2013 Chart: 5th in the Southeast - 15th in the Eastern Conference - 30th in the NHL
Forwards: The Florida Panthers will struggle, in all likelihood, to score goals once again, but what else is new? The team, which was absolutely decimated by injuries last season, lost longtime first line center Stephen Weiss to the Detroit Red Wings and chose not to re-sign Peter Mueller, who chipped in 8 goals and 9 assists during his 43 game stint with the Cats. Florida didn't do much to address its offensive woes through free agency, only adding an aging Scott Gomez, who should at least help out while the club has the man-advantage, and bottom-six candidates Bobby Butler and Joey Crabb. The Panthers also inked a fistful of forwards to shore up their AHL affiliate in San Antonio and to provide insurance in case the injury bug continues to the haunt the club again this coming season. One of that group, Jesse Winchester is making a serious bid to claim a spot on the big-league roster. Late in the offseason, Florida signed Brad Boyes, who had a nice bounce back season with the New York Islanders last year, to a PTO, and later to a one-year deal, in an attempt to add goals and further bolster the club's depth at right wing. The biggest offseason acquisition from an offensive standpoint was the selection of big center Aleksander Barkov with the second overall pick in the Entry Draft. Barkov, seasoned by two years in Finland's top league, is expected to play for Florida immediately and to make an impact.
If the Panthers are going to light the lamp more often in 2013-14, a majority of the increase is going to have to come from veterans returning from injury and/or the further injection of some of the club's prized group of forward prospects to the lineup. The return of Kris Versteeg, who notched 23 goals in 2011-12, to full health will definitely help. Versteeg was expected to miss the first few months of the season, but after notching two goals in the preseason finale, looks ready and able for opening night. The Cats will also see Sean Bergenheim come back at some point, hopefully soon after the start of the regular season, and will look to finally get a full year from Scottie Upshall, who has missed a large chunk of games since signing on as a free agent in 2011. Upshall looks healthy and showed some scoring touch early in the preseason. Highly regarded youngsters Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore, who saw varying degrees of time with the Panthers last season, will be looking to claim roster spots and expand their roles on the team. The duo, while raw, has the talent to provide some much-needed secondary scoring if they make the cut, if not, they should be among the first call-ups. Vincent Trocheck, who put up 50 goals and 109 points in the OHL last season, and Quinton Howden were in the mix as well but they will start the season off with the AHL Rampage.
Tomas Fleischmann, who topped the team with 35 points last season after leading the offense in 2011-12, is back again and the Cats will also be looking for Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau to shake off offseason hip surgery and continue his rapid ascent to potential superstar status. Despite the truncated regular season, veteran Tomas Kopecky scored 15 goals, equaling the career-best number he put up in 2010-11 in 34 fewer games. A repeat of that kind of output would be very much appreciated by Panthers' brass. Another player of interest will be 25-year-old Shawn Matthias, who scored a career-high 14 goals last season and could possibly open the season as the Panthers' number one center, which is more of an indictment of Florida's veteran depth down the middle than anything else. The light finally came on for Matthias, at least for a spell, as he picked up 11 of those goals during a torrid 16-game span. The light seemed to go off again just as quickly, as the Milton, Ontario native finished up with only 3 goals in the last twenty games of the season. Can Matthias be a consistent NHL scorer or was that hot streak just a fluke? The goal-starved Panthers will cross their fingers and be hoping for the former.
The departure of Weiss, Mueller, gamer Jack Skille and tough guy George Parros combined with the new additions that Florida has made or will make, depending on which youngsters are ready for full-time duty, to the forward ranks will likely lead the offense to start off the season in somewhat of a state of flux. Head coach Kevin Dineen will have to sort out new line combinations in training camp and during the club's exhibition games. It's hard to say just how many roster spots are open but who plays on what line and with who is definitely up for grabs. Have a good training camp in Sunrise and you could suddenly find yourself in the team's top six. With the majority of its most talented players still being in the early stages of their careers, Florida will be taking the goals by committee approach and looking to roll four solid lines to wear out opponents.
Defense: Florida's top five on the blue line seems set in stone with Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver, Erik Gudbranson, and Ed Jovanovski all returning for another year of duty. The 37-year-old Jovanovski, who is unlikely to be ready for the start of the campaign, only suited up for 6 games last season and the sun seems to be quickly setting on his long NHL career. With two years left on his overpriced deal, one wonders if the Panthers would have been better off moving on by using a compliance buyout on the grizzled veteran. The team has the option to do that next season as well if it so desires. The usually solid Weaver also missed significant time, so the Panthers' defense needs a return to health almost as much as the forward brigade.
The Panthers did decide to use a buyout of the standard variety on Filip Kuba, who flopped as a stop-gap replacement for Jason Garrison, and saw Tyson Strachan and T.J. Brennan depart via free agency, opening up a spot on their top three defensive pairings and another as a spare defenseman. The competition to fill those slots was fierce but it looks like newly-signed veteran Matt Gilroy, emerging youngster Colby Robak and former Minnesota and Edmonton defender Tom Gilbert, who came to camp on a PTO and earned a contract, have won the right to don the Panthers sweater and avoid starting the season off in San Antonio. One of them is likely ticketed for the Rampage once Jovanovski returns to full health.
The Panthers would love for this to be the season Dmitry Kulikov finally realizes his vast potential. The 14th overall pick in 2009 took a slight step backwards last season and needs to solidify his game to help take some of the burden off the overworked Brian Campbell. Campbell led the team in ice time and put together another nice season offensively (8G/19A) but he could be more effective doing a little bit less. Better play from Kulikov and fellow former first-rounder Erik Gudbranson, who needs to show improvement to help render the decision not to draft Seth Jones instead of Barkov moot, would help lighten his load. As a unit, the Panthers need to work on their positioning, play with more of a physical edge, and get better at quickly moving the puck out of their own end instead of being constantly hemmed in by the opposition.
(Ed. note: D Ryan Whitney was signed to a one-year deal after publication of this preview)
Goaltending: Florida mastermind Dale Tallon decided not to re-sign veteran UFA Jose Theodore, who helped lead the club to a surprising division title in 2011-12, and seemed intent on leaving the starting job to the talented, but still somewhat green, Jacob "The Alien" Markstrom. Markstrom is certainly gifted enough to be an NHL starter but it remains to been seen if he has the game experience and mental fortitude needed to backstop the moribund Panthers out of the cellar. Scott Clemmensen was the veteran backup originally slated to spell "The Alien" or to carry the load if Markstrom faltered. Unfortunately for Clemmensen, he had to undergo a procedure on his knee right before the start of training camp. The Panthers responded by bringing in decorated veteran netminder Tim Thomas on a PTO.
Thomas impressed enough during camp to earn a one-year, bonus-laden contract, now expect the 39-year-old, highly-competitive goaltender to shake off the rust, quickly lay claim to the starting job and become a mentor to Markstrom in the process, turning a position that had serious questions marks into one of, potentially, great strength. Thomas has claimed two of the last five Vezina Trophies and led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory in 2011. Quite a feat for a player in his upper-thirties, he is not one to be underestimated.
Prognosis: Out of the playoffs. The NHL's recent realignment plopped the Panthers down in arguably the toughest of the four new divisions, with heavyweights like the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings becoming new rivals. The Cats should show plenty of improvement this year, as long as the goaltending holds up and the team stays healthy, but a playoff spot is definitely a long shot. If the Panthers exceed expectations and are in the playoff chase late in the season, the team has the cap space and prospect ammunition to bring in help at the trade deadline, but that scenario seems like it is at least a year or two away from happening.