NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 17: The Florida Panthers celebrate with goalie Scott Clemmensen #30 (top C) after they won 4-3 against the New Jersey Devils in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Prudential Center on April 17, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
With the shock of elimination long worn off and the final push to the Stanley Cup Finals ahead, teams long removed from the playoff picture face a long summer of retooling, reinventing and for some; rebuilding their roster. Concerns about drafting prospects, signing free agents and filling holes left from retirement are front and center for team management while their players head north back home or south to the golf course. For most of these teams, a first round defeat through seven games will be regarded as a disappointment, only a few teams can point to a "one and done" as a good sign.
Among those few are the Florida Panthers; a team expected to stumble to the league cellar but surprised everyone with their first division champion banner in franchise history. Even with those accolades the Panthers were expected to drop in five games against an admittedly better Devils team, yet with the odds at their backs Florida pushed the limits of the Devils before finally dropping in double overtime of the series' game seven. Pretty good for a rebuilding team, huh? Of course with the unexpected success comes the notion that the Panthers must do whatever possible to improve upon last season, a dangerous thought that could destroy a good thing. The Panthers will need to improve and reinvent themselves, but without the over-achievement of last season there will be little to fall back on; the front office will have to make calculated risks while realistically evaluating their team. Don't kid yourselves, the Florida Panthers are still a rebuilding team.So then, how do the Panthers improve themselves without jeopardizing their rebuild? I'll word this carefully; the team needs to be better next season but doesn't necessarily have to end the season with equal or better results. Why do I say this? Well, the Panthers over-achieved --which is not the same thing as ever-achieve. Along with great play from key individuals including numerous career years was a fair bit of good fortune. Florida was a true playoff team, but capturing the Southeast division title was thanks to the inconsistencies of the other division contenders as much as it was the Panthers' surprising play. In the end with an incredibly forgiving schedule to make up for lost points, Florida faltered and nearly lost their shot at the post season. Throughout the year success was measured by how the top line performed or which goalie was in net, did the defense show up or offense disappear? Fortunately when one of these problems arose on any given night, the team would usually tighten down in other areas to keep it close, but the corrections needed for next year must address more than just scoring.
The answer to Florida's problems won't all come in the form of a big signing to fill the second line center hole(which most teams deal with each year) or give the top prospect his chance as a roster player. For all but a handful of individuals, each player needs to elevate their game to improve their team because one signing and one rookie can only make a finite amount of difference. The coaching staff has to make the most of the team's leadership to build themselves up, the defense has to tighten up and depend less on the top pairing, the bottom lines have to balance scoring and grit. The goaltending has to keep the pace they set last season. Even if these things happen, the Panthers probably won't be winning the Presidents Cup. There is always the chance the Cats fail miserably as analysts predicted last summer. That's the inherited risk when you over-achieve with a less than spectacular roster.
This is why Dale Tallon and Mike Santos won't be abandoning the "Blueprint" to build upon one good season. Jonathan Huberdeau and Zach Parise(in our dreams) could make the difference right now, but the safe bet is in developing organizational talent and agreeing to realistic contract salaries/lengths (as opposed to last offseason when the big contracts were mostly necessary). The Panthers still don't command a huge buzz on the free agent market, and after ten years of mismanagement there isn't much to throw around as trade bait without possibly becoming a detrimental loss. The focus has to be on player development and scouting rather than trading assets for instant gratification. Tallon may have had to do more of that over the course of last season than he'd have liked to, and with the choice whether or not he'd like to do it this year would seemingly be a 'no'. Given a bloated depth chart I fully expect he tries to trade back for those assets this offseason. Shallow draft or not, trading away a first rounder for an established player should not be in the interest of a team that went years devoid of talent, even if that first round pick turns out to be a bust.
The question now is how do the Panthers stay the course while still making as big an impact as possible? In the time Tallon has held the reigns, we've seen the best assets acquired via trading away players like Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard. While the need for upper level draft picks is not quite as dire as two summers ago, don't be surprised if Tallon continues to make such trades. If Dominic Moore is still worth a second rounder, there are a few players sitting in the pressbox worth at least a third, and if the timing is right they might find themselves headed to a new team. A more likely possibility to bring in a new look would be another David Booth trade for established players with a different skill set. The only problem with this is I have a feeling the management is happy for the most part with the core they've assembled and trading away a key player would be a major undertaking. In between the extremes of trading a pressbox player and a top six forward would be moving a bottom six player(or several) to upgrade and make space. I'm no insider, but I could easily see Mike Santorelli, Wojtek Wolski, Shawn Matthias or Matt Bradley moved in the next few months. To put it simply, if a player is not playing or utilized to their full potential, they could find themselves on the trade block.
Despite the division coming down to the wire in the Panthers final regular season game due to tripping through the last stretch of contests, the tired Florida roster was able to make a respectable dent in the playoffs. For the first time in months, Florida seemed to come together as a team to push their opponents through seven games. It didn't end the way the players wanted and the cameras caught the obvious frustration of Tallon upstairs, but two weeks of solid team play was a great way to end a season rather than falling apart like others had. The players ought to feel good about their team after seemingly defying expectations every day since July 1st of last year. Kevin Dineen did a remarkable job as a rookie coach and has all summer long to work out the minor details that went wrong. Even without any drastic changes the Panthers should play as a better team after a playoff series that strengthened their bonds and exposed the team's remarkable resiliency. We shouldn't expect the 12-13 Florida Panthers to move mountains, but by keeping to Tallon's plan a measure of improvement is almost assured.