DolPhanDave weighs in with his take on the first half (plus a few games) of the Panthers' season. Well done as always, Dave!
It’s every student’s favorite time of year…report card time! Now that we have reached the All-Star break, I felt it was time to grade our Panthers and see how they are stacking up against their, and our, expectations. I have separated the team into groups depending on their skill level and expectations going into this year.
Tier 1- Nathan Horton, David Booth, Corey Stillman, Michael Frolik
Horton has had some major fluctuations in his productivity but has been much better of late, especially in the face-off circle. While its sometimes infuriating to watch him play, he possesses a nasty wrist shot (that occasionally takes hours for him to get off) and despite his inconsistency still produces points for the Cats on a semi-regular basis.
Booth has been carrying the load for the Panthers all year. He is becoming a point-per-game player and some think he was snubbed for an All-Star spot. The great thing about Booth is that he is beginning to see the ice better, meaning he isn’t just scoring goals. He had 3 assists in his first 26 games, but now has 9 in his last 13 games. His 19 goals in 39 games means that next year it may be a realistic expectation for Booth to be a 40-goal scorer.
Corey Stillman has come as advertised for the Cats, a rare occurrence for a Panthers free-agent signee. He had 10 points in his first 13 games before being sidelined for over a month with a concussion. He didn’t take long to get back to form, scoring 13 points in his 17 games since returning. The main thing for Stillman is that he is a key component on our power play. Almost half of his points this year (10 of 22) have come on the power play.
And then there is Michael Frolik. In my opinion he is absolutely a top-tier forward on the Panthers. His making the roster out of training camp over Shawn Matthias raised some eyebrows, but his maturation this season has been thrilling to see. He is now a mainstay on our top line and like David Booth, will only get better as his body grows and gets stronger. A little confidence never hurt anyone either, and he should have plenty going into next season.
Tier 2- Gregory Campbell, Ville Peltonen, Radek Dvorak, Richard Zednik, Stephen Weiss
The C-P-R boys carried this team throughout their injury woes and have been our most consistent source of scoring. Gregory Campbell has quietly become a solid center and it’s well known in Panther circles that when he scores a point, the Panthers don’t lose. They are 12-0-1 when ‘Soupy’ registers a point. Ville Peltonen got off to a very slow start but that is a thing of the past. He is starting to becoming the ‘right place in the right time’ guy and being pared on the wing with Radek Dvorak allows this line to get deep in the offensive zone quickly because of having such speedy wingers. Dvorak is having a season that we expected from him when re-signing him in the summer of 07. He could possibly break the 40-point plateau for the first time in 5 years. Oh, and he has his 32nd birthday coming up this March, so he should have plenty left in the tank.
One of the most important players on our roster is Stephen Weiss. He is consistent in the face-off circle, a quiet leader and a workhorse who leads by example. You may not see it on the scoring sheet, but having Weiss in the lineup is imperative to the Panthers success.
Playing on the top line with Stillman and Frolik is the ideal place for Weiss, because he isn’t relied on to score as much as to lead.
Weiss moving to the top line has allowed Richard Zednik to slide onto the Horton/Booth line, and the speedier Zednik is a much better fit for that line (now that Horton is winning face-offs again). Zed has sustained our deadliest line, as Peter DeBoer has found the answer, put the fast guys on the wings and let ‘em fly.
Tier 3- Brett McLean, Kamil Kreps, Nick Tarnasky, Anthony Stewart
Our 4th line has allowed Pete DeBoer to roll all of our lines, which is very important because it allows our top lines to have more gas in the tank in the 3rd period, and have better legs at the end of the season (hopefully coming sometime in May/June). Brett McLean may not stand out, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Can you remember him messing up? Ever? Didn’t think so. He can be plugged into any position on any line and keep the boat afloat.
Kamil Kreps was playing like a Tier-2 forward leading up to his shoulder injury. He somewhat reminds me of Stephen Weiss in that his value on the ice can be overshadowed by his lack of points. The biggest improvement in Kreps’ game over the past year+ is his face-off winning. He was ‘the guy’ until his injury, but since coming back has stepped in for Peltonen on the CPR line, and it will be a good problem finding a place for him when Ville comes back. The more productive players we have, the better.
This is how I see Nick Tarnasky...we got him for Wade Belak, who was our ‘tough guy’. Nasty Nick not only fulfills our goon role, but I love his speed and hard work on the boards, which keeps his line in the offensive zone much more then Belak ever did.
Anthony Stewart has played in 11 straight games going into the break, but the question to who will be the odd man out when Peltonen returns has yet to be answered. I imagine Coach DeBoer will go back to platooning Stewart and Tarnasky on a gamely basis, which is fine. Stewart is playing well, but is much less valuable to the Cats then Kamil Kreps, who was taken 13 picks after Stewart back in the 2003 NHL Draft.
Tier 1- Jay Bouwmeester, Brian McCabe, Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton
J-Bo is simply put: Amazing. I think the majority of Panther fans either take him for granted or don’t talk enough about how awesome of a player he is. His point scoring has been very consistent over the past couple years and there is no sign of anything slowing down. His defense has been solid and he rarely makes the wrong choice. He has lead the Panthers in ice time for 2 seasons now, and it will be a crying shame if he is not wearing a Panthers sweater for years to come.
McCabe was an amazing acquisition, a rare trade that works out more for the Panthers then for the team they were bargaining with. His consistent scoring and power-play quarterbacking ability more the makes up for the occasional miscue that caused him to be chased out of Toronto. Lighten up Leafs fans…you are missing a great defenseman.
Ballard and Boynton have played together most of the season and been great additions to the Panthers supreme back line. They pop in points on a regular basis and make great plays in the defensive zone, but both have also shown at times a great offensive ability.
Tier 2- Karlis Skrastins, Jassen Cullimore, Noah Welch
Realistically, what can you expect from the bottom of your defenseman barrel? I think the standard is set on our roster, and I doubt that many teams will refute that. Skrastins is a shot-blocking machine who can chip in offensively and rarely makes defensive mistakes. Cullimore and Welch have done fine when in the lineup. Cullimore has seen an increase in playing time since ending of the Cory Murphy experiment, with Welch filling in when needed. No mistakes and solid contributions…what more can you ask for from your 5th and 6th D?
Tomas Vokoun has been way too inconsistent, especially coming off of his All-Star season last year. He has had some flashes of greatness but has also looked just awful at times. I am confident that he can play the 2nd half of the season at a high level, but for now it’s been a very mediocre season for Voky.
Craig Anderson has been on fire at points throughout this season but could never quite take hold of the starting job. We will certainly need him playing his best hockey down the stretch. No matter how good or bad Vokoun plays for the rest of the year, we will need to rest him and Andy will get his chances to shine.
Are the Panthers still lacking despite individually playing great hockey? They have been playing spectacular hockey over the past 10-12 weeks, and that has led to their recent surge in the standings. The question is, can they keep it up?
Traditionally this is the time of year that the Panthers kick it up a notch…but since they have already done that, where do they go from here? Can they find another gear? They have more home games then any other team in the NHL from here on out, so the opportunity is certainly there. The guys on this roster know full well how important the final months of the season are, and I would expect them to play better before I would expect them to play poorly.