Five Questions As Panthers Head Into NHL's 2013 Regular Season

Joel Auerbach

Members of the LBC staff take a crack at reading the tea leaves as the Panthers prepare to embark on a 48-game sprint that hopefully ends in a second straight playoff appearance.

Where do you expect the Panthers to finish in the Eastern Conference?

Todd: I will go with somewhere between the six and eight slot. I think that since the Florida Panthers are returning a large part of the roster from last year (once everyone is healthy) that will help them come together quickly. My feeling is they will be in the hunt for the division title but fall just short to Carolina. If the injury bug continues to hang around the team then I think this might be a long, short season.

Alex: Near the bottom of the conference. The Panthers are just about the same team they were in training camp last season, except more confident. The offensive depth isn't deep beyond the first line, and defense is going to feel the loss of Garrison.

Ryan: Just outside the playoff picture. The Panthers will need to contend with a new coach in Washington who should help return Alex Ovechkin to form, a Carolina team that's vastly improved (on paper), and both the Jets and Lightning, who are certainly looking to bounce back after disappointing seasons last year. To me, the Panthers will compete, but won't win enough divisional games to reach the postseason for the second year in a row. I hope they prove me wrong though.

Kevin: Last season we all predicted big things, and for a change, we were right. I'm going to make the same "mistake" again and say the Panthers get back to the playoffs. I think they'll finish second in the Southeast, behind the Canes, and compete for a five or six seed. The pieces are in place, the Cats just need to find time to gel.

John: These shortened seasons are such a crapshoot, it's hard to say. With the huge focus on divisional games, the Panthers aren't going to get as many cracks against teams like the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Sabres that have had rough seasons. And most of the Southeast Division teams got better this summer. That said, the Bruins will likely dominate the Northeast Division again, which could open up spots for most of the top Southeast and Atlantic Division teams.

Donny: As things stand on January 18? Right around 10th. The recent hits on defense, involving the potential losses of Jovanovski, Gudbranson (for some short-term stretch) and potentially Weaver after the club's only preseason scrimmage, are enormous. The love continues to flow well over for Tyson Strachan, Colby Robak, Keaton Ellerby, et al, but in reality none of the above veterans can be adequately replaced without a trade or UFA singing. Based upon where this situation stands, I'm thinking what they have is not enough to rise to an eighth-place or better finish. Could change literally overnight with some fancy tap-dancing by Tallon and Santos.

Chris: I'll go with the 6th spot as well, though I expect this season to end much in the same way it did last season; in a dogfight for the division with Washington. However a downgraded and injured defense will turn the tables in the long run, leaving Florida on the doorstep. I'm a bit skeptical of the moves made by Carolina and Tampa Bay, and the Jets are...the Jets.

Which new Panther will make the biggest impact in 2013?

Todd: I am going to go with Peter Mueller. Jonathan Huberdeau will help out and put up points on the power play but I think a healthy Mueller will prove to be a very savvy signing and make a bigger impact this season.

Alex: Filip Kuba. His age may be a factor, but he's still a very mobile and intelligent defenseman. He's also less of an injury concern that Mueller.

Ryan: Jonathan Huberdeau. There's a reason he's got so much hype around him. He's a serious talent, one the Panthers haven't had in a long, long time. Provided he is paired with the right linemates, he should immediately contribute points and prove he's ready to become a known commodity in the NHL.

Kevin: Filip Kuba isn't a spring chicken anymore, and Peter Mueller, while an exciting development, is hardly a sure thing considering his concussion issues. While both could make a significant splash, my money is on Jonathan Huberdeau to lead the Panthers in goal scoring and finish first or second in the NHL ROY voting. Is this homer Kevin talking? Maybe. Am I building sand castles in the air? I don't think so. Hubs has a legitimate shot at being a PPG player in the NHL, and the sky's the limit.

John: Jonathan Huberdeau. It might not happen right away, but once he gets his NHL legs, the kid's going to be the guy who finally replaced the scoring the Panthers lost when they traded Nathan Horton.

Donny: If Peter Mueller stays healthy he's a lock for this. Kovalev is the easy answer, though; who couldn't be entranced by the sexy storyline of a former superstar regaining his offensive usefulness one last time in the NHL? A terrific subplot to the season, but could go either way. In any event, his presence can't hurt the young guys.

Chris: I'll go out on a limb and say George Parros. While Mueller and Huberdeau will bring much needed goals to the scoreboard, Parros is a locker room kind of player who'll add to the Panthers' (sometimes shaky) leadership. Don't expect much from him on the ice, but unlike plug fighters like Darcy Hordichuk and Krys Barch, Parros is a personality for a team that lacks personality outside of Kris Versteeg.

Will Jose Theodore be "the man" in goal or is this the year Jacob Markstrom takes the reins?

Todd: My feeling is the Panthers will stick to their plan of having Markstrom play the whole season in San Antonio. The Panthers still seem to be taking a wise, long-term approach with their young players. This compressed season is probably not the best way for some of the kids to be getting their feet wet. I don't think we'll see many of the prospects on the big club this season unless it's to fill holes created by injuries.

Alex: Goaltending is nearly impossible to predict (see Mike Smith in Phoenix), so I think the Panthers stick with Theodore until they get eliminated from the playoffs.

Ryan: I can't imagine Theodore will falter much from last season's performance. We'll likely see a good split between Theo and Clemmer once more, and if either of them are hurt, it's Alien time. The Panthers really don't want to rush Markstrom and are content giving him another year to adapt to the North American game in San Antonio. And I'm sure the Rampage won't argue. However, I think this is the last year we'll have to answer this question. Markstrom is the real deal.

Kevin: Theo will start out the season between the pipes, but I think there's a real possibility of the Panthers dealing him for some offense or draft picks before the trade deadline. I said it before last season, and I'll say it again (and again): It's "The Alien's" time to shine. He's had enough seasoning, and he is the real deal. Clemmensen will remain the Panthers number two goaltender.

John: Theodore had a good season last year, and a shortened season is good news because it lessens the possibilities of late season problems, as happened last year. Markstrom will stay in the AHL this year unless there's an injury.

Donny: All depends upon injuries. Jose holds the fort from Day One, but in a shortened season healthy groins are tough to find after the second week or so. I personally hope for Theodore to go out on a brilliant note, because he's proven to be a ferocious competitor, wonderful team guy, and all-around cool dude just looking to go out with a positive splash. Clemmer is as reliable as backups come, regardless of his age. If Markstrom is to usurp the current heirarchy he'll need to show a lot more than we've seen. It's been an improving road for the soon-to-be RFA - with knee injuries cropping up as often as breathing - so he'll have to be at his international best. Is it good enough to nail home a spot on the Big Club? Yet to be seen.

Chris: If it's a battle between Theodore and Markstrom, Theodore is definitely the man. Markstrom is good enough to play in the NHL, but one last year in the AHL is all but cemented for him. If it's a battle between Theodore and Clemmensen however, the goalie to take the reins is certainly less clear. To me, Clemmensen is a much more consistent goalie for his team to play in front of(outside of the first few minutes perhaps), but Theodore can steal games. As last season showed, both goalies can carry the team. Based on how each played last year, I doubt the Panthers will have "a man". I'm cool with rotating the hot glove.

How much will the Panthers early injury problems hamstring the club?

Todd: Anytime time you are missing two of your top nine forwards it's a problem. I am not as worried about Gudbranson. I think the Panthers can overcome on defense provided Weaver will be OK from whatever happened to him during the scrimmage but if Goc and Bergenheim are out for an extended period than I am a little concerned. One or two of the replacement players in camp looking for a spot (Kovalev, Svatos etc.) are really going to have to step up for the Panthers to make the playoffs.

Alex: In a shortened season, big time. Especially when an entire line is gone.

Ryan: Huberdeau and a healthy Scotty Upshall should be able to supplant the loss of Sean Bergenheim's goal scoring in the early going. However, aside from Stephen Weiss, there's no one on the roster that can replace the all-around value Marcel Goc brings. He's one of the best faceoff men on the team, a fantastic asset in the defensive zone, and scored some big goals last year. Here's to hoping Goc is back soon. As for Erik Gudbranson, I think the Panthers are actually better served having Tyson Strachan in the lineup until Gudbranson is not only completely healed, but also in as-close-as-you-can-get-to-the-real-thing game shape.

Kevin: IMHO, Keaton Ellerby and Tyson Strachan are each better than the much praised Erik Gudbranson. Other than that - it's hard to replace Marcel Goc. He was amongst the NHL leaders in positive zone starts and relative corsi vs higher quality of competition. I'm hoping he makes a quick return to the lineup. Sean Bergenheim worries me. His groin issue, while at first seeming minor, seems to be a recurring theme. The guy has a nose for the net, especially when the game is on the line, moreso when the season is at stake. In all cases, I wish the boys a speedy recovery.

John: Probably not much, unless Mike Weaver's injury turns out to be serious. From the sounds of things, Gudbranson will be ready soon. If Weaver's going to be out for more than a few games, the Panthers might have to talk to Wade Redden or make a trade for another vet. As far as the forwards are concerned, it sounds like Kovalev has a good chance of making the team, which will lessen the impact of Goc and Bergenheim missing the first part of the season.

Donny: No more than any other club, but a few will be able - through luck or conditioning - to the avoid the mountain of hamstring and groin issues almost certain to become epidemic throughout the league in the first few weeks of a shortened season.

Chris: Injuries will hurt any team more due to the short season, though I feel like the Panthers have better depth to cover the injuries now than last season. The 2013 Panthers might have to learn to play without Bergenheim the same way the 11-12 Panthers had to do without Upshall. Of course Florida won't be living up to their true potential without important players like Bergy and Goc, but I see better results this year; especially with a more experienced Kevin Dineen. All teams have to go through injuries at some point.

What effect do you think the lockout will have on attendance this season?

Todd: I don't think it will have that big of an effect. Hockey fans are hockey fans. They are crazy about the game and forgive quickly. I think that core group of Panther lovers will show up and if the team gets off to a good start the bandwagon will follow.

Alex: Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how good the team is.

Ryan: The Cats are close to selling out the home opener, or so I read on Twitter recently. The Minnesota Wild have sold more season tickets this season than any in their history. The Flyers, Penguins and Rangers are close to selling out their home openers. Do I think the lockout will drop attendance? Yea, a bit. But the fan's love for the sport will transcend the months of animosity and anger from the lockout. The sound of the first goal horn will wash those memories away like mud from a tire.

Kevin: I think the delay in the season actually built up some anticipation across the NHL. After all the fiery rhetoric and the "we're not gonna take it anymore," and the "Fire Gary Bettman" facebook page of the recent past, the NHL is poised to have a great season. While total attendance will be down (24 home games as opposed to 41), average attendance will increase. At least for the Panthers. The casual fan that we all feared losing is still there, and winning does wonders for putting butts in the seats.

John: I think the massive amounts of people showing up to see training camps in pretty much every NHL city has already answered that question. Things might be different if a whole season was lost. Fans are angry, but we're willing to forgive as long as the Stanley Cup is awarded every year.

Donny: Virtually none. Being the fickle market that Miami-Dade/Broward/Palm Beach continues to be, the only aspect of ticket sales to be hurt is of the walk-up variety. With a few wins - and a bit of positive press from the local media (which ain't easy to secure) - they'll be fine. The Playoff Ghoul no longer haunts the market, and removing that from the team's aura will help, locally. Otherwise, in a region chock full of activities, it's all about word-of-mouth and someone's boredom on a Saturday night. Worked a year ago.

Chris: Between a (hopeful) hot start to the season, lack of western conference home games and football season already out of the picture, Florida's attendance numbers may actually be the highest in years due to the shortened season. Across the board, if the lockout has any effect on attendance it will be marginal. hockey fans are gluttons for punishment, and we seem to be forgiving if nothing else.

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