Panthers on the Prowl

For the first time in a long time, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the Florida Panthers. After a furious finish to the season, where at one point the team won 10 of 11 games, there is some legitimate hope that this team will be a competitive one for years to come. Though the team missed the playoffs, the Cats should have plenty to be optimistic about heading into next season.

After a few lean years, the Panthers now appear to have stability, respectibility and leadership. Though Iron Mike Keenan can be off the wall at times, he has been a real presence in the front office. He did a great job to lure several veterans to South Florida. Leadership was something the team needed a great deal and Keenan managed that bringing in players like Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Chris Gratton, Sean Hill and Martin Gelinas. He hired a real solid coach in Jacques Martin. Though love may not be in the air between the GM and coach, the team improved immensely as the season went on. That credit should go to Martin as he is starting to get his players to buy into the program. Keenan is also halfway there to locking up his cornerstone players to long term deals. Iron Mike did a fine job re-signing Olli Jokinen. He is the team’s best player, captain and leading scorer and a no-brainer to bring back. Now he will need to do the same with franchise goalie Roberto Luongo. That will be Keenan’s biggest job this summer. They need to re-sign Luongo or risk losing him next summer to unrestricted free agency.

Luongo is the backbone of the Cats and their saving grace most nights. The hope is that, with the team improving, Luongo will see this as a good fit to stay. Hopefully he is not too sour still over last summer’s arbitration hearing. Whether Luongo is worth upwards to the maximum salary remains to be seen. Yes he has dominated internationally and wins game on his own, but he has yet to play in the NHL playoffs. Luongo can put up some outlandish numbers but all that counts are wins and he simply needs to do that.

The organization has to be buoyed that they may have found a goalie of the future. David Shantz was a key cog in helping Peterborough to the Memorial Cup. The Cats are also happy with WHL prospect Tyler Plante. Both guys were second round picks in the last 2 entry drafts. The Panthers have done an OK job drafting goalies (see Kevin Weekes, Alex Auld), but have never in their history drafted and developed one of their own and have them play for the team long term.

One of the big reasons for the lack of success in Florida has been the fact the team pretty much forced Luongo to win every game on his own for several seasons. Basically, him allowing 2 goals was 2 too many. The Panthers had no defence in front of him nor any structured defensive game plan. That changed significantly last season. Sure having a defensive oriented coach helped, but so did having some of their young D show signs of being established NHL blueliners.

Jay Bouwmeester had a terrific season. In just his 3rd season he is beginning to show signs of being the go to guy on defence. We all knew he could skate, but Jay-Bo really picked up his offensive game and became a much bigger risk taker. It really made him a greater impact player. For the second year in a row Mike Van Ryn gave the Cats solid production at both ends of the ice. Those two give Florida a real solid, young 1-2 punch on defence. Now the team could use another decent player to round out the top 3. Perhaps dipping into the relatively deep crop of free agent blueliners is where the answer lies.

Though the rest of the defence is not that bad, an upgrade would help. The veteran Hill is solid, and youngster Lukas Krajicek was good as well as a rookie. There is also guys like Joel Kwiatkowski, Steve Montador, Ric Jackman who provide decent depth. The twin towers, Bradislav Mezei and Alex Semenov, need to stay healthy. The offer the Cats something they do not have much of and that is size on D. The Panthers have plenty of bodies around with good experience. There may be a bit of an issue with playing time but too many defencemen is never a bad thing. Just ask the Buffalo Sabres now.

It appears the Cats D is only going to get better. What they need now is to score some goals. Them re-signing Jokinen was perhaps the most significant move in franchise history. It proved to many that the Panthers are players in the new NHL and will spend to compete. Jokinen is worth it. He was the team’s run away leader in goals and points. He will only get better as a captain with those many veterans surrounding him. It is now time for management to find some support for him offensively.

The bulk of the offensive support is provided by older players such as Nieuwendyk, Roberts, Gelinas, Gratton and Josef Stumpel. All are solid veteran players who can still contribute, but all have plenty of milage on their bodies and who will soon run out of gas. Plenty of money was spent to bring these players in but it was worth it. The experience and leadership they have brought to the team is invaluable.

As good as these veterans are, the young players on the team are the ones who really need to step up. Nathan Horton was very good in his 2nd season scoring 28 goals and showing signs of being one of the best power players for the next decade. Radislav Olesz showed some tremendous skills as a 20 year old and was good enough to play for the Czech Republic in the Olympics. Stephen Weiss had an injury riddled campaign and will need to bounce back in a big way. However there is not alot of room for him at centre and he could be decent trade bait for the Panthers. Guys like Serge Payer, Jurjaj Kolnik and Gregory Campbell were regulars in the Panther lineup.

The Cats have even more youth on the way. The team plucked former first round pick Mikail Yakubov off waivers and will likely give him a look next season. Anthony Stewart got his first taste of the NHL and is the team’s best prospect. He gives Florida something they desperately need; more size and toughness up front. Prospects such as Kenndal McArdle, Stephan Meyer and Kamill Kreps are offensive guys who will in time give Florida more speed and skill.

There is no shortage of experience and there is no shortage of youth in Florida. But the team has only one big gun on offence and perhaps 1 or 2 more are needed. Jokinen is the only stud in his prime up front. The Cats have either real old guys or real young ones. It was great they kept him but now if they wish to reach the next level, they need to find Jokinen some help.

For a non-hockey market with sparse crowds and a small cache of money to spend, I think they are going in the right direction in Florida. They appear to be doing things the right way this time around. When the team shockingly reached the cup final in 1996, the team regressed after that and began a real steep decline up to this point. But the future looks great with a nice mix of veterans and youth to definitely cause some damage. Cuddly Kittens no more, the Panthers are about to prey on the Eastern Conference.