Remodeled Panthers hope to end playoff drought
There isn't another franchise in the NHL that's had more futility recently than the Florida Panthers. They've made the playoffs just three times in their 17 seasons and haven't reached the postseason since 2000, the longest drought in League history.
In his second year as general manager of the Panthers, Dale Tallon spent the offseason doing everything he could to construct a winning team. There could be about a dozen new faces -- including a new coach in Kevin Dineen -- at the BankAtlantic Center, a sign that times are changing in South Florida.
For all the talent Tallon acquired in June and July, the Panthers didn't clean house entirely.
Their three leading scorers -- centers Stephen Weiss and Mike Santorelli along with David Booth -- remain with the team. All three had at least 20 goals last season and could improve on their totals with the influx of offensive talent acquired by Tallon.
It will take a lot for the Panthers to improve on their last-place finish (72 points) in the Eastern Conference and reach the postseason in 2011-12, but perhaps Tallon's overhaul will do just that.
By far the biggest loss for the Panthers was that of Tomas Vokoun, who signed a one-year deal with Southeast Division rival Washington in July. As bad as the Panthers have been in recent years, none of the blame could be pinned on Vokoun. In his four seasons with the Panthers, he never posted a save percentage worse than .919.
The Panthers' other departures since the end of the season are more about quantity than quality.
Gone are forwards Steve Bernier, Sergei Samsonov, Byron Bitz, Mike Duco, Patrick Rissmiller, Niclas Bergfors, Marty Reasoner and defensemen Alexander Sulzer and Clay Wilson.
Of that group, only Samsonov has scored 20 goals during an NHL season, and that most recently occurred in 2001-02. There isn't a true difference-maker in the bunch, but there's young talent in there that could be effective for other clubs in the coming years.
To truly grasp how much the Panthers have changed since the start of last season, it's important to look at what Tallon pulled off at the 2011 trade deadline as well. He shipped out defenseman Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman and Bryan Allen along with forwards Cory Stillman, Michael Frolik, Chris Higgins and Radek Dvorak.
There's probably no other fan base in the League that needs to buy the opening night program more than Panthers fans.
All of those departures means there must be an equal amount of arrivals to balance things out. There are enough newcomers with the Panthers that it's almost necessary for them to wear name tags when they show up for training camp.
Starting with the forwards, the Panthers added Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley and Ryan Carter.
Fleischmann received the biggest free-agent contract of any new Panther, a four-year, $18 million deal. He's battled concussion issues and a pulmonary embolism during the past two seasons, but when healthy, he's an offensive threat with terrific speed. The Panthers clearly weren't afraid of his health problems.
At 27, Upshall is just entering his prime but has yet to realize his potential. His 22 goals last season, split between the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets, were a career-best, and the Panthers are expecting him to build on that success.
In Versteeg and Kopecky, the Panthers get two players who were key cogs in the Stanley Cup championship of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team Tallon basically built from scratch. Their leadership and experience could be invaluable.
Bergenheim made a name for himself with his terrific playoff run last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He finished tied for third in playoff scoring with 9 goals despite the Lightning failing to get past the Eastern Conference Final.
Goc is a fourth-line center who is effective on faceoffs. Bradley brings toughness, while Carter will likely open the season in the AHL.
Tallon also bolstered the team's blue line, acquiring Brian Campbell from the Blackhawks in a trade and signing former Panther Ed Jovanovski to a four-year deal. The pair will bring stability to a blue-line corps that has severely lacked that quality in recent seasons.
To replace the workhorse that is Vokoun, the Panthers picked up Jose Theodore in free agency. He'll likely split time with Scott Clemmensen until one of them emerges as the No. 1 goaltender.
Two wild cards are defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers' No. 1 draft picks the past two years. Gudbranson appears to be ready for the NHL, but he'll need to prove that to Dineen during training camp. Huberdeau was the third pick in this year's draft and will be given a chance to earn a spot.
There's no doubt the Panthers will be a much-improved team in 2011-12, but will they be good enough to earn a postseason spot? Dineen is a rookie coach with the unenviable task of getting all these newcomer to work as a team, something that would appear difficult for even the most seasoned coach.
But the Panthers have a lot of things they've been lacking in the past, including speed and Stanley Cup championship experience. Depending on how quickly everyone comes together, the Panthers could surprise a few people by the end of the season.
A lot of that will depend on the goaltending. For years, the Panthers had one of the best keeping them in games in Vokoun. If Theodore and Clemmensen keep the Panthers in games, a major turnaround could be in store.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo