A Look Back to 2010-11
In the Panthers’ first year of the Dale Tallon era, the team performed about as well as they were expected to. They struggled to score and finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. But what was lost in the end result is the fact that the Panthers actually weren’t awful defensively (although a lot of that had to do with Tomas Vokoun in net) and they were actually in the think of the playoff chase for much of the first half of the season. So down the stretch, Tallon got moving on revamping the team, getting young scorer Jack Skille from Chicago for Michael Frolik. Young defenders Dmitri Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby also got more time at the NHL level, giving them experience heading into this coming season. But the town is still pretty lethargic when it comes to team interest. That’s what happens when you haven’t been to the playoffs for 11 years. Grade: D- (They don’t get an F because people expected them to suck and Vokoun kept them from being much worse.)
A Look Ahead to 2011-12
Holy overhaul, Panthers. For a team that struggled to score last year, since only five players scored 10 goals last season, Tallon went out and spent some serious money on new players with the hope that they can give their fans some excitement (the fans that actually go to the games that is). They have a solid 1-2 punch on the top line with David Booth and Stephen Weiss occupying the left side and middle of the ice. Booth had some trouble rebounding from a nasty concussion, but he was also one of the only scoring options for the Panthers. Weiss’ numbers also suffered because of that, but each guy was able to score more than 20 goals despite the lack of help. I expect those numbers to go up this year with the additions of Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Tomas Fleischmann, Matt Bradley, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Kris Versteeg. You could pencil in either Versteeg or Upshall to play with Booth and Weiss and a combination of two others to play with the team’s other 20-goal scorer from last year, Mike Santorelli. Now, while adding these veterans to the team will give the team more offensive punch, it will take away from the ice time of guys like Jack Skille, Shawn Matthias, Evgeny Dadonov and Michal Repik. However, those players, with Dadonov as the only exception, haven’t shown that they can handle the top minutes on an NHL team, so it’s a wash no matter what way you look at it. The Panthers are also loaded in the minors with Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden and the 2011 third overall pick in Johnathan Huberdeau. Things will be better, but this group of forwards lacks a star and consistent scorers. Grade: C (Tallon had to overpay for the new guys because of how bad they were offensively. They will improve, but this is mostly a group of grinders.)
Another area that the Panthers were looking to get some help for their young players was on defense. The Panthers were 17th in the league last year in goals against, and there’s reason to think that number will be about the same this year. However, this is the area of the team that I like the most, at least for this year. More on that statement later. But Tallon went and got Brian Campbell (and his massive contract) from Chicago to fill the puck-moving void that Dennis Wideman and Bryan McCabe left, and Ed Jovanovski to play big minutes and mentor the team’s trio of young defensive studs in Dmitri Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby and Erik Gudbranson. Jason Garrison and veteran Mike Weaver stepped up and played big minutes late last year as well and fared well in that role. However, the crown jewel of the defense is Gudbranson, who should make his NHL debut this year. Kulikov already has two full seasons under his belt, and he and Gudbranson should be a force on the Florida blue line for years to come. The only knock that I have with the Panther defense has nothing to do with any of the current players. That complaint goes straight to Tallon, who passed on a sure thing in Adam Larsson to take Huberdeau. Add Larsson to the Gudbranson-Kulikov combo, and you’re looking at a scary young trio in South Florida. Huberdeau better be worth it. AHLer Nolan Yonkman was also brought in as a depth move and potential enforcer. Grade: C (I hate that they passed on Larsson, but this unit could be sneaky good if the kids listen to Jovo.)
A ton of the Panthers’ mistakes over the last few years were erased due to the play of Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has since left to go to Washington, and the Panthers brought in Jose Theodore to bridge the gap between the present and future. Theodore showed he still had some game left, posting decent numbers with a mediocre Minnesota team last year. The difference between that team and this one is that Theodore is going to see a ton of vulcanized rubber this year and hasn’t played an above-average full season since 2003-04. I love that someone gave Theodore a chance to play, I’ve been a fan of his for quite some time. Scott Clemmensen returns for the last year of his contract and should see his average workload as the team’s backup. But like I said, those two guys are temporary solutions with the top goaltending prospect in the league, Jacob Markstrom, waiting his turn. I suspect Markstrom, who is coming off a knee injury, to play a full season in San Antonio before being called up either later this season or next. I don’t think he needs all that time, as he’s been playing, and succeeding, against professionals since his days for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League as a 17 year old. Ask anyone that has talked about the Panthers with me (I’ll pay you a year’s worth of my salary if you can find someone), and they can tell you how I’ve been raving about Markstrom since he was drafted. He’s on the way, and he is also the backbone of what is shaping up to be a young and talented team in short time. For now, this is Theodore’s team. Grade: C- (Their goals against will rise unless they feel Markstrom is ready to be the guy this year.)
The Panthers won’t be as boring as they were last year. Some experienced players are going to have a chance to see some big ice time this year while the youngsters develop more. However, the Panthers are a long way from being a playoff team. What do they have working for them though? They FINALLY changed their home jerseys back to red. Well played, Panthers. Well played. 5th in Southeast, 14th in East.