New ownership. New management. An injection of youth into a previously moribund organization. Same old result or reasons for optimism? Training Camp officially opens this weekend but it's none too soon to take stock of an ever-evolving situation...
Related: Our Five Burning Questions for the new season.
How we got here: 2009-10
Having completed the previous year tie-breakered(?) out of the postseason, expectations were understandably ratcheted up for Coach DeBoer's sophomore campaign. Aside from losing GM Jacques Martin, G Craig Anderson, and D Jay Bouwmeester, interim boss Randy Sexton did the best he could with the tools at hand; forwards Steven Reinprecht, Dominic Moore, Victor Oreskovich, and Byron Bitz were brought into the fold via UFA signings or trade, joining second-chance defenseman Ville Koistinen and goaltender Scott Clemmensen. The expected ascension of youngsters such as Evgeni Dadonov, Keaton Ellerby, Michal Repik, Jason Garrison, and Shawn Matthias were counted on mightily to complement the usual suspects. And for good measure, Tomas Vokoun remained The Man.
Of course, very little panned out positively: Koistinen was burned as a forward, David Booth suffered his duo of infamous concussions, Nathan Horton missed considerable time while on track for a career year, Clemmer lost his cool early (though regained it later), Stephen Weiss fed an endless wagon-train of wingers, Keith Ballard regressed to the point of unintentional hilarity, and scoring was an afterthought.
What worked? Vokoun, despite a few nasty starts, continued to impress on a morbidly bad club. Weiss doubled his goal output from a year earlier, forcing fans to wonder if he's got more to give. Matthias came on strong late, while Garrison cemented a spot on the blueline. Michael Frolik was his reliable self, though not exceeding expectations.
The story of the season, however, was the rise of D Dmitry Kulikov, drafted the previous summer at 14th overall. Playing beyond his years with exceptional on-ice vision, the 19-year old never threatened the Calder race, instead giving observers countless "did you see that?" moments. The good kind.
A subpar season resulted in a lottery pick, providing Florida with the third selection in June's Entry Draft. When the lights finally went out in Los Angeles, new GM Dale Tallon had miraculously collected 13 picks among seven rounds. He claimed a desire to rebuild the Panthers through the draft, and lived up to it.
In & Out
Scoring depth. Beyond a healthy front line of Frolik/Weiss/Booth, offensive options lag dramatically, at least on paper. Much is expected of Higgins, Rostislav Olesz, Reinprecht, Grabner, an aging Cory Stillman, and up-and-coming Matthias, but can the likes of Bernier, Bitz, or (a still speedy) Radek Dvorak carry the mail on the lower lines? A banner crop of rookies would be welcomed. Horton's shot - though likely little else - will be missed.
Coaching. DeBoer enters his third year on the heels of a diametrically opposed previous two. It's not at all fair to place the lion's share of blame on his shoulders for last season's debacle, but for a guy touted as a "systems man" this will be the make-or-break performance in implementing his strategies. Perhaps labeling the coaching as a weakness is a bit premature, given the in-progress culture change in The Room, hiring original Panther Gord Murphy to handle defensive duties from the bench, and the revolving door of change and strife which accompanied Coach Pete from the day JM offered him the job. In any case, general managers typically prefer to pick their own staff. Read into that what you will.
Special Teams. Long a sore spot, Florida's power play succeeded 14.2% of the time during 2009-10, while the penalty kill worked its magic at a 79.4% clip; good for 29th and 23rd overall, respectively (FTR: the Leafs finished dead last in both categories, but at least they earned the second-overall pick in the dra...oh, apologies). Former defensive coach Mike Kitchen rightly took a boatload of heat for the failings of his PK, while Hulton's efforts were similarly derided for an even lousier result up front. Murphy should change the attitude on the blueline, but will the PP remain an anemic afterthought?
Defensive depth. The top six are set: Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen, Wideman, Kulikov, Weaver, and Garrison are all but guaranteed spots. Beyond them, Paetsch, Hudson, Keaton Ellerby, Robak, Comrie, and potentially Gudbranson wait in the wings. It's a lot of youth, yes, but no shortage of either skill or size.
Stability. As opposed to one year ago, ownership has been solidified, a permanent general manager has assumed his duties, a cease-fire of sorts has been declared with AHL Rochester, and competent staffers (Murphy, Mike Santos, Bryan Skrudland) have been recruited. It's been said a hundred times, but there's truth to the theory that Tallon brings a confident swagger and aura of respectability which rubs off on those around him.
Character. Have to wait for the puck to drop on this one, but no other word has been utilized more often in the rebuilding of the club. From draft picks to players acquired via trade to free agent signees, all have been talked up - sometimes a bit too much - as possessing loads of character. We'll see how that translates into victories come October, but as long as it means these guys will provide heartier postgame comments than "we've got to dig deeper", it's a step in the right direction.
(F) Matthias: continues suddenly rapid progression from AHL farmhand to sincere NHL threat
(D) Kulikov: finds an attraction to scoring which lacked in rookie year
(G) Markstrom: must it be explained? Wherever he lands eyes will be trained his way.
Booth - Weiss - Frolik
Higgins - Reinprecht - Grabner
Olesz - Matthias - Dvorak
Stillman - Reasoner - Bernier
Immediate forward reserve: Bitz, Repik, McArdle, Peters, Timmins
Wideman - Kulikov
Allen - McCabe
Garrison - Weaver
Immediate defensive reserve: Paetsch, Hudson, Robak, Gudbranson (if available)
Immediate goal reserve: Markstrom
Where we're going
Many Florida fans have accepted the likeliness that the Cats are staring down the barrel of another playoff-less spring, for several reasons: Washington continues to rule the Southeast roost, Tampa Bay and Atlanta have improved significantly on paper, and Carolina is, well, Carolina - competitive to the end. One-goal games against any of those rivals will require far more than a charged and focused Tomas Vokoun to win; that got ridiculously old last year, and one could make the argument it hasn't been improved upon. Booth's health is unquestionably a major factor in any success, as is continued improvement from Weiss and Frolik. A number of the Rochester kids - notably Repik, Ellerby, and Dadonov - will be under enormous pressure make the jump...and stick.
Though stones are being set and the dismantling of a deadwood minor league system are in full bloom, another summer has ended without the addition of the prototypical Number One Center. This has long been a complaint, and probably falls on deaf ears. If Tallon's waiting to "grow" one from within, OK, that's cool, but it solves nothing for the immediate future, unless Weiss and/or Matthias take gargantuan steps forward. In the meantime, it's going to be scoring-by-committee.
Having a solid faceoff man in Reasoner, a full year from a confident Matthias, and actual competition for call-up status among the Amerks should contribute to a more well-rounded squad this season; conversely any fall-off in performance from the top line will spell certain doom. Injuries are covered but the scoring simply can't be replaced. The Cats are bigger, they've cut some losses, and one thinks they should have a better collective "core" than in recent years. Many of these players are here out of sheer necessity to the club (witness the one-year deals), holding spots for talent yet to develop or arrive. This is positive news, and points to a brighter future, though it'll be some time before that becomes reality.
Much has been said about the next trading deadline, and the high-value pending UFAs that could be moved: Vokoun (a lock, re: Markstrom), Stillman, Reasoner, Higgins, McCabe, and Dvorak all could provide a small bounty of assets in return. That's a lot of possible turnover in a short span, though it probably fits the Master Plan: get younger, get faster, get tougher.
A lot of reaping and sowing remains to be done over the coming season, and rest assured, it will be. They'll be fascinating to watch, in a developmental fashion; scouts throughout the league will enjoy that aspect. Armchair fans in a crowded market? Probably not so much, but any maneuvering by management and Coach DeBoer's actions down the stretch should be interesting to follow. A march north through the conference would be a pleasant surprise, but a number of key moves remain to be made.
Then again, did anyone in their wildest hallucinations expect the Florida Panthers to gobble up 93 points just a year ago? A bounce-back campaign from Higgins, breakout numbers from a very overdue Olesz, and a monster performance by Booth could turn a few heads along the way. Throw in a couple of Eastern teams underachieving, and the playoff picture changes rather quickly.
And let's be honest: there are more reasons now than at any point in the past decade to believe in the stability and long-term success of this franchise, but has patience run out from all but the hardcores?