By Adam Vingan
The Florida Panthers have had a lump of coal (or more appropriately, a dead rat) in their proverbial stockings for the last decade. The Panthers are the only team in the NHL that has not made the playoffs within the last 10 years and have only three times in their 17 year existence, with their last postseason appearance coming in 2000. To make matters worse, the New Jersey Devils swept Florida out of the first round that year, meaning that the Panthers have not won a playoff game since April 17, 1997.
General manager Dave Tallon did not sit still during the offseason and added over 10 new players (including three former members of the Washington Capitals) through trades and free agency. There isn’t much of a youth movement coming into South Florida next season, but when you consider the population of the region in general, it should not be much of a surprise. Most of the Panthers’ new acquisitions are entering the twilight of their careers and will ride off into the sunset in Sunrise.
Save The Date (season matchups): October 18 in Washington; December 5 in Florida; February 1 in Florida; February 7 in Washington; February 17 in Florida; April 5 in Washington.
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): F Tomas Fleischmann (free agency via Colorado); F Scottie Upshall (free agency via Columbus); F Kris Versteeg (acquired from Philadelphia); F Tomas Kopecky (acquired from Chicago); F Sean Bergenheim (free agency via Tampa Bay); F Marcel Goc (free agency via Nashville); F Matt Bradley (free agency via Washington); D Brian Campbell (acquired from Chicago); D Ed Jovanovski (free agency via Phoenix); G Jose Theodore (free agency via Minnesota).
Gift Receipts (notable losses): F Steve Bernier; F Sergei Samsonov; F Byron Bitz (signed with Vancouver); F Mike Duco (signed with Vancouver); F Patrick Rissmiller (signed with Colorado); F Niclas Bergfors (signed with Nashville); F Marty Reasoner (signed with New York Islanders); D Alexander Sulzer (signed with Vancouver); D Clay Wilson (signed with Calgary); G Tomas Vokoun (signed with Washington).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past (last season): 30-40-12 – fifth in Southeast Division – 15th in Eastern Conference.
What went wrong? A lot. What went right? Very little. The Panthers struggled in almost every facet of the game last season, from their power play (a league-worst 13.1%) to goals per game (2.33 G/G, 27th). No player eclipsed 50 points and the only reason the Panthers remained competitive at certain points during the season was because of Vokoun (22-28-5, 2.55 GAA, .922 SV%), who left for Washington to be a part of a Stanley Cup contender for the first time in his career.
The Panthers never really got out of the gate during the 2010-11 season. Florida only put together two three-game winning streaks, but had six losing streaks of three games or more, including a 10-game streak to close out of the season. There was not much to cheer about in Sunrise. But there was plenty to scream about.
Wish List (season outlook): There’s a lot to look forward in Florida this season. The Panthers added the right mix of overall experience (Bergenheim, Theodore, Campbell and Jovanovski – who was on that Florida team that last won a playoff game in 1997), recent Stanley Cup-winning experience (Kopecky and Versteeg, who were part of a similar rebuild in Chicago with Tallon), toughness (Upshall and Alex Semin’s biggest fan, Bradley) and flashiness (Fleischmann – no pun intended). Lost in the shuffle are Florida’s top scorers – Stephen Weiss, Mike Santorelli and David Booth – who will all look to build on solid seasons. Add in a new coach in Kevin Dineen and the Panthers are a completely different team.
It’s fitting that the Panthers are bringing back their red jerseys from glorious days past because this could the best team that they have put together in at least 10 years. There are plenty of “ifs” surrounding this team, but the biggest question mark will be in goal. As said before, Vokoun was responsible for many of Florida’s wins over the last five years. If Theodore and Scott Clemmensen can keep games close and allow the team’s new-look offense to take hold, then the Panthers have a chance to play past early April.