Last season, the Florida Panthers used a red-hot start by the newly minted Weiss-Fleischmann-Versteeg line and better than expected goaltending from the veteran duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen to vault themselves into early playoff position. It got a little hairy towards the end but the club managed to hold on and claim their first division title.
This season, the Panthers are seemingly taking an opposite approach. Tomas Fleischmann leads the team in scoring with ten points but linemates Weiss and Versteeg have largely been non-factors (the trio was briefly broken up) while the subpar play of Theodore and Clemmensen has a lot of fans clamoring for a close encounter of the Swedish kind. Mix these two major problems with a run of early season injuries, inconsistent offense and terrible defensive zone coverage and you've got yourself a recipe for the team that currently resides in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, you can take the glass is half full approach and point out that the Panthers are 3-1-2 after starting the season 1-5 but when the last two games of that second set of six are losses to a team that actually trails them in the standings there is cause for serious concern. The 5-0 loss to the Capitals in Washington was just downright embarrassing and blowing a 5-3 lead at home with just over five minutes left on the clock harkens back to spineless Panther teams of the past.
What worries me most as we prepare to start quarter two of this truncated season is 1) just how poorly some of the club's core veterans are playing and 2) the general sense of malaise I am seeing for long stretches of most games.
After not being named the team's new captain, Stephen Weiss seems to have taken his act of disappearing sometimes to new heights. Weiss has gone from being unfairly miscast as a number one center, but trying his damndest to play the part, to looking completely disinterested in what's going on out on the ice.
Kris Versteeg looks just as bad if not worse. He is hurting the team with his careless play in the offensive zone and by refusing to back-check hard. He is exacerbating these issues by not finding the back of the net. Versteeg is a talented player but he doesn't seem to addressing the weak links in his game.
Maybe I am being unfair and both are hampered by injury more than they are letting on. However, if the extent of their injuries has them being little more than warm bodies simply taking up a shift than coach Kevin Dineen might want to think about sitting them until they are healthier. I know there is not much down on the farm forward-wise but having a healthy player going full steam can't be any worse than what I am seeing at times from those two.
The lockout seems to have affected some of the other veteran players as well. This has also contributed to keeping the club out of the Eastern Conference's top eight. Mike Weaver has seen some serious slippage in his game up to this point while Dmitry Kulikov got off to a surprisingly slow start. Kulikov has rebounded to a large degree in recent outings but Weaver needs to step it as well. The play of the defense is not making it any easier on the suddenly past-their-prime looking battery of Theodore and Clemmensen. The lockout could be partly to blame or maybe it's just simply age but the signings of Alex Kovalev and Filip Kuba look like missteps from the front office after twelve games.
Ok, that's a lot of the bad news. Despite the negatives mentioned above (and some others like overall inability to score especially five-on-five, the 26th ranked penalty kill, lack of team toughness) there are some bright spots.
Jonathan Huberdeau is as advertised. He still has to work out a few of the usual rookie kinks but he is already doing the thing the team needs the most from him, scoring goals, which bodes well for the present and especially the future. The rest will come and with his talent and drive it will come soon.
Drew Shore has been a revelation. I figured if he came up from San Antonio he'd acquit himself well enough but he has done so much more than that. This is a rookie that doesn't look like a rookie when he is on the ice. There have been games where Shore has been the team's most effective player. If he starts scoring on a regular basis then the Panthers could really have something special in Shore.
I also thought, if healthy, Peter Mueller would help this club a great deal and he has. A very shrewd signing and the kind the Panthers need to keep making if they are going to continue to be successful while dwelling near the cap floor. If Mueller continues to play well and stay healthy he should be signed to a long-term deal.
Brian Campbell continues to log big minutes and it has been nice to see him take it upon himself to start shooting more and scoring some goals. He seems to be struggling a bit defensively but I am going to chalk a lot of that up to the overall team effort (of lack thereof) in this regard.
While not providing much on the score sheet, Jack Skille and Shawn Matthias deserve credit for playing hard and bringing much needed grit most nights. Jerred Smithson has also proven himself a useful player in his particular role.
Finally, another bright spot, as of right now is, despite all of their struggles, the Panthers are only four points out of a playoff spot. They are one nice little run from jumping right back into the thick of things. I just wish I would see more of the Panthers from the first half of last season (they have spurts where they look completely capable of this) and much less of that sloppy, second half team that barely hung on to end the playoff jinx. There are only thirty-six games to go, the clock is ticking...