen, the best NHL player never to play in an NHL playoff game. OFFENSE
The Panthers had the 11th-ranked offense in the NHL last season. The good news for Panthers fans is that youngsters Horton (31 goals) and Weiss (20 goals) should improve. Look for more pop from the back end, too. Bouwmeester should continue to mature (he had 42 points), and Mike Van Ryn should produce more than his 29 points after offseason surgery on both wrists. If they can hold the line offensively and maybe move up a rung or two, the playoffs should be in reach. DEFENSE
The Panthers are slowly building a solid, young defensive corps, including the addition of Noah Welch from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline for veteran Gary Roberts. The 6-foot-4 native of Brighton, Mass., will get every opportunity to join the big club this fall and signed a contract late in the summer. Another big man, 6-foot-4 Bryan Allen, was signed to a long-term deal and remains the one bright spot of the Luongo trade. The key, however, is Bouwmeester, who will turn 24 on the eve of the regular season. He is still growing, on and off the ice, as witnessed by his guilty plea to a drunken-driving charge dating back to last summer. If he's going to be the future of this franchise, he'll need to learn the nature of leadership. GOALTENDING
The Panthers ranked 20th in goals-against last season. A large part of that was caused by the inconsistent play of Alex Auld, who was supposed to step into the starter's role after coming over in the Luongo deal. Auld was a bust (3.34 goals-against average, .888 save percentage) and gave way to Ed Belfour as the season wore on. Belfour was terrific and nearly played the Panthers into the postseason, but he wanted too much money to remain with the team. Plus, he did get arrested with teammate Peltonen at a South Florida bar at the end of the season. Belfour quickly became an afterthought when Martin pulled off what might be seen as the coup of draft weekend by acquiring Vokoun, who was 63-30-11 over the past two seasons for Nashville. As good as Vokoun has been, however, there are lingering doubts about his durability. A thumb injury cost him 20 games, and he never really regained his form as the Predators were defeated in five games by San Jose in the first round of the playoffs. A season before, he missed the playoffs after a rare medical problem involving clotting of the veins in parts of his body. If Vokoun can get back on track, the Panthers will be in the playoff mix from the get-go. COACHING
Martin seems to have adapted into being the only NHL coach who doubles as GM (or vice versa). The key for Martin and the Panthers will be getting off to a decent start and avoiding the early-season letdowns that have forced the team to try to come from deep in the pack to qualify for the playoffs. Shortly after Martin's arrival in Florida after the lockout, there were criticisms that his game plan was too conservative for the new NHL. He seems to have adjusted nicely, as the Panthers lost just five games in regulation in their last 23 contests. Now if he can just get them to play like that for a whole season. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 35-31-16
• Division: Fourth in the Southeast
• Conference: 12th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
There is no doubt Vokoun, at the top of his game, is one of the top five goaltenders in the NHL. But will the Panthers get that Vokoun, or the one who was injured for parts of the past two seasons and has yet to win a playoff round? Defenseman: Noah Welch
If Welch can step into a top-six role with the Panthers, it'll make for an impressive group of young defenders, not just this season but for years to come. Forward: Ville Peltonen
The Finnish forward was one of the surprise stories of the 2006 Olympics, and he revived his NHL career with 17 goals and a plus-7 showing last season. Is that all there is, or does Peltonen have another gear?
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Last season, the Panthers had training camp in Colorado and played exhibition games in Puerto Rico, then won only five games in October. This year, they're jetting around the West during training camp. Hello? McFly? Anyone home? Where They Will Finish
The Panthers will finish fifth in the Southeast Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Florida Panthers will finish this time around? Who will lead the Panthers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!