If you had told me before this season that the Panthers had 51 points in 51 games, I wouldn’t have been surprised. The Panthers are now 12th in the East, 3 points behind Boston and the Islanders, who are tied for 8th. Considering the team has played without Booth since game 9 and did not have Cory Stillman for an extended period of time, the Panthers are doing okay so far. They have been very inconsistent this year and have not had a four game winning streak yet.
The news of Nathan Horton’s broken leg may be the death toll to the Panthers playoff hopes. Horton has been the team’s best forward all year long and it seems he has finally realized the effort level required to be a star player. If the Panthers needed the forwards other than the first line to provide secondary scoring before the Horton injury, the team will need the usual suspects even more now. I’m hoping these players can increase their offensive production. McCabe and Ballard also will need to score, particularly on the power play.
The real question that the new owners and Randy Sexton have to answer is “what is the core of the next Cup contending team?” The Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Blues have shown us that simply making the playoffs for one round is not enough. In the salary cap era you have to develop your team so that you have a two to three years to contend for the Cup before everyone requires salaries that do not fit the cap. Chicago and Pittsburgh are trying to buck this trend by having their core and then add low-cost veterans and younger players with their remaining cap space.
I’m going to try and identify who can be part of the next Panthers team that contends for the Cup. We will break these players up between definite parts of the core, players who will not be part of the team and the remaining players, the “maybes”:
David Booth – I don’t think David Booth will play this year. I would rather that Booth would take his time and come back next fall. The Panthers don’t expect him back until after the Olympic break at the earliest. Assuming he does recover then he will definitely be part of the core that will hopefully contend for the Stanley Cup in three years.
Michael Frolik – Frolik has had an up and down year but has played better as the season has gone on. He provides a good forecheck and will get better as he enters his third and fourth years in the league.
Gregory Campbell – Campbell can be an excellent third/fourth line centre who can help on the penalty kill. He has had a lot of injury problems this year and only has two goals. I think Campbell will bounce back in the next couple of years and could be the main checking centre on the next Cup contending team.
Keith Ballard – Ballard is a very good defenceman who I think can be a great #3 D on a contending team. He doesn’t quite have the offensive game or shot from the point to be a top two D on a great team.
Dimitry Kulikov – I think Kulikov is playing with the Panthers as an 18 year old instead of Ellerby and Garrison because the Panthers want to keep him from jumping to Russia. He has done very well considering his age and I think has the shot and puck-moving skills to be a top pair D on a contending team.
Jacob Markstrom – I expect Markstrom to come to Florida after next season, when Vokoun’s contract expires. He has all of the makings of a #1 goalie and I think that after a couple of years adjusting to the North American game he will be an elite goalie.
Steven Reinprecht – Reinprecht is signed for three years but will probably be too past his prime when the Panthers become contenders. He has been up and down this year with a great stretch including a hat trick earlier this year. I don’t think he has the game or size to play as a checking forward so I think that after his contract expires he will no longer be with the Panthers.
Radek Dvorak – Dvorak has been a serviceable third line forward in his second stint with the Panthers. He has a contract through next season and I can see him being traded at the deadline next year to a playoff team looking for depth.
Cory Stillman – I think Cory is going to retire after his contract expires next year. He has had a great career and if he stays healthy next year could be a good rental player for a contender next year.
Dominic Moore – Moore didn’t sign until right around the season began this year. He’s a good third line player who can provide a forecheck but is on a one year deal and I think the Panthers will want Matthias to take his minutes next year.
Victor Oreskovich – Oreskovich is a great story but is a crash line player with little to no offensive potential. He may someday be a fourth line player on a good team but I think he will be a journeyman throughout his career.
Nick Tarnasky – Tarnasky is a fourth line forward who hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year.
Bryan McCabe – McCabe has been a solid addition to the blue line and has provided the leadership that was lacking from former captain Olli Jokinen. The problem is McCabe is on the downside of his career and I think he will be a valuable commodity at the deadline next year when his contract expires.
Dennis Seidenberg – Seidenberg has been a good, low-cost option on D this year and has been an excellent shot-blocker, much like Skrastins last year. He eats a lot of minutes but doesn’t have much of an offensive game. We will see if he is re-signed but at best he would be a 5th/6th D on a good team as his career progresses. I think he will be traded at the deadline this year.
Jordan Leopold – Part of the return for Jay Bouwmeester, Leopold has been solid after a brief adjustment period at the start of the year. He is also on a one year deal and I think he might be traded at the deadline as well.
Tomas Vokoun – I don’t see Vokoun being re-signed after next year because the Markstrom/Clemmensen combo should be in goal in a couple of years. Vokoun has been a top 10 NHL goalie for a long time now and he could provide a significant package of prospects/picks next year when his contract becomes a little more manageable to contending teams.
Scott Clemmensen – I can see Clemmensen being a backup next year and then finishing his contract in 2011-2012 as a 1/1a with Markstrom. After that I believe he won’t be a Panther. He needs to play better as he has not met expectations so far this year outside of the odd good start (in Detroit for example).
Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss – I’m grouping these two together. If your top 4 forwards are Horton, Weiss, Booth and Frolik can you contend for a Cup? I don’t know but I don’t think so. If Horton and Weiss are your second line? Then, I think these two will be part of a contending team. I have been happy with their production so far this year and I hope both play with Team Canada at the Worlds if the Panthers do miss the playoffs.
Rostislav Olesz – Olesz is easily the most frustrating Panther forward. He does have talent but he has not come close to converting his talent to on-ice production. He might be on the next Panthers contending team as a third liner simply because no one else will touch the 6 year, $3 million per year contract that he signed before last year. Thank God Jacques Martin is in Montreal.
Kamil Kreps – If Kreps can increase his offensive production just a bit then he can be a good checking centre who can forecheck for a good team, otherwise he is a fringe NHL player.
Shawn Matthias – I have seen glimpses of a productive NHL player when Matthias has played with the Panthers this year. He has not put everything together yet but could eventually. I’m worried that he hasn’t had great numbers in the AHL. I would like to see him get more ice time at the NHL level.
Michael Repik – I think Repik should get more of a chance to play with the Panthers. Especially if they fall out of the playoff picture around the Olympic break.
Kenndal McArdle – McArdle has been a good energy line player when healthy this year. Like Kreps, he will have to show more of an offensive game. The Panthers should give him NHL minutes to see if he can develop into a productive third line game.
Bryan Allen – maybe my least favourite Panther for no fault of his own. He has played better and I have to be easier on him since he is still working his way back from a severe knee injury. But he is slow and his positioning is not very good. He might fill a Hal Gill role on a good team as a fifth or sixth D. He will be with the Panthers for a while since he still has a long way to go on his five year contract. Another JM gem.
Jason Garrison – Will Garrison be better than a third pairing D? I don’t know. He might become a good fourth D. From what I have seen, he needs to improve his skating but there wasn’t much of a drop off in 5 on 5 play when Garrison was in the lineup.
Keaton Ellerby – I would like to see Ellerby play more and be given a chance since he was a first round pick. He was considered to be a project when he was drafted so he might still be a year or two away from becoming an everyday NHLer. We will see what will happen.
Well I’m back blogging. Here’s hoping (again) that I can keep it up.
As you can see above, I’m not too optimistic that the Panthers can make the playoffs this year. They have had too many injuries and not enough talent outside of goaltending to play consistently good hockey. I would love to have a top 3 pick in the draft this year. This would add a player of a caliber that the Panthers have been lacking while picking between 10th and 14th the last few years. But I won’t contend if we end the playoff streak.
Thanks for reading.