History was made last season in Sunrise as the Panthers won their first ever division title and qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 1999-200 season. (That's three arena name changes ago now that BankAtlantic Center will be called the BB&T Center.) Despite a massive overhauling of their roster from the season prior, the Panthers shot out of the gate quickly and spent 128 days atop the Southeast Division, boosted by an NHL-high 18 points from overtime and shootout losses.
The rats returned, but the Panthers were exterminated in the opening round by the New Jersey in seven games thanks to the first of Adam Henrique's postseason heroics for the eventual Stanley Cup runners-up.
But despite the disappointing end to the campaign, there was much optimism to be had for the future. GM Dale Tallon's off-season spending spree had paid off and the passion for hockey in South Florida returned, even as the Miami Heat were en route to the NBA title. Average attendance (16,629) and sellouts (17) at BankAtlantic Center were the highest they've been since the team moved there in 1998.
So now that the Panthers finally have expectations placed upon them for the first time in forever, can they maintain their success?
As was expected, defenseman Jason Garrison cashed in on a career season (16 goals, 33 points) and left for greener pastures in Vancouver. Attempting to replace his offense Tallon signed Filip Kuba (6 goals, 32 points with Ottawa) to a 2-year, $8 million deal. Where Garrison excelled on the power play (9 PPGs), Kuba and others will have to pick up the slack.
A fresh start could do Peter Mueller some good. After dealing with concussion issues the past few seasons, he signed a 1-year deal and if he can stay healthy, Mueller could be a vital part of Florida's top-six. It's a low-risk, potential high reward move by Tallon; and so far they've paid off.
Adding toughness at the bottom of the forward group will be George Parros, who replaces Matt Bradley and Krys Barch in the team "You wanna go?" department. With a number of youngsters coming through the ranks the next two seasons, Parros will provide adequate protection and also be a visible face (and mustache) in the community.
Acquired during the season, Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit), Marco Sturm (UFA) and Wojtek Wolski (Washington) were not re-signed, while veteran forward John Madden retired and joined the Montreal Canadiens' front office.rapper extraordinaire and new $17 million man Kris Versteeg (23 goals, 54 points).
The top line did most of the heavy listing (70 of 197 goals) and they'll once again have to rely on their depth in order to make a run at a second straight playoff berth. Scottie Upshall has had an injury-plagued career, but shown he can contribute when healthy. Same thing for Mueller, who hasn't produced at a high level since his rookie year in Phoenix when he netted 22 goals. Sean Bergenheim scored a career high 17 goals in just 62 games last season, proving he wasn't just a playoff performer. Marcel Goc is likely the most underrated player in the league.
Hoping to come in and contribute right away will be rookie pivot Jonathan Huberdeau. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 Draft lit up the QMJHL last season with 30 goals and 72 points in 37 games after leading the Panthers in scoring during the preseason. He's done all he can in Saint John. It's time for his to perform on the big stage.
On defense … The blueline will miss Garrison's booming slap shot and Kuba will have to try to help fill that offensive void despite only reaching double digit goals once in his career. One of Tallon's biggest moves was convincing Brian Campbell to come to Florida and it paid off. Campbell was the team's only All-Star last season, a deserving honor. "Soupy" led all NHL players in time on ice, averaging 26:53 per game; posted a career high in points with 53 and became the first defenseman to win the Lady Byng Trophy since Red Kelly in 1954.
The Panthers were 12th in goals against with 2.63 per game and feature a mix of vets (Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Mike Weaver) and kids (Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Keaton Ellerby and potentially Alex Petrovic) on defense. The penalty kill was 25th in league (79.5 per cent) and despite spending the second-lowest amount of time in the league shorthanded (383:28).
In goal … For now it's once again the Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen show. The pair started 76 games last season with rookie Jacob Markstrom getting the nod in six games as an injury replacement. With the 36-year old Theodore entering the final year of his contract, the path was set for Markstrom to take over the job. But with the never-ending rumors of Roberto Luongo and the 10 years left on his contract returning to the Panthers, the franchise's "goalie of the future" might soon be someone else's.
If any opponents -- or say, local beat writers -- want to take shots at the Panthers, no worries, they'll just keep on succeeding and include you in a "Suck on that!" video.
GM Dale Tallon helped build a Stanley Cup winner in Chicago -- albeit, after he was fired; and he's quickly doing the same in Florida. From behind the bench to on the ice, his changed since he arrived in May 2010 have worked to alter the culture of the organization. After years and years of losing, Panthers fans are expecting a winner now and Tallon will need to continue having a Midas touch to keep the interest level high in South Florida.
"A hockey arena. A safe harbor for you and your family. A place where children don't have anything to fear.
"Unless, of course, you're in Sunrise, Florida.
"The Florida Panthers. Yuck. Paid for by Cats."
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