Puck Daddy - NHL

Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene ...

Last Season (32-37-13, 77 points. Fifth in the Southeast, 14th in the East)

The departure of "franchise" defenseman Jay Bouwmeester(notes) was the story at the start of last season, but was only one of the storylines the Panthers had to deal with during their underwhelming follow up to Peter DeBoer's stellar first season as an NHL coach.

There was a shuffle in the Panthers' ownership back in Nov. 2009, with team decision-making ability taken from owner Alan Cohen. There was burgeoning star David Booth(notes) getting knocked out (literally) in a game against the Flyers on Oct. 24, the result of a Mike Richards(notes) hit that put the winger out until Jan. 31 and encouraged a new NHL rule on head shots. And there was Keith Ballard(notes), who accidently took out his own goalie in a fit of frustration. Ouch.

Ballard's moved on, as have a few more players on the Panthers. It was a summer of transition for the franchise; is it a season of renewed hope for the playoffs?

Key Subtractions

Nathan Horton(notes) scored 142 goals in six seasons for the Panthers, who drafted him third overall in 2003. But when GM Dale Tallon spoke with him for the first time after being hired, Horton requested a trade and was shipped up to Boston with teammate GregoryCampbell.

Defenseman Keith Ballard didn't want to go, but his salary and Florida's glut of defenseman necessitated a deal to the Vancouver Canucks (with Victor Oreskovich(notes)) as the 2010 Draft started. And with that, Tomas Vokoun(notes) put the lid back on the Advil.

Defenseman Ville Koistinen(notes) was bought out, Jeff Taffe(notes) was traded to Chicago and brawler Steve MacIntyre(notes) signed with the Oilers.

New Additions

Defenseman Dennis Wideman(notes) saw his plus/minus flip from a plus-32 in 2008-09 to a minus-14 last season with the Bruins, who gladly swapped him for Horton. Will the change of scenery help him reclaim his consistency?

Wingers Steve Bernier(notes) and Michael Grabner(notes) came over from Vancouver in the Ballard deal. Bernier tallied 22 points in 59 games for the Canucks; Grabner, selected No. 14 overall in 2006, had 11 points in 20 games.

Marty Reasoner(notes), acquired from the Blackhawks after they snagged him from the Thrashers in the Dustin Byfuglien(notes) trade, could provide some quality depth at center.

Enigmatic winger Christopher Higgins(notes), signed as a UFA, will hope to find his game in Florida after disappointing stints with the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers. Defenseman Nathan Paetsch(notes), who played 157 games with the Buffalo Sabres from 2006-10, was signed as a free agent, as was hardworking defenseman Mike Weaver(notes), formerly of the St. Louis Blues.

Finally, No. 3 overall pick defenseman Erik Gudbranson(notes) expects to remain with the Panthers this season; and at 6-4 and with incredible upside, they'd no doubt love if he forced them to.


Wrestler That Best Personifies the Team

Barry Horowitz Steve Lombardi. Jobber to the stars that had one brief bout of fame thanks to a great gimmick (The Brooklyn Brawler). The fact that he's a Florida native pretending to be a New Yorker? Delicious irony, considering the majority of the Panthers ex-pat fan base.

Forwards

With the departure of Horton, the Panthers have only two players that have scored over 30 goals in an NHL season: David Booth, who scored 31 in his breakout 2008-09 season, and Radek Dvorak(notes), who scored 31 way back in 2000-01 with the Rangers.

Which is to say that the Panthers, third-to-last in goals scored last season, aren't exactly a team predestined to light the lamp, at least on paper.

A healthy Booth, who missed most of 2009-10 after Mike Richards of the Flyers kabonged him, is a legit offensive force and practically the face of the franchise, having been signed though 2015. He played a good portion of last season with Stephen Weiss(notes), who led the team with 28 goals and with 60 points, and Michael Frolik(notes), who hit the 21-goal mark for the second straight season.

Steven Reinprecht(notes) had 38 points last season, skating with the likes of Rostislav Olesz(notes) (14 goals), the ageless Cory Stillman(notes) (37 points) and Dvorak (14 goals). All of them figured to be in the mix for the second line, unless Bernier or Higgins sneak up.

Center Shawn Matthias(notes) is still young (22) but needs to start developing a game as memorable as his 6-4 frame. Reasoner will help in thepivot. Keep an eye on Michal Repik(notes) in camp, who had 53 points in 60 games at Rochester last season. Ditto Evgeny Dadonov(notes), who had 40 in 76 games during an AHL stint.

Defense

An eclectic and, dare we say, potentially exciting group. And not just the excitement captain Bryan McCabe(notes) can bring in setting up an offensive chance and then blowing a play to allow one for an opponent ...

McCabe partnered with Dmitry Kulikov(notes) last season, as the rookie played to a minus-5 and scored 16 points. Expect to see the same sort of mentoring this season among Panthers defenseman: Wideman, Bryan Allen(notes) (entering his fifth year with Florida after coming over in the Luongo trade), Paetsch and Weaver are among the veterans on a blue line that could feature blue-chipper Keaton Ellerby(notes) (22 games last season), Jason Garrison(notes) (39 games last season and a plus-5) and Gudbranson.

Goaltending

Tomas Vokoun's name was floated all summer as a trade possibility, but he and his $5.7 million cap hit remained in Florida ... at least until the trade deadline, as he goes UFA next summer. While he's between the pipes, the Panthers have one of those goaltenders with the ability to win games on his own, posting seven shutouts and a .920 save percentage last season.

Scott Clemmensen(notes) was his backup last year and could be again this season, but rookie and goalie-of-the-future Jacob Markstrom(notes) of Sweden is the talk of the preseason.


Match We'd Pay ToWatch

Steven Reinprecht vs. Jeremy Piven in a "Bald is Beautiful" match. Reinprecht wins, and Ari Gold has to ditch the faux-hair and keep it real. Piven wins, and Reinprecht has to choose one of the dozen hairlines the actor's had in the last 15 years and wear it for the season ...

Breakout Player

Frolik is just 22 years old and has posted 45 and 43 points respectively in his last two seasons. With Horton gone, he'll see increased reasonability up front on the power play. Plus, he's due for a new contract,and we always love picking guys with that carrot in front of them for breakout player.

Potential Flop

Ellerby, the 10th overall pick in 2007, should be on this roster based on the expected maturation for his draft class. But he's going to have to earn a spot with the top four locked, some veterans in the mix as well as Gudbranson.

Finishing Move

Stephen Weiss: "See that end down there? I'm taking it all the way down, and there's nothing you can do to stop me, mortals."

Special Teams

The Panthers were an anemic 14.2 percent on the power play, ahead of only the Toronto Maple Leafs at the bottom of the standings. They were No. 23 on the kill at 79.4 percent efficiency. Losing Horton affects both areas, but so does gaining Wideman as a possible power-play point man.

Coach/GM

Pete DeBoer led the Panthers to 93 points in his first season but came back down to earth in Year 2 with a 77-point campaign. As Frozen Lair wrote in its mid-season review:

This year, the team has not responded quite as well, and the system that was installed last season has been abandoned on many nights.

Dale Tallon has effectively put Florida Panthers hockey back on the map in the eyes of the media, who supported him upon his ouster in Chicago. He's well-respected and has already made a few moves to shake-up the roster. Perhaps best of all: The Panthers' budget won't allow him to hand out the overly generous contracts he was famous for in Chicago.

2010-11 Preseason Report Card:

Forwards: D+
Defense: C+
Goaltending: A-
Special Teams: D+
Coaching: C+
Management: B-

Main Event or Dark Match?(Prediction)

Sadly, the Florida Panthers don't have enough to compete in the East or in the improving Southeast this season. They'll miss the postseason. Again. 

Entrance Music: The growling of a large feline? Whip cracking? Horrible tans? Can there be any more appropriate theme song for a South Florida team called the Panthers than Marc Mero and Sable?

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