Welcome back to Puck Drop: NHL Preview 2013-14, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of his hockey season. Check back often as new teams are added to our Puck Drop page. Today we take a look at the 2013-14 Florida Panthers.
They went from the worst team in the East to the top of their division within two years, only to return to the basement of the East again. The 2012-13 season was one to forget for the Florida Panthers because for the first time in franchise history, they finished at the very bottom of the NHL standings.
Some could blame it on their inability to score goals. The Panthers offense finished dead last in that category. Others would point out that the Panthers team lost a combined total of 361 man games due to injury. Among them were Kris Versteeg (38 games), Scottie Upshall (21), Stephen Weiss (31) and Ed Jovanovski (42). Even goaltender Jose Theodore was bit by the injury bug, recording his last start of the season on March 2. The penalty kill? Atrocious and dead last in the league – just like the team. They even saw the first overall pick in the 2013 Entry Draft slip through their fingers, settling for the second pick overall and taking centre Aleksander Barkov.
Needless to say, once the Panthers raised their division title banner to the rafters, the roof came down on their 2012-13 season.
The Florida Panthers needed scoring depth and they sure got it! Scott Gomez was signed to a one-year, $900,000 contract. For those who don’t understand sarcasm, Gomez has a total of eleven goals to his name over the span of the last three seasons. That’s one goal LESS than his goal total during his 2009-10 campaign with the Montreal Canadiens. On the positive side of things, Gomez is a good locker room guy and will add experience and leadership to the young Panthers dressing room.
Dale Tallon continued to add offensive depth, signing 26-year-old Bobby Butler and 30-year-old Joey Crabb to identical two-year, $1.2 million contracts. While it doesn’t add much to the scoring department, Butler is a feisty winger that can play hard and find pucks in deep, while Crabb will add some grit down low.
On defense, Matt Gilroy was brought in on a one-year, $700,000 contract. Apart from his smooth skating and good passing ability, there really is nothing there. Gilroy should play bottom pairing, sheltered minutes at the very most. There is no power to his shot, so don’t rely on him playing any powerplay minutes. He is small, very soft and is not good defensively either. In the end, Gilroy is too much of a liability to be counted on defensively. He is an NHL’er at this point in his career but he is not a very good one.
The problem with Florida’s line-up is that every component that departed from the organization was not replaced with an efficient-enough plug. Stephen Weiss, the Panthers first-round pick in 2001, signed with the Detroit Red Wings to a five-year, $24.5 million contract. Does Gomez fill in that void as a leader? I don’t think so. Will Jonathan Huberdeau fill in offensively during his sophomore season, enough-so to cover Weiss’ contribution? Again, I don’t think so. We saw last year the struggles the Panthers had when Weiss was on the shelf with injury.
Filip Kuba, who had the remainder of his contract bought out, is replaced by Gilroy and that really isn’t an improvement. The Panthers also lose their tough guy, George “The Essence of Mustachioed Magnificence” Parros, who was traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Peter Mueller, who contributed eight goals and 17 points with the Panthers, packed up and flew over to Switzerland. With two holes to fill, enter Butler and Crabb. Only time will tell what they can do and just how much of an improvement they will add.
Jacob Markstrom will likely be the starting goaltender now that Jose Theodore was not brought back. The young Swedish goaltender is considered the Panthers top goaltending prospect and shared duties with Theodore last season, and played about as well as his team did… not so good. He posted a .901 save percentage which reflects the team’s effort beautifully.
What to look for
With the acquisitions the Panthers have made and the departures, it’s not hard to see that Florida fans will suffer another poor season. Instead of looking to the scoreboard every night, Panthers fans should enjoy the flashes of brilliance from their young-yet-inexperienced core and get excited for their bright future that lies ahead.
The team is on the road rebuild for a very solid future. With pieces like Jonathan Huberdeau and monster Nick Bjugstad on offense, in addition to newly-drafted Barkov, Florida’s scoring problems could be solved in the next few years. The future definitely looks brighter than the present.
The present is filled with question marks. Versteeg, who is coming back from a knee injury last season, will support Thomas Fleischmann — who put up 35 points last season. How well he’ll do his role, that’s anyone’s guess. Thomas Kopecky was putting up career numbers during the shortened season with 15 goals, while Shawn Matthias had a break-out year with 14 goals and 21 points. If — and that is a big IF — the Panthers can stay healthy, for the most part, over the course of an 82-game season, their offense could look much better than it did last year. Again though, that’s a big question mark given their health one season removed. Brad Boyes was also brought in on a PTO, so it’s still up in the air whether he makes the team or not.
And Barkov. Where does he fit in? Who does he play with?
The defensive-minded Erik Gudbranson is just about ready to break out of his shell but there’s still something missing from his development. Perhaps pairing him with veteran Brian Campbell will solve any doubt. Gudbranson and Campbell would form the Panthers top-pairing defensive line and could be the problem solver to all of their defensive woes. Both Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov will be restricted free agents at the end of this season, both of whom could be efficient pieces to the Panthers defensive core. Ed Jovanovski is coming back from a hip problem that sidelined him for almost the entire 2012-13 season and management still does not know whether he’ll be able to stay healthy enough to play. At this point, he is still not ready to compete and with two years left on his contract that will earn him $8.25 million over that span — an over-35 deal to boot — it becomes an increasingly greater concern with each day that passes by.
With Scott Clemmenson going down to an injury, the Panthers have sent out feelers to both Tim Thomas and Ilya Bryzgalov, which brings up the question — is there really any confidence in Jacob Markstrom? With the product they are icing now, what is the harm in giving Markstrom the full-time gig? It’s not like when they lose, the team and the fanbase will start to point fingers at Markstrom as “the guy that let us down.” Finishing in last place the season before, there are virtually no expectations. Nowhere to go but up. Even if you finish last again, you still didn’t do any worse, right? If there ever was a time, NOW is that time. Experience can go a long way and winning — and more-so losing — with a team that is not built to be playoff-worthy just yet will only add valuable experience and mature the young Markstrom to a whole new level. There simply is nothing left to lose.
Who to look out for
All eyes are on the youth: Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.
Fresh off his Calder Trophy winning season, Huberdeau enters the dreaded sophomore season. Dreaded because now everybody knows just how good this kid is. Unlike his team, there are no question marks surrounding the young, Saint-Jerome-native. Simply put, this kid is good. Putting up 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games was all Dave Tallon needed to know, as he smiled and sat back, watching a star in the making. There wasn’t much to smile about, mind you, but the idea of Huberdeau shinning so bright, so early, is just a small glimpse of what Panthers fans can expect going forward.
Barkov, on the other hand, is a player that nobody really knows what to expect of.
Drafted second overall in last year’s draft, he was met with a lot of criticism. Drafted over Seth Jones? A better forward than Jonathan Drouin? One thing Panthers are counting on is that Barkov truly was the most complete and NHL-ready player from the draft.
He has the look of an NHL’er that could be an all-star in due time. 6’2, 205 pounds, it’s no wonder why he was able to succeed against veteran professional players in Finland’s top leagues for two years. He has a rare combination — size and incredible skill. His skating is a work in progress but in no way is it a weakness and while he is not overly physical, his body can take a beating which leads everyone to suspect that he can last for a long time in the North American-style of hockey.
If all goes according to plan, Barkov could be in serious contention for the Calder Trophy. Imagine that, back-to-back Calders for the Florida Panthers… it could also be back-to-back last place finishes, sadly.
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