Cats fans will need their team to tighten up and become "one" as never before, if this is to be a regular fixture at the BankAtlantic Center in 2009-10. And paying the electric bills.
The Cats launched 2008-09 amid a flurry of uncertainty, for a myriad of valid reasons: longtime leading scorer Olli Jokinen dealt at the Entry Draft, GM Jacques Martin forced out of his coaching responsibilities, impending UFA-to-be Jay Bouwmeester re-signed...for one year, winger Richard Zednik attempting to return from hideous injury, the annual chorus of "where's the scoring going to come from?", Nathan Horton moved to center, zero-hour new head coach Peter DeBoer, and on and on.
Though players were initially pleased with the fresh air ushered in by DeBoer, the ingrown Martin Doctrine of "Defense First" made for a painful and difficult transition to an offensive/positionally-responsible strategy in the early going. Wade Belak's departure particularly irked fans, as did the rookie coach's insistance on "wasting" valuable first and second line time on that Michael Frolik kid...the one with 2g (4p) through the end of November.
December was the true birthplace of the club's acceptance of and submission to DeBoer's Terms of Service: 30 wins were to follow. A few maniacally bad stinkers as well, but the seed had been planted. And that Frolik guy finished with 21g-24a-45p. We're not doubting the rookie coach now.
Every hockey fan is aware of Florida's finish: 9th place in the East (93 pts), butted out of the postseason by a secondary tiebreaker vs Montreal. Nobody's crying over it - what could be done? - but a strong scent of "We want more - for real this year!" is wafting through the southeastern Everglades after coming Oh So Close to printing playoff tickets for the first time since 2000. Local media badly needs the opportunity to trot out something other than the tired "they missed it again" line.
No more Bouwmeester drama, Martin has moved on, the defense is as positionally sound as at any point over the past decade, Randy Sexton is providing steady if unexciting guidance from the front office, and young players are finally blooming. Onward...
FORGET ABOUT: Bouwmeester
thankfully (trade/CGY), Ville Peltonen (UFA), Zednik (UFA), Nick Boynton (UFA), Steve Eminger (UFA), Jassen Cullimore (UFA), Karlis Skrastins (UFA), Brett McLean (Buyout), Anthony Stewart (UFA), Craig Anderson (UFA)
GET TO KNOW: Steven Reinprecht (UFA), Jordan Leopold (trade/UFA), Scott Clemmensen (UFA), Ville Koistinen (UFA), Dennis Seidenberg (UFA), Jeff Taffe (UFA)
BOYZ II MEN: (F) Michal Repik, Shawn Matthias, Kenndal McArdle, Evgeny Dadonov, Mike Duco. (D) Keaton Ellerby, Jason Garrison, Dmitry Kulikov, Michael Caruso. (G) Realistically no one (due to Vokoun/Clemmensen), but keep an eye on Alexander Salak
GOOD STUFF: Horton's permanently back on the wing, presumably with the 31 goals of David Booth, centered by leading scorer Stephen Weiss (61 pts). Anderson was capably replaced by
Newark Man of the Year Clemmensen (a Sexton coup). The Boynton debacle is finis (solidifying DeBoer's position). Reinprecht is a proven commodity in his role. Potential rookie defensemen are on the cusp of cracking the lineup, in the midst of veterans in the mold of Martin Skoula and Christian Backman. An entire year away from Martin's stingy offensive philosophy is that much further behind them. Bryan Allen returns after a season in injury exile. GM JM is no longer a focal point of hatred for the fans.
QUESTIONABLE STUFF: Let's face it: Bouwmeester is indeed a loss. Boynton's signing with Anaheim reduces overall team toughness. Skrastins blocked a helluva lot of shots. Anderson was a known asset (but wanted a starting spot). Peltonen completed a sick third line with Gregory Campbell and Radek Dvorak, and killed penalties on par with anyone in the league. Rusty Olesz is on a seriously short leash. GM JM is no longer a focal point of hatred for the fans.
- Center: Weiss, Reinprecht, Campbell, Kamil Kreps
- RW: Horton, Frolik, Dvorak, Repik
- LW: Booth, Cory Stillman, Olesz, Nick Tarnasky
- D: Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe, Allen, Leopold, Seidenberg, Koistinen, Skoula/Backman, Garrison/Ellerby
- G: Tomas Vokoun, Clemmensen, Tyler Plante/Salak
TIME WARP TO APRIL: No single organization in the Southeast held back - for better or worse - more than Florida eventually did over the summer. Everyone has improved. Optimists may claim the Panthers needed the least amount of tweaking, given the strides made in the second half of the 2008-09 season; a few solid "character" acquisitions here, a "complement" to this line there, a rookie hitting his stride at the right time. And a lot of hope for the burgeoning defensive bunch Sexton has assembled.
Gotta make a pick? It depends as much upon the successes and failures of the divisional four the Panthers are in competition with. Let's call it second in the SE, seventh in the Wales. The down days are over.