Panthers cast-offs making mark in New Jersey

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16: Ryan Carter #20 and Travis Zajac #19 of the New Jersey Devils celebrate as Ryan McDonagh #27 of the New York Rangers reacts during the Devils 3 to 2 win over the Rangers in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 16, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

When Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon began his major overhaul of the roster last summer, he preceded that tumultuous free agency period by firing head coach Peter DeBoer after a respectable three seasons behind the Florida bench. DeBoer, who never brought the Panthers into the postseason in his short time in Sunrise, managed to post a decent regular season record over his tenure as bench boss despite having a serious lack of talent and depth throughout each roster he was provided with, including a big selloff by Tallon before the trade deadline in the 2010-2011 season.

However, DeBoer clearly made some connections with a few players in his time as head coach of the Panthers, and after Tallon's rework of the Cats roster, some of those players were discarded. Two players in particular, center Ryan Carter and right wing Steve Bernier, were brought in by DeBoer and Devils GM Lou Lamoriello for depth and likely because DeBoer had developed a level of comfort and trust with both skaters. After a pretty moribund regular season for both Carter and Bernier, who scored a total of eight and six points respectively, both players have stepped up in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs for New Jersey, who surprised many pundits by advancing to the Cup finals. Despite having all-stars Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk carrying much of the offensive load for the Devils, the depth players like Bernier and Carter have provided some clutch scoring and are providing the kind of depth scoring and physical presence that a Cup-winning team needs.

Carter, who had a brief stint in Florida and impressed most with his physical play on the fourth line, has been a postseason surprise for the Devils, scoring six points in 18 games with four goals, two of them game-winners. He's only averaging a little over eight minutes a game for DeBoer's team, but his play has been stellar majority of the time on both ends of the ice, and he's providing that same physical play he possessed during his time in a Panthers sweater. As is the case with almost half of the Devil's roster, he'll be an unrestricted free agent after this postseason ends, and his playoff performance has perhaps earned him another contract with New Jersey.

Bernier has been a physical force and agitator of each opponent the Devils have faced so far. He's been a constant presence on the forecheck, which is the bread and butter of the New Jersey plan of attack, and has posted a very respectable six points in 18 games. He's seeing more ice time than Carter due to line adjustments during games, and DeBoer is giving him some tougher matchup minutes depending on the opposition. After seeing Bernier really struggle as a Panther, it's certainly surprising to see how effective he's been for the Devils in a checking line role and is still able to contribute offensively.

All things considered, there's one big question on the table: Should Tallon have kept these guys around? It's clear Florida wanted to change directions to a more fast-paced, smooth skating transition team, attacking with speed through the neutral zone and getting away from the grinding dump-and-chase hockey that was characteristic of the DeBoer era (sometimes through no fault of his own). However, there were many times during the season and even in the postseason where teams would take away Florida's speed through the middle of the ice, forcing them to play a forechecking style of hockey, and it often times seemed the Cats lacked the personnel to play that style of hockey and still pull off a win.

We'll never know how Carter and Bernier could have affected Florida's regular season and postseason successes, and at this point it doesn't matter, as the Panthers are out and gearing up for next season while the Devils continue their push for hockey's ultimate prize. What we do know is that both players may be returning to New Jersey next season after some solid postseason performances, and that the Cats will likely look for a couple players, either internally or through free agency/trades, that will provide the team with a solid forechecking presence to combat teams that plan to shut down the speedy top lines of the Panthers. It's very clear that the best teams can handle any style of play, and Florida will likely be looking to improve their ability to do just that.

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