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Cats Season Preview: Mine!

Well, the world finally gets MY preview of the upcoming Cats season. Many, many thanks to the good folks at the Pensblog - who gave me a lot of space.

"The real question mark here is Olesz. Rusty made great strides were last season, resulting in 26 points (14 goals). This kid has the speed, the shot, the character. Will losing his mentor (Stumpel) constrain or release him?"

The Pensblog, for the unfamiliar, is more or less the unofficial melting pot for hockey fans on the web. A take-no-prisoners attitude, combined with some of the funniest photoshops you'll ever see as a fan, keep it fresh and definitely unique. Oh, and they really, really like the Penguins. Before they moved to Tampa. Thanks again guys!


I've decided to run the post here as well, so without further ado - and minus pictures (you're not missing anything there):

Here's the preview that millions have awaited, nations have fought over, and promises change we can ALL believe in.

Presumably, very few in the hockey world are unfamiliar with the history of the Florida Panthers (whether they wish to be or not..!)

  • Set a record for most points by a first-year NHL team in their inaugural season of 1993-94.
  • An unlikely trip to the SC finals two years later, only to be swept by the powerhouse troika of the Roy/Forsberg/Sakic-led Avalanche.
  • Scott Mellanby's warm relationship with the ASPCA
  • Gave up Stu Barnes for Chris Wells. Ouch.
  • Grabbed Pavel Bure - and later his brother - in what appeared to be a masterstroke.
  • Lost Bure - and later his brother - not long after.
  • Hired and fired Mike Keenan - twice. Inexcusable.
  • Stole the pants off of Islanders GM Mike Milbury by acquiring Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen. In the same deal. Did Oleg Kvasha really have that much upside? Ask the Isles.
  • Promoted a power struggle versus Luongo by taking him to arbitration in 2005, leading to a long and drawn-out divorce. For the record, neither side appears to have been innocent.
  • Bertuzzi. Nuff said.
  • Sent longtime Cat Jokinen packing, a deal which many - through ignorance of the return? - still criticize.
  • Made world news - and YouTube immortality - for the most unfortunate of reasons: Richard Zednik.
  • Seven years out of the postseason, early-year struggles, late-year comebacks, injuries, changes in management, the kids never pan out, J-Bo is G-Bye, yada yada.

On the precipice of yet another new season, and naysayers are simply going through their annual motions, sharpening the knives and ready to pull the plug yet again on the forever 11th of 12th or 13th place Cats, will past history finally make way for a bright future?A few items of note are important when discussing this year's Florida Panthers, version 15:

Managing owner Alan Cohen has been in place for seven years. Agreed, no playoffs, and LOTS of turnover in mangement, but perhaps his decision to hold on to Jacques Martin as GM, after firing him as coach, was his signature move, if not the most highly divisive. Stuck by Jokinen as a staunch ally, finally giving permission to deal him once the writing was on the wall. Some semblence of familiarity by management, for the players, fans, league, can only be a good thing at this point. He has steadfastly commited to the future of the club in Sunrise, and allowed his front office team to do their bidding, without his meddling - at least publicly.

Olli Jokinen is now a former Panther. All signs point to his having a productive and prolific year - if not career - in Phoenix, and there is not a Cat fan anywhere who doesn't bow to his loyalty and commitment to the community. He was not, however, an effective leader in Florida, all too often remaining what appeared to be passive when the heat was on. Often-criticized buddy-buddy relationships with a few subordinates - impressionable Nate Horton comes immediately to mind - did not assist his status as captain. He was just too nice. An apparently negative relationship with coach Martin ("We don't go out to dinner" is but one of the loaded quotes in their time together), though probably mutual, went far in sealing his fate. Jokinen's days in Sunrise were effectively over following that fateful night in February, inadvertantly horribly injuring teammate Zednik. He was a lost soul after that game in Buffalo, never to recover, which fortunately allowed several others, including the rapid emergence of David Booth - The Dood himself - to ascend to higher spots on the roster. The captaincy remains up for grabs, though many believe the short list includes Stephen Weiss, Cory Stillman, and Bryan McCabe.

JM is "just" the GM now. Martin completes his third full summer in charge of the club, and no one can argue his accomplishments (Vokoun, Ballard, "The Beach" Boynton, Stillman, coach DeBoer, morphing Bertuzzi into Matthias and Roberts into Welch, the Rochester situation)...basically undoing - and hopefully stting right - the Keenan era. Tough times as coach reached a breaking point with captain Jokinen, to the tune of no turning back. Cries of misery were unleashed following JM's retention of the general manger's spot, many of those cries having a solid basis: too cozy with the owner, not enough positive change in the building, a "boring", defensively-based on-ice philosophy. The guy will never have a Bryan Burke personality, but his soft-spoken demeaner seems to have worked well upstairs, if not in the dressing room. Freed of the day-to-day constraints which shackled him as a Head Coach/GM, Martin should - should - find the creative and strategic juices he'll need to create a winner, if he can divorce himself completely from the coaching side of the game. Did he install a puppet in Peter DeBoer? A fine scouting department, along with assistant GM Randy Sexton, complement his lack of experience in the office, and let's be honest: anyone who attempts to undue an Iron Mike legacy in a market such as this is worthy of at least an honest shot. You've gotta admire his spunk. Give him three more years to get his design to the promised land.

On to the roster. We'll shake it up up a bit and begin with the tenders.

Carryovers: Tomas Vokoun (starter), Craig Anderson (backup).Newbs: None.Lost: None.On the farm: Tyler Plante, David Shantz, Tyler Beckford-Tseu.

Vokoun (30-29-8, .919, 2.25, 4 SO) has been hailed around the hockey media from "elite" to "servicible" (no, I don't get that one either.) He has proven himself to be a number one in the west, having routinely fended off the likes of Detroit and San Jose, and among Southeast netminders (where the wins matter most) he is arguably at the top of the division. 2007-08, his first with the Cats, placed high expectations squarely on his shoulders, and unfairly so, given the fluctuating status of the defensive squad in front of him. With a solid - SOLID - core before him in J-Bo, Allen, Ballard, The Beach, Murphy, McCabe, etc, T-Vo's stats will edge upward. If the offense takes flight, the wins will grow as well. To most of the more insightful Cat fans, Vokoun was in essence the captain of this club last year. His outspoken demeanor and Mike Liut-style comments reflected his desire to win at all costs, even basically naming names when fewer than the entire roster showed up on any given night. A refreshing change, and a welcome show of emotion for fans who have grown way too accustomed to insightful bromides from Jokinen, such as "we've got to play as a team". A few more nights off wouldn't hurt.

Anderson, who made headlines as the first goaltender - starter or otherwise - in league history to record back-to-back shutouts on the road (90+ saves!), returns as the undisputed secondary netminder. Toward the latter half of the year, Martin played him with more frequency, and given his increasing success during each start, this was a wise move. Vokoun was beaten up, and Andy (8-6-1, .935, 2.25, 2 SO) deserved the opportunity, paving the way for more starts under coach DeBoer this season. Also known for an uncanny ability to spot janitorial talent. Yeah, I used it again.


Carryovers: Bryan Allen, Cory Murphy, Jay Bouwmeester, Karlis Skrastins, Noah Welch, Wade Belak (F/D), Rory Fitzpatrick (yeah, THAT Rory Fitzpatrick), Jassen Cullimore (on a tryout)

Newbs: Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe, Nick Boynton

Lost: Mike Van Ryn, Magnus Johansson, Steve Montador, Branislav Mezei

On the farm: Keaton Ellerby, Luke Beaverson, Mike Caruso

"Formidable" is not an exaggeration when perusing a defensive roster containing names such as Ballard, McCabe, Allen, The Beach, J-Bo (for now, at least), Murphy, and Skrastins. Consider the potential of Ellerby, the 10th overall pick in 2007, and the loss of Mezei is somewhat reduced in importance. Sarcasm, peeps.Montador was, before his departure, a favorite for the captaincy, and he certainly embodied all the right attributes. A popular and versatile d-man who could play forward in a pinch, he was oftentimes the only experienced enforcer on the club, and not a heavyweight at that.Tomas Vokoun has to be sleeping much more soundly these days, knowing a more-than-competent group of soldiers will be minding the zone in front of him. A major problem last year, given Murphy, Van Ryn, and Welch's long-term health troubles, a full-bore turnover of talent hopes to ignite the ranks of defensemen. McCabe brings a big-league shot, Ballard can hit anything open-ice, and few if any want to tangle with The Beach. Skrastis is much more consistent and "safer" than Salei, and Murphy is a proven second-line PP quarterback.

The future of Bouwmeester and his recently-minted one-year deal will, of course, always figure in to any discussion of Florida's blueline. Many pundits have already deemed him gone, and that may well be the case. A popular theory is that he and his agent are in a holding pattern of sorts, waiting to see whether the new DeBoer regime, along with summer pickups, can translate to a winning atmosphere on the ice, before deciding to hit the trail. If he chooses to depart, the Cats will score and score big at the trade deadline in filling holes. We're way ahead of Jokinen here, and JM is no Keenan. Either way, he doesn't walk come UFA day.

Ellerby will most likely wind up in Rochester for at least the next season after a progressive (23 points in 53 games, 81 PIM) campaign with Moose Jaw of the WHL. Former Rochester defenseman Fitzpatrick was simply an experienced roster spot fill-in for the Amerks, and is probably eyed for the captaincy. A solid PR move by Martin for the now-sole Panthers American League affiliate.


Carryovers: Stephen Weiss, David Booth, Nathan Horton, Richard Zednik, Rostislav Olesz, Gregory Campbell, Ville Peltonen, Radek Dvorak, Wade Belak (F/D), Kamil Kreps, Brett McLean

Newbs: Cory Stillman

Lost: Olli Jokinen, Jozef Stumpel

On the farm: Shawn Matthias, Anthony Stewart, Michael Frolik, Drew Larman, Janis Sprukts (again...)

Much has been made of the loss of former captain Olli Jokinen, but the departure must be split into two discussions. One was covered above, that of the leadership question. The other is obvious: just how does JM replace those 34 goals (and -19...yikes!)?Cory Stillman was a wise choice. He's been generally consistent (602 points in 839 games, 20 goals-plus in eight seasons), if a bit injury-prone. In the 2006 playoffs, he posted 26 points in 25 games, and two Stanley Cup etchings certainly don't detract from his pedigree. At 34, is he ready to do it all again? He's unquestionably good for 20 goals, but does the right set-up man reside here? DeBoer had better find a center for him, and fast. No time for experimentation here. The big upside? Florida doesn't have to play against him. Goals taken away are goals scored.

(Eternally) Potential power-forward Nathan Horton (drafted 3rd overall in 2003, directly behind Carolina's Eric Staal) continues to be an enigma. Oozing with talent, he has yet to deliver on the promise (27-35-62, +15, 85 PIM...most of which came after moving off of Olli's line). This is no surprise to anyone following the Cats. In fact, bring up any of Florida's recent first rounders with NHL experience (Weiss, Bouwmeester, and Olesz stand high) and "low return" comes to mind. Is this the year for Nate? Perhaps the long-rumored switch to center will seal it.

David Booth had a phenomenal (22-18-40, +13) second year, which only improved once matched with the horrifically-named "Sunrise Express" line partnering him with Horton and Weiss. It's easy to imagine The Dood overachieving, to the tune of 35 goals, but this is most likely entirely unrealistic on a club constructed such as this. Bank on 25 and be happy.Stephen Weiss: first-line or second-line? Therein lies the question. Another question: captain or not?

Richard Zednik is skating and all signs point to him being in the opening night lineup. If he stays there, look for 15 goals if he gets comfy on the right line.The real question mark here is Olesz. Rusty made great strides were last season, resulting in 26 points (14 goals). This kid has the speed, the shot, the character. Will losing his mentor (Stumpel) constrain or release him?We all know about Belak and his pugillistic skills. Brett McLean is the definitive "energy" forward.

The underlying excitement for this year comes in the form of Shawn Matthias. Acquired from the Wings in return for rental Todd Bertuzzi (the most glaring of very few black marks on Detroit GM Ken Holland's resume), Matthias has dazzled with Belleville of the OHL (56 gp, 32-47-79!, +21) while banging out 2 goals in four games for the Cats last year due to an emergency call-up. Kudos to JM for not pushing a good thing, keeping him here and wearing him out.Frolik likely will see a full season in Rochester, while Stewart, ever the dilemma, could wind up anywhere. One thing is for certain: it's his last chance to avoid the title of "draft bust".
DeBoer (l), and JM the GM


Former Kitchener Rangers coach Peter DeBoer takes the helm of his first non-juniors position. An unusual ascension, but generally considered around the NHL to have been in high demand; the Senators had him in their sights. P-De promises a far more up-tempo, fire-wagon attacking game, as opposed to JM's slower (boring?) defensive approach. Considering the blue-line guns at his disposal, this will result in an exciting, crash-the-net type of offense, sorely missing in Sunrise, well, forever, minus the one-man highlight reel of Pavel Bure. Just recently 40, DeBoer will be under the microscope of many this year, especially those clubs that passed on him. If he can resist the temptation of consulting his general manager for coaching decisions, he'll be fun to watch. The contests against Tampa's offense and Florida's defense should be classic.

What is the sum of these parts? Sounds like a cop-out, but who really knows? There are so many new variables in place, not to mention a division whose character is constantly changing...obvious answers are impossible.One thing is certain: this is a Cats club that is - for better or worse - like no other.