There are so many unknowns heading into the Florida Panthers' 2014-15 campaign that we could write a short book and probably have enough material left over for an AMC miniseries (all of which we'll cover soon), but as time is short and the new season approaches with alarming speed, we'll simply focus here on three burning questions facing the Cats:
Is Roberto Luongo capable of carrying the team to the playoffs?
Louie's talents are no secret around the league, and he's never been one to sneak up on the opposition; it's typically an all-or-nothing proposition for the 35-year-old. And more often than not, he brings the "all", which he'll need to on a regular basis for a roster which many predict will struggle, at least initially, to find an identity and more importantly scoring. His presence alone is good for a modest bump in the standings as he'll be the type of steadying influence the back end has sorely lacked on a consistent basis since Tomas Vokoun, but he'll need to evolve with his team as it suffers the inevitable growing pains which a young club, coupled with a new coaching staff, will no doubt experience. Getting back to the original question: he's certainly capable of just about anything at his position, and there is every reason to believe the defense in front of him will be superior to last year's league-worst version, but he'll need all of the individual pieces of the machine to come together, and quickly. Simply put: he'll steal his share of games, as he always has, but the postseason does not rest on Luongo alone. Too many variables in the mix.
Will Jonathan Huberdeau bounce back from his sophomore slump?
Hard to imagine him backsliding even further, so it's safe to state he'll improve on a 28-point "performance" of a season ago. Much has been speculated about his miserable second year: nagging injuries, confidence issues, ineffective and inconsistent linemates, and on and on. Certainly didn't help having to transition from Kevin Dineen's somewhat stoic systems to the possesion game of interim coach Peter Horachek, and now he's adjusting to yet another under Gerard Gallant. But that's a positive as the two achieved great success together with Saint John only a few short seasons ago, so the familiarity is built-in. Hate to continue harping on consistency, but that really would appear to be the case for Huberdeau: find the right combination of players and stick with it. Period. Had far too little of that in his disastrous sophomore season.
What impact will new head coach Gerard Gallant have on the club?
Though Horachek's efforts were generally a step up from the reportedly dark Dineen era, Gallant fancies himself a "player's coach" though is more than willing to drop the hammer when necessary. He was one tough dude during his playing days with 1,674 penalty minutes in 615 games, but tends to have a closer personal relationship with his troops, unquestionably better than Dineen ever had. Gallant's history with Huberdeau, as noted above, only improves upon the chemistry he'll need right from the start. The respect he's earned around the league should be a boon to his veterans, and he's no new-comer to the NHL, a trait lacking in his predecessors. He was also shrewd enough to retain John Madden and Robb Tallas as assistant coaches on his staff; whether that call was his or GM Dale Tallon's is unknown, but wise nonetheless. Hate to use it, but the proverbial "breath of fresh air" was needed in that dressing room; the players all but revolted a year ago, and seemed genuinely unhappy from the start. The word "fun" is being used to describe this latest camp which is of course encouraging.
Lots more to come as our previews roll on so stay tuned...