The Florida Panthers enter this season with seemingly nowhere to go but up. Not much is expected of the club after last year's disastrous campaign, but with new ownership coming into place, and a quietly effective offseason from GM Dale Tallon, better days lie ahead. As we look towards the rapidly approaching opener on the road against the Dallas Stars, let's take a stab at answering three of the biggest questions facing the Panthers as they prepare to embark on their 20th Anniversary season.
1. Does Tim Thomas have anything left?
Despite not seeing any exhibition action, the former longtime Bruin impressed coach Kevin Dineen and the rest of the Panthers' brass enough to be on the verge of inking a one-year, performance-laden deal with the club. Before sitting out for a season, Thomas took home two of four Vezina trophies and led Boston to a Stanley Cup win in 2011, claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way. Once he shakes off the seventeen months worth of rust he has accumulated, it would be no surprise at all if he makes a quick return to past form.
The 39-year-old Thomas' most spectacular accomplishments have come at a relatively advanced age in the hockey world, so the one year sabbatical shouldn't have much of an effect on the ultra-competitive goalie. If anything, it may have simply recharged his batteries. All indications so far are that the Panthers are getting the Thomas everybody knows and not everybody loves. Look for him to open the campaign as Florida's number one netminder and to have a successful return season. Having heir apparent Jacob Markstrom mentored by such a decorated veteran for at least a season could also bode well for the Panthers long-term future in goal.
Ed. Note: Thomas signed a one-year deal all of 20 minutes after publication of this article.
2. With so many rookies, will a Panther win the Calder Trophy again?
Aleksander Barkov represents Florida's best chance of bagging a second-straight Calder. The second overall pick in the 2013 draft is probably the most gifted forward on the roster, aside from last year's winner Jonathan Huberdeau, and should start the season off centering the Cats' second line. Working in Barkov's favor is the two years of experience he gained playing against men in Finland's SM-liiga with Tappara, where he notched 64 points in 85 regular season games. While recent Calder-winners have been trending younger over the last few years, there hasn't been an 18-year-old who has claimed the prize since the 1984-85 campaign. Could young Barkov follow in Huberdeau's footsteps to break the streak? Probably not, but it'll sure be fun to watch him try.
Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Nick Bjugstad was another would-be contender, but unfortunately, the big center suffered a concussion during the club's prospects tournament, where he looked downright dominant at times, and hasn't seen any game action since. The setback could cost Bjugstad a spot on Florida's roster as offseason acquisitions have given the Panthers more forward depth than originally expected. If Bjugstad can hold on to a roster spot or get called up early enough, he might have an outside chance at making a run, provided he uses his size to do the type of damage around the net that he should be capable of.
3. How much will the tough new division factor into the Panthers inevitable struggles?
The move from the Southeast, where only division-winning Washington made the postseason, to the new Atlantic Division, which is completely loaded with five playoff teams from last season, could be the toughest task facing the Panthers this year. Not only will the Cats be facing increased competition, especially in back-to-back finalist Boston, as well as perennial powerhouse Detroit, they will also be traveling more, especially to Canada, where three of their new division-mates happen to reside.
While the Panthers have the potential to make strides forward this year, keep in mind they only managed to pull off one playoff appearance during the last twelve seasons while members of a division that was never quite as stacked as the one they now find themselves in. While the NHL's recent realignment was kind to a lot of teams, the Panthers were not one of them. This will most likely be a serious burden which keeps the Cats near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings this season, but playing better teams could help accelerate the club's development and make them stronger down the road.