Florida Panthers up the middle: Center of a troubled universe?

Most of the shouting has - thankfully - died down from the fever pitch we saw two weeks ago regarding free agency. The Cats made no significant waves (though I still find myself quietly cheering the Scott Clemmensen signing) beyond getting a decent, albeit late, return on Jay Bouwmeester's rights, locking up center Steven Reinprecht, and making everyone a bit nervous by going long on Jordan Leopold. But it all got done. Not to mention a few modest-though-hopeful draft picks were made by Scott Luce's staff under immense pressure from a front office which could only have been in turmoil, thanks to Montreal's new head coach.

More after the wormhole-of-fun...

Actually, that part makes me the most snickeringly positive about the future of the club. These scouthing guys and gals had to react to a quickly evolving situation. No longer were Jacques Martin's meandering defensive proclivities the order of the day. Want proof? Of the Cats' seven picks, six were forwards; only 14th-overall Dmitry Kulikov (ranked by many as a top-ten prospect) works the blueline. Every fan should sleep a little better.

And so we venture back to free agency, and specifically the center position. For quite some time - the "loss" of Olli Jokinen comes to mind - the Panthers have been jockeying either second-line (sometimes less) centers or transplanted wingers to the meat spot in the top trio sandwich. While this was undoubtedly done out of necessity last year (giving Nathan Horton a shot at his old junior spot was one reason, not blowing out the salary structure being another), the upcoming season has a new set of expectations associated with it. The playoffs are, quite simply, stand back : the only goal. Wash, rinse, repeat. Sounds rather familiar to me as well.

It's safe to assume most Panthers Faithful can be divided into two camps when discussing the situation at Center:

  • those who are comfortable with where the roster stands now (including prospects from Rochester), hoping for the rapid development of some and serious breakouts from others, while...
  • ...the other contingent wants a splash, the Big Free Agent, some semblence of a newsmaking deal to shake the foundations a bit./

It's really no secret where I stand: building from within is a perfectly respectable strategy. The Cats have been doing it - haphazardly - for years, only that many of the expected pieces either failed to pan out (Anthony Stewart, Branislav Mezei) or were squeezed by the differing strategies of three very dissimilar management staffs in the past six years (Kristian Huselius, Niklas Hagman).

Would I love to see a mammoth move made by Randy Sexton and company to shore up the middle? Of course. But I'm not losing sleep over it. And until a full-time GM is named, don't waste your nights stressing over it either. When the big money is spent, it won't be with an interim's signature on Alan Cohen's check.

I'm perfectly comfortable waiting this out; a successful season - built on the efforts of some long-awaited Big Years by the up-and-comers - is realistic, given the talent within. The club has a solid core in place - finally - at the forward ranks, with a little work remaining at left wing (in this case Alex Tanguay looks oh so tempting), but the conversation always drifts back to center.

Stephen Weiss: A nice season by the perenial number two - he led the team in scoring - may have finally cemented his front-line status. Recent talk of a Booth-Weiss-Horton Sunrise Express reunion (made possible by the addition of Reinprecht) could very well have the center back for good at the top of the positional depth chart.

Steven Reinprecht: A career second-liner, he has produced erratically, though due to various injuries (which in itself is rather terrifying). His point totals have been consistent with games-played. A Cup winner and "character guy" which the Panthers have been in relentless pursuit of in recent days, he has serious potential with a Michael Frolik/Cory Stillman shotgun setup.

Gregory Campbell: One third of the killer "CPR" line is now just about gone (awaiting confirmation on Ville Peltonen's expected departure to Europe), Campbell worked wonders with Radek Dvorak in all defensive situations. In Nick Boynton's absence, "Soup" never hesitated to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate, so his role as third-line center is well-defined and - for the moment - untouchable.

Nick Tarnasky: The return for Wade Belak. Tough dood with sweet hands had some moments in 2008-09, just not many. Sharing ice time was a factor.

Kamil Kreps: Quick but serviceable fourth-liner; his 19 points in 66 games - on very few minutes per night - are actually a revelation. Given real time, who knows? Probably holding the fort for...

Shawn Matthias: Even in the event this kid completely busts, Detroit's Ken Holland will never hear the end of trading his rights for Todd Bertuzzi at the 2007 trade deadline. He won't be a bust, though, even after a rough start in Rochester last year. With a season of pro hockey to his resume, lots of folks are expecting a serious push to make the big club in camp.

Jeff Taffe: Yahoo! and the Panthers official site have him listed at left wing, while ESPN - in all their WWL goodness, pegged him at center. I hate deferring to Bristol's largest tax shelter, but for the purposes of this piece, we'll call him a center as well. Hey...any guy who can produce at better than a point-per-game pace is worth looking at, and I'll be damned if he doesn't create some headaches for everyone under Reinprecht on the depth chart during camp. Those are numbers.

No one else of note down on the farm at this point. Who's available at the Free Agent Center bazaar? Check it out (via Mirtle's most recent Top 100):

  • Robert Lang:  Serious points over the years, and he's played with some top talent. But he's older than I am. That's not a good thing. KHL or bust, baby.
  • Mats Sundin:  Muahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Moving along...
  • Jason Williams:  Decent numbers - in fact, pretty darned good - but his only having played 80 games once in ten years hurts him. Forget that...his next highest total for a single season is 58. Sucks.
  • Manny Malhotra:  No offense, but we're sinking fast. In his defense, Manny has many admirers, and did a lot where few tools were available in Columbus. Going into his 13th season at age 29.
  • Dominic Moore:  Well-travelled and not outstanding in any specific category. Greg Campbell, minus the stability.
  • Mike Comrie:  Surprised he fell this far? Though talented at his trade, yet another victim of games-lost-to-injury./

That's really it, unless Mike Sillinger and Michael Peca can still be summarized as "big names". How much dinero would you throw at any of these guys, and how might they be an improvement on what Florida already holds? Speak!

Centers: Sign one or stay the course?

Take no prisoners: go for it in the FA marketplace45
Hang tight: there's enough talent to handle the load22