With the first few days of training camp in the books, there are still plenty of unanswered questions and necessary decisions surrounding the Panthers as they head towards the preseason opener. The battle for roster spots, rookie dilemmas, the search for a captain, a rookie head coach are just the prelude to bigger question marks like the team's goaltending situation, untested chemistry and new 'style' as opening night fast approaches. By now the offseason hangover should have worn off and business has resumed, though the excitement has not been dampened. That said, there are still difficult decisions at hand that will effect the outcome of the season.
Much more after the jump...
In approximately 3 weeks, the Panthers management and coaching staff need to have their roster in ship shape for the season opener on October 8th. As we stand, there are still many conflicts that need to be resolved before the regular season, and though we wont be making the decisions, good fans should know what to look for in their preseason roster. The most important things to look for in the next week follows:
1st line right wing: At this point most roster spots for the opening lineup have been resolved save but two; 1st line right wing and 4th line center. The most frequent combination for first line seems to be Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg, but in my most humble opinion, I believe people are underestimating the skill of RW Scottie Upshall. Though Versteeg brings plenty of skill to the top line, I think he'd be a much better fit with David Booth and Mike Santorelli on the second line. The reason I say this? Looking through Versteeg's most recent goals with the Flyers and the Maple Leafs, he got a lot of open nets to shoot at. He is a finisher (exactly what the Panthers needed) but perhaps hit his threshold playing with some very good talent in Toronto and Philadelphia. Upshall however is a shooter who seems to score at will. Pair Versteeg with two shooters (Weiss and Flash rarely make setup plays) and where are his opportunities? Put Upshall with Weiss and Flash and you have 3 snipers on your top line. Put Versteeg with a playmaker like Booth and a creative young center in Santorelli and he'll be right at home.
4th line center: The competition for 4th line center seems to be between Shawn Matthias, Ryan Carter and Steven Reinprecht. All three seem to want their spot back with the Panthers, but it might not be skill that wins out in the end. Yes, Matthias has shown upside (albeit in small doses few and far between) and is probably Kevin Dineen's project player, but don't forget Reinprecht is a solid 10-15 goal scorer. Carter has never been much of a scoring threat, but he did cash in 2 goals in 12 games last year returning from a neck injury. The rest of the line will most likely be Tomas Kopecky at LW and either Matt Bradley or Jack Skille at RW. These players don't exactly exude scoring prowess and are more suited for a bang-and-crash line. Who's the most physical of the centers fighting for the spot? Ryan Carter wins this by a mile. Carter with Kopecky and Skille would offer the toughness the other three lines don't have. Matthias is likely to be carried as an extra player through the season and Reinprecht is either on the trading block or loaned back to his German team.
Three rookies looking to make the jump: Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden are all in contention to start the year with the Panthers, but do not think any have assured spots on a very competitive roster that is already at capacity. Howden is worth mentioning after a great year Moose Jaw of the OHL but after a possible injury in rookie camp, he has probably fallen off the radar for a roster spot. Huberdeau has been fantastic in the last few weeks, but size is still his major hurdle to jump. If he signs an entry level deal in the next weeks there is a very good possibility he gets the 9 game NHL tryout, but expect him back in juniors after that. Hubs still has a way to go before we see him crack the lineup. That leaves the most developed of the prospects, Erik Gudbranson, in contention for a roster spot. Gudbranson has shown he wants to be a Panther, and assuming he competes well with the big guns in the next weeks, should have that distinction when the season opener rolls around. Gudbranson will undoubtedly get the 9 game tryout, but should also be part of a 7 man defensive group. I see nothing wrong with rolling 7 D-men through the season, as no one should expect a full season from Ed Jovanovski, and as we learned from last year, injuries do occur. Gudbranson should be given full ice-time in order to get him up to speed as quickly as possible.
The Panthers need a captain: With up to 10 new players starting on opening night, the Panthers must have a captain by then. Though I am totally for starting a season with alternates and letting one play into the role of captain, that absolutely cannot happen this year. If the team wants to form chemistry quickly, they need a leader from the start, whether it be Weiss, Jovanovski or Mike Weaver. Watch these players carefully during preseason, each has something to prove if they want to wear the C. Don't automatically think Weiss has this one wrapped up, if he showed what it took to be captain after Bryan McCabe was traded, we wouldn't be asking these questions less than a month from regular season.
- Kevin Dineen's rookie season: Our most valuable pickup this offseason was head coach Kevin Dineen, and if the Panthers head to the postseason he'll be our MVP too. In some ways, the roster overhaul this offseason shouldn't have any effect on Dineen coming in as a rookie coach. Maybe the returning players aren't familiar with the 10 new guys, but hey, Dineen isn't familiar with anyone. Dineen starts with a clean slate no matter how many guys were brought in this summer. The question surrounding Dineen is whether he can impose his offense based coaching style on a completely new team, and whether he can do this quickly and without any hiccups. He certainly was given the pieces to make that a reality, now its just a matter of how he uses them.
Of the major concerns entering preseason and eventually regular season, these are some pretty awesome things to worry about. The team finally has depth up and down the roster (not to mention plenty of injury call-ups with NHL experience in San Antonio), top prospects eager, and one very likely, to make the team and a new coach with a coaching style the team sorely needs. Entering preseason I only see positives floating around the team, the players are excited, the coaches are excited, and for once the fans are excited. There are still reasonable concerns about the Panthers goalie tandem and chemistry, but these are overshadowed by the concerns that used to surround the team; do players want to play in Sunrise? where are our prospects? is this just another playoff-less season? Right now we're just wondering what the ceiling will be for the team, not which player to take 1st overall next June.