With the first half of the 2010-11 season now in the books, and the Panthers coming off an exhilarating overtime victory at home, it is time to assess just how well the Cats have done so far and what we may look forward to for the remainder of the season. With 40 accumulated points (19-20-2) the Panthers are closer to a lottery pick than they are to the playoffs, but what the standings aren’t mentioning is that Florida has been playing a fierce, competitive brand of hockey throughout the first half that just hasn’t managed to translate into ticks in the win column.
Since mid-December the Cats have a 5-3-4 record, good for a .583 winning percentage, almost 100 points higher than their regular season average. To put that into perspective, if they continued this pace for the second half, they’d pick up another 47-48 points putting the total to 87-88 points. Not a bad total for a team thought by many to feel the repercussions of a “rebuild”—but it’s a very familiar position for this franchise as it would put us in a close race with Montreal’s final standings a season ago, and likely to finish in the 9th; too bad to make the playoffs yet too good to have a lottery pick. As well as the Panthers have played for the past month, they not only have to continue this pace but probably exceed it to make the playoffs—it’s still possible, but very few teams in recent history have been able to make such huge turnarounds in January.
The question then becomes, knowing what we know regarding the Panthers and their quest to stop a ten-year streak, what will management do down the stretch? For years a lack of concise decision making has harmed this team more than anything, as management has been unable to commit to the longstanding future, or the immediate need to win now—the GMs of Panthers past are like Sea Captains with one foot on the dock, and one foot on the boat, and year after year their inability to choose a direction has drowned them in an abyss. With a “boatload” of pending free agents, these next few months will be crucial for Dale Tallon and company. He’s going to have tough decisions to make, especially in a market begging for a winner over the last decade; it will be interesting to see if he abandons the plan like many of his predecessors for a chance at appeasing the impatient masses.
The smart money is on Tallon focusing on the future, and continuing the rebuild by accumulating youth and skill, but recent rumours regarding key veteran personnel (Tomas Vokoun and Cory Stillman, to name two) on the last leg of their current contracts suggest that perhaps Tallon’s seeing the silver lining a little more quickly than he did in Chicago with the Blackhawks. Dealing away pending UFAs such as Marty Reasoner, Steve Bernier, captain Bryan McCabe, Chris Higgins, etc. could help revitalize the prospect pool for a third straight season (lest we forget the work Randy Sexton did on an interim basis) and many of these veterans should be highly sought-after commodities given their recent success, coachability, and contract affordability at the deadline. Of course, losing these pieces of the 2010-11 Panthers could spell disaster for this year's playoff hopes; conversely during the 08-09 season (Jacques Martin's last), a halfway solution was met as we saw some of the cogs of that surprisingly successful team depart, and others stay when the trade deadline passed, and we all know how that season ended.
So far there have been many bright spots including the uncovering of many high end prospects such as newly-appointed Rookie All-Star forward Evgeny Dadonov and Rochester's Michael Repik, as well as hidden treasures plucked from bins of despair by Tallon during the offseason. Weaver, Reasoner, Higgins (recently) and especially Mike Santorelli have surpassed expectations and as mentioned earlier are playing a very integral part to this team's success. Stephen Weiss, thought certain to suffer by the loss of his common linemate Nathan Horton (who - for now - looks to be struggling in Boston or at least playing a lesser role than was expected by early prognosticators), is on pace for a similar point production (although he has been lighting it up as of late and a big reason why the Cats have changed things around). The young players are having decent seasons, by no means are they doing anything to really write home about; Michael Frolik is, however, second on the team in scoring with 26 points and on pace for a career year. Noteables Shawn Matthias and Dmitry Kulikov have certainly had their hardships. Kulikov seems to be suffering from a bit of a sophomore slump, looking uncomfortable with the puck and despite an increase in ice time from a year ago, he looks to be having a forgettable season, but perhaps this is just a case of high expectations that were created by his outstanding rookie year. Matthias still has not been able to live up to the WJHC and Pierre Mcguire hype when he was a Detroit prospect and while his offensive side of the game has not merited anything promising yet, he is playing a solid backcheck.
Going forward it`s difficult to see this team of over-achievers making it to the promised land that is the road to Lord Stanley, but there are a lot of positives to look at, and while the real meat and potatoes of Tallon’s labour are still in question and albeit years away, this Florida Panthers team does look improved and the on-ice product is on the right track moving forward. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year that the Panthers return to the playoffs.