It's been a long time coming. Tonight begins another long journey toward the NHL's promised land. 30 teams, 1230 regular season matchups, All-Star weekend, and then up to 105 postseason contests. If you're anything like me, you'll catch as many as possible, but none more than the Florida Panthers, who begin their 20th campaign tonight in Dallas at 8:30 p.m. ET. I recently spoke with Brad Gardner from Defending Big D and traded a little information as the new year kicks into gear. Here's our discussion:
Brad (DBD): While the Stars exited the preseason with exactly the lineup expected as far back as July, the Panthers had a rather newsy September. Brad Boyes, Tom Gilbert, Tim Thomas and Krys Barch all enter the fold (or re-enter). What do fans make of all the late activity? Poor planning, injuries, or just necessary adjustments?
Kevin (LBC): There was a lot of talk locally about how quiet GM Dale Tallon was on FA day this past summer, especially after the great signing bonanza of 2011. Fans are interpreting this recent slew of unexpected activity as a renewed commitment to make something, ANYTHING happen. Florida's not a huge threat in their new division, at least not yet, but the front office is showing that being dead last is not on the Panther's radar this season. Plus, Scott Gomez!
For the fifth year in a row, your Stars have come close to the playoffs, mostly staying alive right into the final week of the season, only to miss out. What has Dallas done to address this, and how likely are the Stars to kill the streak before it reaches six?
Brad: How likely? It seems like a 50/50 proposition once again heading into the season, and the strength of the West, even with the Red Wings' departure makes is a daunting task. As you correctly said, the Stars have been in the race, even occupying a spot with less than a month to go in each of the last three seasons.
Kari Lehtonen has to raise his game. He is nothing short of brilliant when the season begins, then wears down. Part of that is the heavy work load he sees. Ultimately the hope is that a new, more experienced coaching staff (compare with just four years combined NHL experience between Glen Gulutzan and assistant Paul Jerrard last year...) will be able to keep them on track, not to mention coach a scheme that saves Lehtonen (and the defense) some wear and tear.
Can you give us an idea of what the lines and the defensive pairings may look like tonight?
Kevin: Marcel Goc will center the first line, flanked by Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. This decision reunites 2/3rd's of the NHL's top scoring line from the first quarter of 2011-12. The Panthers are hoping for a little of that magic to show itself again.
The second line features the last Calder Trophy winner, in Jonathan Huberdeau, with what could be the next, in Aleksander Barkov. The two are joined by recently signed vet Brad Boyes.
Shawn Matthias will center Tomas Kopecky and Jesse Winchester, and Gomez will anchor the fourth line with often injured Scotty Upshall (with something to prove) and another youngster in Drew Shore.
Defensively, look for power play quarterback Brian Campbell and 21 year old Erik Gudbranson to chew up a ton of minutes. The second pairing of Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Weaver will start a fourth season together, while some permutation of Matt Gilroy, Tom Gilbert, and newly acquired Ryan Whitney flesh out the blue line.
Ray Whitney is 41 now, and as fond as I am of this ex-Panther, I still worry about the weapons that he has in his wheelhouse to take us on tonight. How does he look? And how much longer can he produce at a level conducive to an NHL roster spot?
Brad: I was surprised when the Stars signed him to a two-year deal in the summer of 2012, and that's even after watching him play for the Coyotes in the same division. He's not noticeable. He's not flashy. He does not impose his will on the game or otherwise draw your eye. All he does, somehow, is score points. 29 points in 32 games last season. That's a pretty neat trick, and it's why they call him the wizard.
As for how much longer... He missed 16 games with a nebulous "lower body injury" but otherwise impacted every game positively. That was a Bettman-shortened season. How he'll fare in an 82-game campaign at the age of 41 is anyone's guess, but he's shown no signs of slowing down.
Is Tim Thomas going to be "the guy" in the Florida net, or do you expect a back and forth competition as the season wears on? Do you enjoy "Florida retirement" themed humor?
Kevin: Ha! Who doesn't, amirite? But to the goaltending question:
Thomas didn't really get a lot of NHL experience until he was in his 30's, and won Veniza Trophies at 34 and 37 years of age. He may come out of this "hiatus" with a fresh outlook and even fresher legs. If not, Florida has what they think is a very capable "1A" in gigantic youngster Jacob Markstrom. Barring injuries, I think they'll each start at least 30 games.
Jamie Benn was a little stung over his snubbing at the hands of the Canadian National Team. Is he the guy that everyone should look out for? Or is there someone else waiting in the wings who has something to prove?
Brad: Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn both consider themselves victims of said snubbing, and perhaps we need look no further. Benn has been named captain. Seguin has been traded. I think both of them have a lot of their plate in terms of things to prove or disprove this season, and will take up the mantle of leadership together. This franchise is starting over with a new owner, a new division, a new color scheme, new logos, new head coach, new general manager, a new scouting staff, a new captain, and huge roster turnover. I think the two of them, now together on-ice and off as often as can be, seemingly, are ready to grab the wheel and start steering this thing in the right direction.
And you might want to watch out for these Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin guys...
Barkov will be the name many of us are looking for tonight. What can you tell us about his style of game and expected impact this year?
Kevin: Aleksander Barkov just turned 18, but for the past two years has earned valuable seasoning in the Finnish Elite League with Tappara (Finnish for "battle axe"). Last season, he racked up 48 points in 53 games. He has outstanding technical skills and decent size, along with a hockey sense that belies his age. Although he is not accustomed to the more physical aspects of the North American style of hockey, he should be big and strong enough to adapt, and hopefully excel.
Stay tuned throughout the day as we prime the contest with a game preview at 3:00 and the LBC Game Thread at 7:30. Our thanks to Defending Big D's Brad for his help.