It’s no secret that the Florida Panthers are excited to get the next season started despite the prospect of a long NHL lockout continuing into the winter months. After the successes of last season, the Panthers are looking to continue their reign as Southeast Division champs and make their way into the postseason for a second consecutive year, something the franchise hasn’t done since 1995 through 1997. The team had a quiet offseason but managed to keep their overall depth, and are looking at a solid young crop of prospects to rise up to the big leagues and make a difference.
The Panthers and their fans, however, need to temper their optimism. Aside from the doom and gloom of the dreaded lockout, the Panthers have to deal with another harsh reality, one that crops up all too frequently during the season: injuries. So far this summer, top winger Kris Versteeg and blue-chip defenseman Erik Gudbranson underwent surgeries, Versteeg to address a nagging hip injury and Gudbranson to repair shoulder damage that was sustained during offseason training. That’s two very big and very important pieces of the Cats roster that wouldn’t be able to play if the season were to start on time.
With the lockout continuing indefinitely and other Panthers players heading overseas to play, what else could go wrong?
The loss of Versteeg and Gudbranson until around November would’ve forced the Panthers to either sign additional players out of the free agency pool, or give some of their top-notch prospects a chance to step up and fill in at the start of the season. Instead, the Panthers are catching a bit of a break as the lockout continues, giving both time to heal and possibly be available for the start of the season. Gudbranson’s likely to stay out longer as the Panthers don’t want to rush him back from such a serious injury, but Versteeg will likely return to the ice in November at the latest.
Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim, Mike Santorelli and others are taking their talents across the pond, playing in several different leagues across Europe. That means they’ll be in live game situations and are at risk of injury as well. Granted, the European game is a tad less violent than the North American game (generally speaking), but hockey is hockey and a puck to the face feels just as awful no matter your geographical location. The Panthers aren’t the only team seeing their players defect to Europe while the lockout continues, so this isn’t just an issue facing the Cats, but it’s disconcerting nonetheless. Besides, it’s certainly better than not playing at all.
Let’s theorize a bit though. Let’s say Bergenheim and Goc get hurt, and maybe one or two depth guys. Let’s say at least three of those are long-term injuries. What then? Luckily, Florida’s got a pretty solid group of young players at the AHL level (and some in juniors) that could be called up to the big club once the lockout ends (looking at you two, Bettman and Fehr; get it done). This would give the young guys a chance to gain some valuable experience, but would undoubtedly affect the Panthers in the standings in what is sure to be a lockout-shortened season. There’s a silver lining in that those players would gain said experience and learn what it’s like to compete at an NHL level, and then take that knowledge back to the AHL (or juniors) to improve their game further once the veterans come off Injured Reserve.
For the Panthers, that’s certainly not the hope. If the Cats want to have any chance of repeating last year’s sudden success story, they’ll need everyone healthy and contributing and can’t lean on inexperienced youth to produce. However, it is comforting to know the talent level in the minors is vastly superior to what it was as little as three seasons ago. If the worst happens, and some of the solid veteran players suffer long-term injuries playing elsewhere during the lockout, Florida’s in better shape than most teams.