September 13, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Eleventh place in the Eastern Conference (38-35-9, 85 points); failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. Made things interesting with an 8-0-1 streak in March. Of course "interesting" becomes a bit of a relative term in light of the fact that Richard Zednik had his carotid artery sliced open by a teammate's skate one month earlier, making for one of the most ghastly on-ice injuries in NHL history. Now that's was interesting.
Zednik is back, participating in full practices. Plenty has changed in the Panthers' locker room since his last game. Peter DeBoer, who has as much NHL coaching experience as Zednik does, is the new head coach. Veteran winger Cory Stillman was signed as a free agent. Gone are defensemen Steve Montador, Jassen Cullimore and Mike Van Ryn, who was traded for Toronto Maple Leafs veteran Bryan McCabe. But the biggest transaction for the franchise since the Roberto Luongo trade saw Olli Jokinen sent to Phoenix for defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. The only difference being that the Luongo trade probably got more positive reviews within the first 24 hours than this one did.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Nathan Horton is signed through 2013. He had 27 goals and 62 points last season, matching his point-total from the previous season. Obviously, the Florida Panthers are going to need more out of the winger to help supplement the 34 goals and 71 points Jacques Martin sent to the desert without any offensive player in return. Which means shattering the 62-point and 31-goal ceilings Horton's played under for the last two seasons.
We should mention Jay Bouwmeester here. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound defenseman signed a one-year contract this summer that many assume is the harbinger of his eventual departure from the Panthers in 2009 as a UFA. He logged an average of 27:28 TOI last season (tops in the NHL), earning a minus-5 and a slight dip in offensive numbers (15-22-37) in 82 games. Some see him as a foundational player: A cornerstone defenseman who will break the bank on the open market. But his hype has also brought out some intense criticism, most famously from the keyboard of Ken Campbell of The Hockey News:
Here's a guy who didn't play a single playoff game in junior hockey and hasn't played one as an NHL player. There have been serious concerns about his approach to conditioning and his off-ice lifestyle and he has proven time and again he lacks the take-charge personality required to be a true team leader on and off the ice.
The fact is that the Panthers are going to be strongest on the blueline this season, and Bouwmeester is the best of that bunch.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): One could say David Booth already had a breakout last season, if it weren't for the fact that 90 percent of the hockey world still doesn't know him from a tollbooth. He scored 22 goals and 40 points in 73 games, in only his second NHL season. The Detroit native was a better offensive player than Horton at 5-on-5 last season, and clearly didn't hit the wall as a 23-year-old sophomore late in the season. Someone to watch, especially if his ice time increases.
Many pundits will likely list Stephen Weiss here, since it's expected he'll ascend to the No. 1 center slot. The potential is there for Weiss to unleash a 60-point campaign. He earns his points, but consider that he had six multi-point games last season while a player like Jokinen had 16.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Defenseman Mike Van Ryn considered his trade to the Maple Leafs as one of the highlights of his career. Sadly, it's hard to argue with that.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Cory Stillman brings a veteran scoring presence to a team that needed another one. He's the kind of pro who is, if healthy, nearly automatic for around 25 goals.
Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton are solid defensemen, and there's something poetic about Rory Fitzpatrick playing in a state where voting is such a complete farce every four years.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Nathan Horton led the team with 85 penalty minutes last season, and had a few scraps. Montador dropped the gloves a few times, but he signed with Anaheim. Gregory Campbell had a few fights, fully knowing there's no chance he'll be suspended for anything he does. One would expect Boynton to fight on occasion. But the glut of the pugilism will fall to the wondrous Wade Belak.
We'll say this for Belak: If our team missed the postseason for the last seven years, and looked on paper like it'd miss it again, we'd be honored to have one guy who wants to entertain the crap out of you like Belak does:
Teacher of the Year: We didn't mention him above, but if there's one key new addition, it's DeBoer. Because he's going to have to figure out how to take a team that was 20th in the NHL in scoring, and that traded its best offensive player for two defenseman, and win games at a professional level on which he's never coach nor played. Yippee!
His hiring was met with the prerequisite skepticism from the Florida media, because they've seen too many false hopes come and go to get edged by DeBoer. But he's been a success at every level, the Ottawa Senators were hot for him until his demands became too demanding and the general opinion has been that he's a rising star. Whether that's enough to squeeze more than 14 goals out of Rostislav Olesz or get Brett McLean back to 40 points remains to be seen.
The Custodians (Goalies): Tomas Vokoun's first season with the Panthers saw the degradation of his numbers across the board, though not dramatically. He's just a good, solid keeper who'll win you more games than he'll lose you, and steal one now and again. With the kind of veteran defense in front of him that's been assembled this off-season, expect Vokoun to have a statistically superior season.
Backup Craig Anderson made heads turn when he stopped 93 shots in posting back-to-back shutouts last March ... almost as quickly as his head turns when it's time to clean the ice.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): This is the part where we remind you that the game of hockey isn't played on paper. If it were, there's no denying that the Panthers have put together an impressive and savvy collection of players in front of Vokoun: Bouwmeester, Ballard, Boynton, McCabe, Bryan Allen and Karlis Skrastins is a top six many a team wouldn't mind going to war with. Noah Welch and, potentially, Fitzpatrick in the reserves aren't bad either. There's no telling how this unit will gel, or whether familiar names lend themselves to good defensive hockey. But for a team that had 35-year-old Jassen Cullimore playing over 18 minutes a night last season, this unit has been sufficiently upgraded.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): The expectations are so low for the Panthers' offense that it's hard to say any one forward could be a "flop" this season. But if Florida is expecting a breakout offensive season from Olesz, it can keep waiting.
AV Club (Media): George Richards of On Frozen Pond is one of the top MSM hockey bloggers in the business, with an eye for real news and conversational tone with readers. The Sun Sentinel also has a solid Panthers blog. One of our favorite Florida blogs (non-MSM) is the wonderfully titled The Litter Box.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): We've touched on the team's offensive question marks and the mystery that is its new head coach. But the biggest issue for the Panthers is that help will never be on the way as long as Jacques Martin is the general manager of this hockey club.
Inept would be putting it kindly. Whenever Panthers fans want to cry about their franchise being lumped into contraction or relocation talk, don't wipe those tears on the media -- throw the wet tissues on the Florida general manager's desk, because it's his years of befuddled coaching and his thus far disastrous tenure in management that put the Panthers on the endangered species list.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B
Prom Theme: "Cats in the Cradle" by Ugly Kid Joe. Florida has seven key players that were born in 1983 or later. This is still a rather young team, especially offensively. (We selected the Ugly Kid Joe version rather than the Cat Stevens version because ... well, things could get ugly this season.)
Expected Graduation: Unless DeBoer becomes this season's Bruce Boudreau -- which, in all honesty, isn't out of the question with the cards he's been dealt -- the Panthers will once again miss the postseason. But they won't be a disaster, which makes it yet another season in which Florida loses but not by enough to earn a significantly high draft choice. They've missed the playoffs for seven seasons; in that time, they haven't had a first or second overall pick. God, that's gotta be annoying.