Menu

Hockey

2011-12 Florida Panthers Preview

It's safe to say that when your franchise has set an NHL record for most consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, it's time for change.

Since taking over as Florida's general manager in May of 2010, Dale Tallon has been busy remaking the floundering Panthers in his own image. That process involved unloading a handful of players at the trade deadline this past season, leaving Florida with tons of salary cap space this summer.

In fact, Tallon had to work hard to even get his team over the cap floor, but managed to do so by signing a slew of players and trading for some big contracts.

The revamped Panthers have received mixed reviews, but considering the club hasn't made the postseason since 2000, nobody is going to question that drastic changes were in order.

Notable names like defenseman Brian Campbell, goaltender Jose Theodore and forwards Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall are among the new faces that have settled in south Florida. Also back in Miami is veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who was part of Panthers teams that made the playoffs in the late 1990s.

Rookie head coach Kevin Dineen has the difficult task of helping this new group of players build chemistry with each other.

Perhaps, Dineen will succeed in getting the Panthers back to the playoffs this year, but with all the turnover, an 11th straight season of watching the NHL's postseason tournament on TV is more likely.

FORWARDS - Florida's lack of offense was its most glaring weakness in 2010-11, as the Panthers finished 28th in the league with an average of just 2.33 goals per game. So, if you're a Panthers fan who didn't like Tallon's offensive acquisitions, it's unlikely that you'd be longing for the old guys either.

The Panthers have just two players remaining from their pre-lockout era in David Booth and Stephen Weiss, and both could be skating on Florida's top line with Upshall, who signed a four-year, $14 million deal to join the Panthers this summer.

Upshall has terrific speed and is a high-energy player, but he also is injury prone and isn't a big-time scorer. However, last year he played in 82 combined games with Phoenix and Columbus and recorded career-best numbers in goals (22) and points (34).

Booth, a 26-year-old left winger, had an nice bounce-back season in 2010-11, recording 23 goals and 40 assists in 82 games. Booth missed 54 games two years ago due to concussions.

Weiss, the longest-tenured Panther, is a solid playmaking centerman, although the 28-year-old had just 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) in 76 games last year after reaching 60 points in his previous two seasons.

The Panthers added a handful of new left wingers in Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Kopecky, and Tallon also picked up the club's likely second-line center in Tomas Fleischmann. With that many additions, Dineen is going to have his hands full trying to come up with the best line combinations.

Versteeg is just 25 years old and is a former Calder Trophy finalist, but he has certainly moved around a lot in the past few years. Originally drafted by Boston in 2004, he broke into the NHL ranks with Chicago before being dealt to Toronto last summer and moving to Philadelphia during the 2010-11 campaign.

The well-traveled Versteeg had 21 goals and 46 points in 80 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs and Flyers. He added one goal and five helpers in 11 postseason games for Philadelphia last spring, but was traded once again this summer, as Florida gave the Flyers a second and third-round pick to land Versteeg's services.

Bergenheim, meanwhile, is coming off an amazing postseason performance, as he exploded for nine goals in 16 playoff games for Tampa Bay last spring. That was after he tallied just 14 goals in 80 regular-season tilts for the Lightning, who let the 27-year-old Finn sign a four-year, $11 million with Florida.

Tallon hopes Fleischmann and fellow newcomer Marcel Goc will help stabilize the middle of the ice for Florida. One of the few holdovers from last year, Mike Santorelli, is expected to be the third-line center after notching 20 goals and 21 assists in 82 games last year.

Fleischmann missed nearly half the 2010-11 season with a pulmonary emboli, but judging by the four-year, $18 million contract he landed with Florida, the have high hopes for the 27-year-old Czech pivot.

Fleischmann started last year in Washington before getting dealt to Colorado. After notching just four goals and six assists in 23 games with the Caps, he tallied 21 points (8g, 13a) in 22 games with the Avalanche before his health issue ended his season.

Goc also battled injuries with Nashville last year and managed to record nine goals and 15 assists in 51 games with the Preds. The German centerman has 108 points (41g, 67a) in 389 career games as an NHLer.

Kopecky could join Goc and another newcomer, Matt Bradley, to form Florida's fourth line. Kopecky had his best year as an NHLer in 2010-11, registering career bests in games (81), goals (15) and assists (27) with Chicago. Bradley, meanwhile, had four goals and seven assists in 61 games with Washington.

DEFENSE - On the offensive side, Tallon's strategy was to add a large quantity of solid players, but his plans for improving the defense rely on a pair of big names.

Campbell comes with one of the worst contracts in the NHL, and it's fitting that Tallon has to handle with the remainder of the deal considering he's the one who signed Campbell in the first place. While still GM of Chicago, Tallon handed Campbell an eight-year contract worth roughly $7.1 million a season.

Although Campbell failed to live up to that price tag in the Windy City, Florida had been in need of a marquee defenseman since Jay Bouwmeester left for Calgary over two years ago. Campbell, 32, will be called on to log more minutes with the Panthers and Florida hopes he can do better than the five goals and 27 points he posted in 65 games with the Blackhawks last year.

Jovanovski, who was taken first overall by Florida in the 1994 draft, returns after more than a decade away from the Sunshine State. Jovo had his ups-and- downs in his tenures with Vancouver and Phoenix, but he still has the skill set to be a top-four defensemen. He played in just 50 games with Phoenix last year and had five goals and nine assists, but Florida, which signed Jovanovski to a four-year, $16.5 million deal, is banking on a rebound season.

The rest of Florida's blue line will contain a trio of highly-touted prospects (Dmitry Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby, Erik Gudbranson) and the undrafted Jason Garrison.

Kulikov (14th overall, 2009 draft) had a decent sophomore season in the NHL last year, posting six goals and 20 assists in 72 games. Ellerby (10th overall, 2007) had just two goals and 12 assists in 54 games.

Gudbranson (3rd overall, 2010) is billed as Florida's future No. 1 defenseman and it's expected that the 19-year-old will make the jump from juniors to the NHL this year. The Canadian skated with Kingston of the OHL in 2010-11 and notched 12 goals and 34 points in 44 games for the Frontenacs.

Even with resurgent seasons from Campbell and Jovanovski, the Panthers are expected to experience some growing pains on defense this season. Hopefully, the additions of the veterans can at least help Florida improve its power play, which was ranked dead last in the NHL last season.

GOALTENDING - Perhaps the biggest loss Florida suffered this offseason was the departure of former No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun, who signed a one-year deal with Washington this summer. At 35 years of age, Vokoun wanted to taste the playoffs again and the chances of experiencing the postseason in Florida this year are slim once again.

Without Vokoun, Florida will use last year's backup Scott Clemmensen and offseason signee Jose Theodore between the pipes. The two were in a tight battle for the No. 1 goaltending spot until Clemmensen underwent minor surgery to his knee on September 26. Theodore will now serve as the primary starter until Clemmensen gets back.

Clemmensen was 8-11-7 with a 2.62 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 31 games (25 starts) last year for the Panthers. Theodore saw action in 32 games with Minnesota in 2010-11, compiling a 15-11-3 record to go with a 2.71 GAA and .916 save percentage.

With Clemmensen in the final year of his contract and Theodore inked to a two- year, $3 million deal, it appears that the Panthers are simply trying to bridge the gap until Jacob Markstrom is ready for the NHL. Markstrom, or fellow rookie Tyler Plante, could serve as the backup to Theodore with Clemmensen sidelined.

The 21-year-old Markstrom, a second-round pick in 2008 draft, spent his first year playing in North America last season, as the Swede went 16-20-1 with a 2.98 GAA for the Rochester Americans of the OHL. Plante, 24, was 13-17-2 with a 3.12 GAA for the Americans in 2010-11.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - When you go 10 straight seasons without making the playoffs, it's obvious that at some point the rebuilding project went awry. The Panthers are paying too much for some of the veterans they brought in, but change was needed and Tallon tried to do his best with what was a weak free agent market. At best, the new-look Panthers will challenge for a playoff spot only to fall short. At worst, Florida could be headed for a second straight last place finish in the East.