The preseason will soon be drawing to a close, and with two games left the Panthers still have to cut six players before the season opens. The coaching staff and fans will get a last look at the prospects in the home-and-home series against the cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning this weekend. While the final decisions likely will not be made until after Saturday's game, there are certainly predictions that can be made.
First, with so much turnover, the Panthers are likely to start the season will a full roster of 23, keeping the pressure on large parts of the roster for the first part of the season. The mantra of the offseason was that no one is safe and that has seemed to be the case in the preseason. The team has gotten a long look at a few prospects, some of whom are likely to start the season with the Panthers.
It is most likely that the Panthers will keep two extra forwards, which means they don't have too many cuts left to make. There are 16 spots on the roster, so to get to 14, only two need to go. One of them is likely to be enforcer Andrew Peters. Head coach Pete DeBoer's dislike of that type of player is well-known and Peters is fairly one-dimensional player. The Panthers seem to have an extra center with five left on the roster: first-line center Stephen Weiss, last year's number two Steven Reinprecht, prospect Shawn Matthias, off-season acquisition Marty Reasoner and prospect Mike Santorelli, acquired from Nashville over the summer. Matthias has had a good camp and it looks like he is finally going to stick with the big club as expected, but Santorelli has been a surprise, most recently practicing on the team's second line, with Reinprecht playing wing on the third line. Reinprecht is also effective at wing and on the third line would still contribute to special teams, particularly the penalty kill. Expect to see all five centers start the season.
The Panthers have six left wings on the roster, and with Reinprecht at left wing that's far more than is needed. First-liner David Booth is on the team without question as is off-season acquisition Christopher Higgins. There has been some speculation about veteran Cory Stillman. A buyout is unlikely as the Panthers aren't going to want to spend the money. Stillman has lost a step but is still a smart player and good role model for a young team. Stillman will start the year with the Panthers, provide leadership and eventually accept more of a supporting role on the team. If the Panthers are in the playoff hunt, Stillman will finish the season but it is far more likely he will be traded at the deadline to a contender. That leaves perennial underachiever Rostislav Olesz, prosepct Kenndal McArdle and Peters. Olesz has had a good camp and is expected to have a good year. If this doesn't happen, look for him to be waived down the road, but for now he will be starting on the third or fourth line. McArdle sustained a season-ending injury in an extended call-up last year and was expected to compete for a spot this year. With Olesz frequently playing right wing and Higgins hurt and out for at least the last two preseason games, expect to see McArdle in for Higgins to start the season.
Right wing is the least crowded forward position, with five contenders: Michael Frolik, in his third season, is expected to start on the first line. Newcomer Steve Bernier will likely start on the third line, with Olesz at right wing on the second. Radek Dvorak will make the team and play on the third or fourth line and, as always, see plenty of time on the penalty kill, which leaves Byron Bitz, acquired at last season's trade deadline and Michael Grabner, who came from Vancouver with Bernier in the Keith Ballard trade. Of the two, it is likely the slower Bitz who will be sent to Rochester, with Grabner alternating between the fourth line and the press box.
The defense is crowded, and speculation is rampant as to the fate of third overall pick Erik Gudbranson. He's had a good camp and is a promising young player, but the reality is that the Panthers can't afford to waste a year of his entry level contract on what is likely going to be a losing season with or without him. Better he go tear it up in juniors and come back next year when some contracts are expiring than the Panthers give him a spot on an overloaded blue line.
That said, there are five players who are a lock to make the team: Captain Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen, last year's first round pick Dimitry Kulikov, Dennis Wideman, brought over in the Horton trade and Jason Garrison, who was called up a number of times to sub for Allen last season and then brought up for the remainder of the season when Jordan Leopold and Dennis Seidenberg were traded at the deadline. Of the five remaining players (Mike Weaver, Keaton Ellerby, Nathan Paetsch, Gudbranson and Joe Callahan), it is Ellerby who will most likely take the sixth spot on defense. The seventh spot will probably initially be taken by Gudbranson as he's had a good enough camp that the coaching staff may want to keep him for the nine games before he has to be sent back to juniors. If the Panthers keep seven after sending Gudbranson back, it is a toss-up that will probably be determined by play in the next two games. Look for Gudbranson to be in for the injured Kulikov and for Allen, Wideman or McCabe to sit so the coaches can get one last look at the four remaining bubble defensemen. Expect the one with the best game to be back soon.
Make no mistake about it, Jacob Markstrom is the Panthers goalie of the future. He's looked brilliant at times and been lit up by the Montreal Canadiens at others. He needs the seasoning of the AHL for a year to adjust to the game here and will probably be NHL material next year, coincidentally at the same time Tomas Vokoun's contract expires. But this year, last year's tandem of Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen will backstop the Panthers. And though Clemmensen had a shaky start last year, he looked good when he got more starts late in the season. Both have had a good preseason and if the Panthers have a hope of making the playoffs, it will rest on these two.