Next year, they’ll have seven key players becoming unrestricted free agents (including four of their six defencmen). If the Panthers want to resign them, they’ll have to have some success on the ice.
Forwards: The Panthers tried to make up for the loss of trading Olli Jokinen away by signing Cory Stillman in the offseason. Stillman has a Stanley Cup ring, and gives it his all every single shift. He’ll be a leader on the ice, and will try to instill a level of confidence in this team.
Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton are the team’s two brighest prospects. Weiss should improve on his 42-point season from last, especially with Stillman on his wing. Horton is a threat to score 30 goals every season, and could potentially score 40 once he fully matures. Both players were a high plus last season as well.
It will be interesting to see how Richard Zednik plays after missing part of last season when his neck was sliced by a skate. Will he be more tentative on the ice? He’s a long way from when he score 31 goals for Montreal a few years ago, but he is a leader on this team.
Defence: They’re solid defensively, which is another way of saying they’ll be playing more dull hockey this year. They are led by Jay Bouwmeester, a good player who deserves better than to be playing on this team. He can hit hard, is strong in his own zone and can show some offensive spark at times.
Keith Ballard is good at shutting opponents down, as is Bryan Allen.
Bryan McCabe will be a better player, now that he’s out of the spotlight of the Toronto media. He can be more relaxed and not stress as much about mistakes, which means he’ll make less of them. He’ll also be the team’s go to guy on the powerplay, as the Panthers hope he can get more than 15 goals, as he’s done in four of the last six seasons.
Goaltending: The team’s number one goalie, Tomas Vokoun, can expect to see a lot pucks this season. Despite trying to play a defensive game, the Pathers gave up the most shots in the league last year. But Vokoun played great, earning an all-star nomination for his efforts.
The team is still reeling from trading the league’s best goalie (Roberto Luongo) away two years ago. But Vokoun is doing a good job of helping the fans forget about that trade.
Pool picks: Bryan McCabe is off most people’s radars because they don’t expect Florida to score much, and McCabe was injured last season, scoring only five goals and 23 points. But look for him to bounce back in a big way. He’ll be expected to let go of his shot as often as possible, and will see a lot of powerplay time. Nathan Horton can also expect to see his numbers increase this year as he takes on more ice time now that Olli Jokinen is gone. Stay away from: Jay Bouwmeester. People expect him to have a career year any time now, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I can’t see him getting more than 45 points, and now he’ll have McCabe eating into his powerplay time.
Miscellaneous: The Panthers would be a much better team if they never needed to worry about making a trade. In 2006, they needed to trade Roberto Luongo, and received Todd Bertuzzi (gone), Alex Auld (gone) and Bryan Allen in return (still there). This past summer, they needed to trade Olli Jokinen, the best offensive player on the team, and got Nick Boynton (defenceman), Keith Ballard (defenceman) and a draft pick.
Expected finish: Fifth in the southeast division, 13th in the conference
Overall:The Panthers will do what they do every year. Start losing at the beginning of the season, go on a huge winning streak to get back into the playoff hunt, just to choke down the stretch. They’re not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a great draft pick choice. They’re also not entertaining enough to watch.