Where did everyone go? The former core of the Panthers, which included Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen as the centerpieces, have both been traded away to the Western Conference. A string of bad trades crippled the organization and its depth chart, and the Panthers are scrambling to get everything back together. The Panthers have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive years, and this year’s no different, although management seems to think otherwise and will be looking for forwards Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss to step up their game and lead the charge.
For a team that’s called the “Panthers,” the team’s offense is rather tame. With the departure of Jokinen, that means Horton is the de facto go-to guy – all 62 points of him. Weiss, the team’s other offensive weapon, is a full 20 points less at 42, with only 13 goals. Then there’s the young David Booth, who surprised many, including himself, who potted in 22 goals and 40 points. It’s not very imposing, but on the bright side, all three youngsters finished the season with pluses. It’s a testament to Panthers’ forwards strong two-way game, but also a system that former coaches Mike Keenan and Jacques Martin have carved into their brains. Some hockey pundits have noted that the departure of Jokinen signals the start of another youth movement in Miami, but the signing of 34-year old Cory Stillman is a counter-argument to that. The veteran forward had 65 points with Carolina and Ottawa last year, and will most certainly be slotted onto the first line which Horton may very well be centering, despite playing right wing with Jokinen for much of his career. After the first line, there will be plenty of chances for rookie Shawn Matthias, who impressed many in the WJHC and during brief call-up (2 goals in 4 games), to prove that he is ready for the NHL game, otherwise expect the underrated Brett McLean to take over duties. A player that the Panthers will be really looking to step up is Rostislav Olesz, Florida’s 1st pick in the 2004 draft. Olesz was on pace for a career season before being sidelined by injuries, but thus far has only recorded a paltry 77 points in 190 NHL games. Olesz is only 22 years old, but has to step up his game and live up to his first-round pick label, and even if he doesn’t perform well this year, he can rest assured that the Panthers will wait, after signing him to an extension that will keep him in Miami until 2013.
Defensively is where the Panthers get top marks. Although the Panthers didn’t receive anything significant from the Jokinen trade up front, the additions of Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton will definitely help a defense that was only average last year. Jay Bouwmeester once again leads the defensive corps, and will be looked upon to provide more leadership on a young Panthers squad. He has always played second fiddle to Jokinen, and it remains to be seen how he adjusts to the spotlight as the Panthers’ new best player. Bouwmeester was the subject of trade rumours throughout the summer because of his unwillingness to be part of another youth movement, and as a result is on a one-year contract. It’s almost with utmost certainty that Bouweester will be testing the free agent waters this summer, and the Panthers may elect to trade him at the deadline instead of letting him walk. Even the acquisition of Bryan McCabe hasn’t made Bouwmeester budge from his original stance. Rounding out the defense is the positionally sound Bryan Allen and the dependable ironman Karlis Skrastins. With those six players the Panthers have one of the best defensive corps in the league and don’t be surprised if they post some of the best defensive numbers the franchise has ever seen.
If the Panthers’ new plan is to build from the net out, they sure are doing an incredible job. After losing Luongo in what has been hailed as one of the most lopsided trades in history, the Panthers managed to get themselves back on their feet by acquiring Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun’s numbers were definitely MVP-worthy, especially considering that the Panthers allowed the second-most shots in the league on a per game basis (33.6). Craig Anderson proved to be a capable backup as well, and their combined save percentage of .920 was the best in the league along with Anaheim’s. This is one aspect of the team that Martin won’t lose sleep over.
Other than Bouwmeester, much of the focus on the Panthers this year will be on Peter DeBoer, who makes his NHL debut. The former Kitchener coach is one of the most respected coaches in the OHL and one of the most decorated as well, having been named OHL Coach of the Year in back to back seasons (1999, 2000) as well as Memorial Cup and Robertson Cup victories. DeBoer inherits an offensively challenged team, and it’ll be a welcome challenge for DeBoer, who coached the OHL’s best offense in Kitchener last year.
It’ll be an interesting season in Florida, which features a new coach, a disgruntled star defenseman, and a crop of underachieving youngsters. With an ownership that hardly cares about the team, did anyone really expect anything different?
Cory Stillman – Stephen Weiss – Nathan Horton
David Booth – Brett McLean – Richard Zednik
Radek Dvorak – Kamil Kreps – Rostislav Olesz
Ville Peltonen – Greg Campbell – Wade Belak
Bryan Allen – Jay Bouwmeester
Keith Ballard – Bryan McCabe
Karlis Skrastins – Nick Boynton
Tomas Vokoun – Craig Anderson
scratches: Shawn Matthias, Tanner Glass, Cory Murphy
Coach: Peter DeBoer
GM: Jacques Martin
Predicted finish: 4th Southeast, 13th East