Panthers on the Prowl
If there was one team that is completely ready to adapt to the new CBA it is the Florida Panthers. It is really too bad that this team is where it is, where hockey is probably dead last when it comes to importance down in Florida. We have seen fan support dwindle since their cup run in 1996 and much of it is due to them being in last place annually and because of the nice sunny weather.
But the fans should flock to see this team in the near future because it should be a good one. The team has several terrific young players who are with the team now or will be shortly. THey have two excellent hockey men running the show and one of them, Jacques Martin, finally gives them a coach who will get results. The team is in excellent cap shape as there is approximately $6 million committed to 7 players.
Forward: Nathan Horton
Defence: Alex Karpotsev, Mathieu Biron, Eric Cairns, Sean Hill, Bradislav Mezei
Goal: Jamie McLennan
Sure they will have plenty of work to do as they will have to resign several restricted free agents on their roster:
Forwards: Christian Bergland, Nik Hagman, Kristian Huselius, Olli Jokinen, Darcy Hordichuk, Jurai Kolnik, Denis Shvidki, Stephen Weiss, Vaclav Nedorost.
Defence: Mike Van Ryn, Jay Bouwmeester
Goal: Roberto Luongo
But with the kind of young depth they have, it is likely that some of these players wont be offered any deals. With the cap room they have, they may look to get some outside help, preferably veterans who can step in and lead their young kids in the right direction.
Obviously priority number 1 is resigning Luongo. He is the franchise. Despite never playing in the playoffs, he has proven his worth in big games like in the world championships and world cup. He is someone a team can ride for 4 playoff series if he is given that chance. He simply needs a much better team to surround him. on most nights he is left to fend for himself facing 40 shots a night and counted on to let in 1 goal or less for the goal starved Panthers. McLennan is a decent backup who is a better option than what the cats had in the past. Their only other option with NHL experience for now is Patrick DesRochers who was terrible last season in the AHL. In as wise move looking to the future, the Cats drafted David Shantz who is years away but offers the team a goalie for the future and someone the organization can develop which hasnt happened ever.
Keenan revamped his blueline bringing in some veterans last summer to supplement their young studs on defence. But Iron Mike is on the prowl for a top stud on defence and he could find one via free agency. Right now Bouwmeester is the man. He stuggled on the farm last season but after going to an AHL contender near the end, his game significantly improved. He showed in the world cup he can play well if surrounded by some talent. His skating, skill and smarts are unmatched. His value will be shown when he starts playing for a winner. Mike Van Ryn quietly put together a nice season the last time they played and should be the Cats powerplay quarterback. He has a nice offensive game and if he can find a partner who can take care of the defensive duties, Van Ryn should be a dangerous player. Of the veterans they brought in so far, Sean Hill may have the most impact. He can help the powerplay but his grit and leadership will be huge in front of Luongo. He will play a big role in the development of the young kids. We have seen Biron and Mezei show glimpses of their talents but both have not put it together consistently. Injuries have played a part as well as playing for a bad team. Those two could be possible trade bait for more proven talent. The Cats can afford to get rid of those two as they have two other youngsters chomping at the bit to get a shot. Lukas Krajicek has been a top prospect for a few seasons. The log jam has prevented him from winning a job full time. Krajicek oozes offensive potential. He could be a Goncharesque type of blueliner putting up points big time. But he has only showed flashes of his talents in the pros and really would be helped if he played for a better team. Phil Novak is another good blueline prospect. He too has plenty of offensive potential, but playing on a bad team, hurts his development. Missing 1 year due to injury has hurt his progress as well. But he still remains a good prospect.
The Cats do need a top blueliner to take some pressure off the kids. It is nice to have plenty of young prospects on defence but they will never get better if the dont play with better players and dont play in a winning environment. Even the Panthers minor league team was terrible. Florida will need to clean up their act in terms of development so that their prospects can succeed. Certainly Keenan will look to the players out there via free agency to see what he can do. Wouldn’t a player like Chris Pronger fit in perfectly in Florida.
Up front the Panthers are very similar to how they are on defence. Plenty of top young players to choose from with a variety of skills, but lacking in experience and simply not ready to shoulder the big load. The cats have one top forward in Olli Jokinen. He will need to be resigned as he is the only legitimate threat they have. His combination of size, speed and skill is something the Panthers dont have much of. But he needs help. Steven Weiss is projected to be a top line centre but how can he be productive with the players currently surrounding him? He is too small to battle on his own in the corners and in front but so too are many of the Panther forwards. But his speed, skill and smarts are why he is projected to be a top line player. He is an excellent playmaker and should mesh well if the cats find a proven sniper to play with him.
The Panthers potential number 1 centre for the future is Rostislav Olesz. He is an excellent playmaker and has the makings of a strong two way centre. His size will help him adapt to the North American game. Nedorost has been a prospect for a few years as well and could find a role on the third or fourth line. His decent size and smarts are an asset and he is already a smart defensive player. Down the road there are a few other guys that could help Florida such as Dany Roussin. He is better known as the guy playing with Sidney Crosby but has been a solid producer in junior hockey. He is a good playmaker with good smarts who may develop into a number 2 centre. His production cannot be overlooked.
On the wings it is the same story. lots of potential but little results so far. Their top young forward is probably Nathan Horton. He jumped straight from junior due to the fact he adds size, physical play and scoring ability in one package. He compliments the soft small forwards the cats have. He is the total package and a top power forward to be. If he can stay healthy, he will be a huge asset for FLorida. In all likelihood, Horton will be joined by Anthony Stewart another big guy in the power forward mold. He had a very good junior career and is versatile enough to play a checking role or a physical scoring winger. With more pro experience, he could be exactly what the Panthers need in terms of size and toughness.
Those two players will compliment the many soft forwards the Panthers have. The list is long with the likes of Huselius, Shvidki, Hagman, Bergland and Kolnik on the team. Only Huselius has proven to be a 20 goal man but he could do so much more. He is the prime candidate to get traded to help fill other needs, like on defence or more size up front. The others have been up and down and it is possible that they find themselves back in Europe where they possibly could get better money and more playing time.
Prospects such as Rob Globke, Gregory Campbell and Stefan Meyer make the Panthers even deeper. Globke is another decent sized winger who has good scoring instincts. Whether he can translate that to the pro game remains to be seen. Campbell is one of those role players that all good teams have. He can play a gritty game yet chip in on offence. He should find a role as an energy 4th line guy this season. Meyer is finishing up a solid junior career and gives the Panthers another potential sniper. He has good size and willing to battle. He could be a Craig Simpson type of player who score many goals around the net.
It is clear that we can see that the Panthers have a tremendous future. But how long can they keep building for that and start getting some results now. They have a top goalie, a nice core of young blueliners and some talented forwards. They simply need more experience, more experienced players around them and a solid system that suits the personnel. having a top coach is a good start, and any team that has a world class goalie has a fighting chance. With some key additions of proven veterans, the Panthers could be legitimate playoff contenders as soon as next season.