NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Ninth in the Eastern Conference, third in the Southeast Division (41-30-11, 93 points). It was the dawn of a new beginning in South Florida. Peter DeBoer took over behind the bench after time in the junior ranks and brought the Panthers incredibly close to their first playoff berth in eight years. A season later, with a youthful club mixed with some cagey veterans but minus their All-Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester(notes), the Panthers will again be faced with the daunting task of getting over the hump and finding themselves back in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Off the ice, Panthers owner Alan Cohen is in the middle of trying to sell the team after reportedly losing more than $100 million since 2001. The failure to find new ownership has also hindered the search for a new general manager after Jacques Martin bolted for Montreal in June. Assistant GM Randy Sexton was in control during the NHL Entry Draft and through the free agency period and has received good reviews despite having his hands tied. Until the ownership situation is resolved, Sexton will have to wait to have the opportunity to be given full reign of the club.
Back on the ice, having re-signed leading goal scorer David Booth(notes) to a six-year, $25 million, Florida has ensured a quality top line that can produce points featuring Nathan Horton(notes) and Stephen Weiss(notes). One of the biggest questions will how the Panthers will overcome losing their top defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester.
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): Center Steve Reinprecht(notes) and defenseman Jordan Leopold(notes) are two veterans who join a club full of youth. The veteran forward Reinprecht will be counted on as a top-two centerman who can set up Florida's talented wingers in David Booth, Nathan Horton and Michael Frolik(notes).
Replacing the departed Ice Girls fan Craig Anderson(notes) will be Scott Clemmensen(notes) who earned proved his worth filling in for an injured Martin Brodeur(notes) in New Jersey last season. The Panthers defense allows a lot of shots, so Clemmensen better get used to seeing a lot more rubber when he spells Tomas Vokoun(notes).
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Former General Manager Jacques Martin gambled by not trading stud defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and the Panthers ended up missing the playoffs yet again. The Panthers did eventually get something for Bouwmeester in defenseman Jordan Leopold and a third-round pick when he was dealt to Calgary days before he was to hit the open market.
Craig Anderson backstopped his way into a starting job with the Colorado Avalanche after subbing it nicely for the injured Tomas Vokoun last season. Karlis Skrastin, Jassen Cullimore(notes), and Nick Boynton(notes) are all other losses to the Panthers defense that could make life in the crease for Vokoun and Clemmensen much tougher for the NHL's 10th ranked defense in 2008-09 (2.72 goals against/game).
While his comeback from the horrific skate slashing incident in 2008 was wonderful story (along with his goal of the year candidate in February), Richard Zednik's(notes) departure to the Kontintental Hockey League just a day after his Masterton Award nomination was announced was a little awkward.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Bear-killing fantasy stud David Booth, he of a new long-term deal, has watched his production increase with each of his three seasons in the NHL. A 30-goal scorer a year ago, Booth should expect goal-scoring life to be tougher now that he's no longer a secret on the Panthers offense.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): He was nicknamed "Baby Jagr" for a reason. Michael Frolik can score goals and his 21 goal, 45 points rookie season is a sign of things to come for the 21-year old native of Kladno, Czech Republic, hometown of Jaromir Jagr(notes). Florida is littered with young talent and with the chance of playing on a line with two veterans, Reinprecht and Cory Stillman(notes), the experience of playing alongside those traveled NHL'ers should rub off on Frolik and only support the Panthers top line. Winger Evgeni Dadonov(notes) could be one to watch after a back-and-forth over the summer with the KHL over the summer.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Panther goaltenders faced over 2800 shots last season, most in the NHL. Now minus a stud blue liner and few veterans, will Vokoun and Clemmensen see less rubber this year? That's a job that Leopold, Keith Ballard(notes), Bryan Allen(notes), and Bryan McCabe(notes) will be given. Despite their puck-moving and offensive abilities, the defense was a +15 in '08-09. First-rounders Keaton Ellerby(notes) ('07) and Dmitry Kulikov(notes) ('09) could also challenge for spots and add to the Panthers mobile, offensive-minded blue line.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Injuries befuddled Tomas Vokoun last season causing the 33-year old Czech native to post his lowest win total (26) since the 2002-03 season. Should Vokoun struggled or be nagged by injury again, Scott Clemmensen, who's on a 3-year deal, should provide adequate coverage coming off of a career season as well as push Vokoun who struggled at times when he was healthy.
And Now, a Short Message From Keith Ballard:
The Inventor (The Coach): Peter DeBoer became yet another first-time coach in the NHL who found success in his rookie season, leading the Panthers to their best point total in a decade. Now comes the hard work: the sophomore season. DeBoer and his players came close to tasting playoff hockey, but is there a possibility of taking a step back before taking two forward? It will be interesting to watch if DeBoer's message from his rookie season translates over to his second campaign behind the bench. He'll have veterans in Reinprecht, McCabe, and Stillman to help push the younger players in the lineup.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C (bad power-play, good kill will miss Bouwmeester)
Management: B- (Sexton's done well, but ownership's been a mess)
"Observers of the Cats at this late summer date appear solidly parked in one of two lots: the defense is lacking, or the offense is lacking (other than those minor blemishes, it's evidently smooth sailing in Sunrise).
The loss of a certain D-man with five vowels in his name has many running scared; can a player of Bouwmeester's stature (such as it is) ever be replaced? The real question is whether the club can adjust its blueline strategy to a post-Jay future. Of course he can be replaced, but it will take no less than a collective effort to do it, without upsetting the uptempo style employed so successfully in the second half of last season.
Scoring? Florida is no worse off than a year ago (recall the names Frolik or Booth pre-November, 2008?), and there are growing numbers of the not-entirely insane mindset that Shawn Matthias(notes) and Michal Repik(notes) (I resist the inclusion of flavor-of-the-month Dadonov, but he sure looks good in camp) are ready to make the leap..
The successive departures of Roberto Luongo(notes) and Olli Jokinen(notes) did not seal this club's doom, as was universally feared; indeed, minus those two "irreplaceable" cogs, the Panthers finished 2008-09 with their highest point total in a decade, missing the playoffs by the slimmest of margins (or is that Martins?). Oh, and that DeBoer guy appears to be the real deal.
Now, if they could just get that general manager's office permanently occupied..."
"The 2009-2010 Florida Panthers are going to be a sleeper club. Teams will not think highly of the Panthers after losing key players to the Free Agency Market, but the team will surprise. A young core of players led by Repik, Dadonov, and Ellerby are working their tails off to crack the lineup on opening night, and with the extra roster space it just might happen for all three. All that can be said is that the Florida Panthers will be an exciting team to watch this season."
Don Draper Says ...
"What is the Panther, gentlemen? A cunning killer whose alacrity and tenacity make him unavoidable to vulnerable prey? Or just a kitten with a better press agent?"
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Despite having a top-10 defense last season, Florida will not replace Bouwmeester's presence on the ice at the BankAtlantic Center. The point production, the ice time, the special teams contributions that Bouweester brought will now be spread out among Leopold, Ballard, McCabe, and Allen. Progress was made in '08-09, but with expectations higher for '09-10, Florida will need to overcome the off-season changes and increase their scoring if they're to find a way back to the playoffs.
Warranty Expires (Prediction): The Cats will once again threaten to break their playoff streak of eight years, but in a competitive Eastern Conference, they'll fall just short yet again. While another spring with playoff hockey may sound discouraging and not help sell tickets in a market like South Florida, there is plenty of progress being made under DeBoer. An unresolved ownership situation is handcuffing the team and keeping it from growing for the future. On the ice, the likes of David Booth, Nathan Horton, Michael Frolik, Stephen Weiss, and Keith Ballard are signs that competitive hockey can be found in Sunrise, Florida. There will be playoff hockey in the Panthers sights soon, just not yet.