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Panthers' struggles start at the top

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The Florida Panthers are the only team in the league to have more wins than regulation losses during all four seasons since the NHL lockout ended and no postseason appearances to show for it.

That's pretty hard to do, but when it comes to doing things the hard way, the Panthers broke the mold.

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Peter DeBoer returns for his second season as coach after narrowly missing the playoffs last season.
(Joel Auerbach/US Presswire)

Here's a franchise that in only its third year of existence came out of nowhere to win the Eastern Conference championship and play for the Stanley Cup. The Panthers may have been swept by Colorado, but certainly no one envisioned the struggles that would follow for the next dozen seasons.

Since the 1995-96 season, Florida has missed out on the postseason 10 of 12 times. The Panthers are on their ninth head coach as Peter DeBoer has followed Doug MacLean, Bryan Murray, Terry Murray, Duane Sutter, Mike Keenan, Rick Dudley, John Torchetti and Jacques Martin. The GM parade isn't as exhaustive – six different names in all, four of which coached (B. Murray, Dudley, Keenan and Martin) – but the irony is they don't have a GM right now.

On top of Florida's frustration on the ice, the Panthers are going through even more turmoil off of it. Team owner Alan Cohen wants to sell the team that has reportedly lost more than $100 million since his ownership group purchased the Panthers in 2001. Cohen thought he had a deal, but the NHL won't approve the transaction because it feels the potential buyer lacks a primary investor with a substantial equity stake.

It's naïve to think the problems with ownership won't eventually trickle throughout the organization all the way on to the ice. Is it a coincidence the team hasn't officially replaced departed GM Martin, who jumped ship in early summer to coach in Montreal. The Panthers are lucky to have one of the great roster builders in ex-Islanders' longtime GM Bill Torrey, but he's only keeping the GM seat warm along with assistant GM Randy Sexton.

Not to be overlooked is the fact Florida came very close last season, finishing with the same number of points (93) as eighth-place Montreal, which beat the Panthers during the four-game season series. Florida played well, especially in the second half once they had fully grasped DeBoer's system and the young, emerging core gained confidence and accepted the challenge of finding a way to win down the stretch.

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Weiss

The team's failed efforts to extend the contract of cornerstone defenseman Jay Bouwmeester(notes) probably went a long way to stymie the late-season momentum the team hoped would carry over another long summer. Florida was forced to trade the youngster who it drafted, developed and watched stand on the brink of stardom or it faced the prospect of watching Bouwmeester leave via free agency with merely a sandwich-round draft pick coming in return some day.

Last season: 41-30-11 (93 points), third place Southeast Division, ninth place in the Eastern Conference and 14th in the overall standings. Despite earning the second most points in franchise history, the Panthers again fell short of the elusive Stanley Cup playoffs. Florida has been a postseason spectator eight straight seasons and 12 of 15 times overall.

Imports: D Jordan Leopold(notes) (Calgary), D Ville Koistinen(notes) (Nashville), C Steven Reinprecht (Calgary), C Jeff Taffe(notes) (Pittsburgh) and G Scott Clemmensen(notes) (New Jersey).

Exports: D Jay Bouwmeester (Calgary), D Steve Eminger(notes) (Anaheim), D Nick Boynton(notes) (Anaheim), D Karlis Skrastins(notes) (Dallas), C Anthony Stewart(notes) (Atlanta), LW Ville Peltonen(notes) (Russia), RW Richard Zednik(notes) (Russia) and G Craig Anderson(notes) (Colorado).

Re-signings: LW David Booth(notes) and RW Radek Dvorak(notes).

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Frolik

Salary cap: The team is in fine shape in terms of the cap – approximately $48.8 million spent with about $8.4 million remaining – but the question is how much more can the Panthers really spend since ownership is unsettled?

Three keys: In Tomas Vokoun(notes) and new backup Scott Clemmensen, the Panthers have a strong 1-2 punch which is easily the best tandem in the division. Vokoun, 33, and Clemmensen, 32, have to lead the way.

Vokoun has been outspoken in the past when things haven't gone well for the Panthers, which is OK since accountability might be one aspect that has escaped the team for a bit. Clemmensen proved his worth by stepping in for the injured Martin Brodeur(notes) and carrying the Devils for four months last season. Florida might have some holes and inexperience, but they shouldn't have either of those problems in goal.

Second, there's no denying the organization appears to be on to something with a group of young forwards, all drafted and developed by the Panthers. The group, which includes leading scorer Stephen Weiss(notes) (61 points), David Booth (31 goals), Nathan Horton(notes), Rostislav Olesz(notes), Greg Campbell and Frolik, is between the ages of 21-26.

The Panthers look around and see a superstar forward on every other team in the division – Alexander Ovechkin(notes) (Washington), Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) (Atlanta), Eric Staal(notes) (Carolina) and Vincent Lecavalier(notes) (Tampa Bay). They don't have that player, but they might be able to do it by committee better and longer than the other teams if they can keep this core together and improving.

Third, the defense is going to have to sort itself out in terms of the top six and who fits into what roles. There's a mix of veterans and youth, and there's a whole lot of players vying for spots in camp, so the competition figures to be keen.

The Panthers surrendered the fifth fewest number of goals in the conference (second least among division foes), and a lot of that credit goes to the team's goaltending last season. The goal has to be to drop that number of 231 goals-against even more.

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Tomas Vokoun spearheads the team's strength in terms of providing quality goaltending.
(Steve Mitchell/US Presswire)

On the hot seat: Really, the entire organization is on this seat. The fans can't be blamed for staying away. The Panthers are getting close to going a decade without a playoff appearance. Their biggest-name stars – Olli Jokinen(notes), Roberto Luongo(notes) and Jay Bouwmeester – couldn't get anything accomplished here and all departed with plenty of game left. It just seems like nothing positive has happened since the last rat hit the ice in '96 and Dave Lowry shaved that glorious red beard.

Poised to blossom: Michael Frolik(notes) had a very nice rookie season that few recognized. The 21-year-old Czech burst on the scene to score 21 goals and 45 points in 79 games. He was dubbed "Baby Jagr" for his game's likeness to fellow countryman Jaromir Jagr(notes) the year before Florida drafted Frolik in the first round (10th overall). He's a playmaker with a good shot. He's used to scoring goals and piling up points. He may have only scratched the surface last season.

Time has passed: Jordan Leopold came in the deal for Bouwmeester, and while the 29-year-old isn't over the hill in terms of age, he just hasn't produced in the NHL what most expected when he was made a second-round pick by Anaheim in 1999.

Leopold is also due to be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, so don't be surprised if he's targeted as a rental by someone needed depth on their blue line come March.

Leopold is coming off his second tour of duty in Calgary where the Flames had high hopes of his getting reunited with Robyn Regehr(notes) and becoming a solid pair again, but it never materialized. Leopold has never scored more than nine goals in a season and has eclipsed 20 points only once.

Prediction: It's pretty simple. Washington and Carolina have higher-end talent and are deeper than Florida so the Panthers are looking at third place in the division, assuming they can finish ahead of Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Can they pile up more points than the third-place finishers arguably the better two divisions in the East? Both the Atlantic and Northeast will produce quality third-place finishers so again, it could be a season of barely missing out.