As the current year draws quickly to a close, we thought a rundown of some particularly influential moments - those that shaped the club and we who cherish it - from the past twelve months was definitely in order. As always, dissenting opinions very much welcomed. Onward...
January 31 - David Booth returns after missing 45 games: back on the ice earlier than originally anticipated in the aftermath of the Mike Richards trainwreck, #10 picked up an assist on Jordan Leopold's power play goal in the first period as the Panthers went on to blank the Islanders 2-0. Booth collected 12 points (6g) in 19 games before a second concussion - courtesy of Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek - effectively ended his season on March 25th.
March 3 - Sexton sets the foundation: within a span of three days in early March, former GM Randy Sexton turned two expiring contracts (Leopold, Dennis Seidenberg) into a pair of second-round picks. Throw in the 2011 second-rounder acquired only weeks earlier (for Dominic Moore) and it's clearly evident Florida was charting a new course built with assets grown from within. All they lacked was a management team with a plan going forward.
April 10/11 - You can't win if you don't play: in this case, a loss signifies a "victory", as Florida drops the final two games of the regular season to Tampa Bay in a home-and-home with very real draft ramifications. Stamkos got his 50th, but the Panthers got their 3rd...as in lottery pick; the Lightning wound up with the sixth selection.
April 11, late night - BAC roof goes all Hartford Civic Center circa-1979: in honor (we guess) of the Panthers' final regular season game (a loss, above) debris - in the form of confetti and aging door prizes from seasons past - dropped from the BankAtlantic rafters to the delight of children and the less-than-delight of hardcores. Thus began a summer of at-times seemingly bizarre strategies and marketing gimmicks from the business office which continue to rub many the wrong way.
May 17 - Dale Tallon named Executive Vice President & General Manager: no disrespect to the bevy of men who previously played the Cats' organization as if it were their own personal copy of Sim City with a hefty paycheck and no accountability, but Day One of the Franchise Recovery Act began here. Florida finally snagged a bona-fide big-league GM with a respected track record, and secondary kudos to the hiring of assistant general manager Mike Santos to handle the heavy lifting. Fans have been remarkably patient as the honeymoon soldiers on, but the real gauge for substantial progress will likely begin a year from now. Regardless, it's a pleasant surprise to feel genuinely good about the future of this club once more.
June 22 - Horton's request is fulfilled: after six seasons, 142 goals, and endless mumbling by fans about his work ethic and/or desire, forward Nathan Horton begs out when given the option by management. Voila: out the glass door go Horts' $4M cap hit along with Gregory Campbell's soon-to-be UFA status, replaced by top-four d-man Dennis Wideman, the 15th-overall pick, and a 2011 third-rounder. Wideman's plus/minus may be a painful bust so far (-13), but at least he's registered a point more recently than the stiff he was dealt for.
June 25/26 - Tallon goes bizonkers in L.A.: seeking to prove true each word he uttered about a day not far off when every guy on the bench is a Panthers draft pick, Dealin' Dale wraps a whirlwind weekend at the Staples Center, ultimately making thirteen selections (mostly of the gargantuan variety) in the seven-round draft, including 3 firsts and an equal number of seconds. All that action almost makes you thankfully forget about this dude. Most recently, the trio of first-rounders (Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, and Quinton Howden) are making serious waves at the WJC in Buffalo.
December 9 - Cats stun Caps in D.C.: a nasty six-game losing streak via Washington came to a shocking halt at Verizon Center as Mike Santorelli nailed an unlikely insurance goal in the third period, enough to seal a 36-save shutout performance for Tomas Vokoun. Stephen Weiss added two assists while the previously-feared Capitals' power play went 0-for-8.
December 15 - Carolina upends Panthers 4-3: far too early to call this one a "season-killer", much less so as the Cats are an inspirational 3-1-1 since, but finding any single game in the past calendar year which gutted fans' collective soul more than this one is a futile effort. Florida holds a solid 3-1 lead heading into the final frame, only to close the evening as 4-3 regulation losers. On home ice. Whether Herculean heights are reached or an abyssmal hole is dug, by the end of the season this will be the moment which will prompt tears of joy or agony.
Late December - Weiss/Santo share goals lead...with 10: that Florida would struggle to score this season is no surprise to anyone, especially after the loss of Horton, and even more so in the early stage of a rebuild. The real shocker: after 34 games the Panthers have a total of two double-digit goal producers, and neither's name is Booth (though he does have nine). Stephen Weiss and Mike Santorelli each have a mucho-modest 10 goals on the year, but the club boasts nine players with 5 or more. Somehow the Cats remain a collective +4 in goal differential, so improvement across the board is clearly evident in most other areas, especially defense (BIG hat tip to Gord Murphy).
So what did we miss? What was your favorite moment? Worst moment? What events summarized the past year?