Last night’s game against the Predators was telling in a couple of different ways. 1) The Panthers still look beaten down after that thrashing by the Jets (no pun intended); and 2) The Predators are a really good hockey team.
But the good news is, when I see the Predators, I see nothing but similarities between them and the Panthers. Look at every position, and the Panthers have something in the pros or farm system that could grow into that sort of player. Even the way Kevin Dineen’s roster was built should work very much like Nashville’s lineup.
For example, have you seen the Predators’ stats lately? They have 11 players with more than 10 goals, 13 players with at least 10 assists. When the Panthers’ roster was constructed over the summer, Dale Tallon was hoping for that kind of production. Players like Scottie Upshall and Jack Skille were supposed to light the lamp from the third and fourth lines at least ten times, but that hasn’t necessarily happened. As a team, the Panthers have relied way too much on that top line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, and Kris Versteeg. Not that it hasn’t paid dividends for portions of the year, but our depth needs to start showing. Opponents need to know that on every line we can generate a good scoring chance, and capitalize on them too, like the Predators.
Another striking similarity is at goal. Pekka Rinne just showed Panther fans how great he can be last night, stopping 39 out of 40 shots. Now enter Jacob Markstrom. The fellow Scandinavian goaltender is built kind of the same way: both are tall, lanky goalies with excellent senses for the puck and an ability to be simply unbeatable. The Panthers would be very happy if Markstrom develops into a player like Rinne and becmes the team’s best player behind the play.
Also look at Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber is a big man with a huge slap shot who can shut down the opposition. Suter is a smaller, less physical but no less dangerous defender who can move the puck and control the power play. The Panthers are almost there with this one, as Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell can act as very similar players. Campbell can certainly play the game that Suter can by controlling and moving the puck and being a solid defenseman on both sides of the ice. Gudbranson is projected to be an elite defenseman just like Shea Weber, but that lofty compare is a tricky one. Gudbranson has the size and hitting ability, but we still need to see that offensive ability utilized. But don’t worry, Guds looks like he’s on the right track. If we can keep Campbell and Gudbranson together on the same line making plays, the Panthers will certainly have a formidable back line.
But the similarities don’t stop there; you could make a case that David Legwand and Stephen Weiss have turned into very similar players. There are the sentinel players on their clubs: they have been around the longest and have established themsleves as the faces of the franchises. Both were drafted in the top five by their teams and both have found moderate success. But the one thing Legwand has that Weiss doesn’t is playoff experience. It hurts to say, but Weiss hasn’t quite led his team to the playoffs like Legwand has from the top line. He needs to get to that level where he can at least do that for the Panthers, and he doesn’t need to wear the C on his chest to do it.
Finally, check out a game at Bridgestone Arena if you can. The place has gone from a bottom-feeder in attendance to an electric place to watch a hockey game. And what has changed? Success, that’s what. At times this year, the Predators have been fighting for both the Central Division title and the President’s Cup Trophy. Although both seem out of reach now, the Predators still have had massive success this year, riling up the fan base and putting butts in seats. When your team is thinking Stanley Cup, it’s tough not to get your city all giddy with hockey fever. In a year or two when management thinks the Panthers have a realistic shot at the Cup, hopefully the BankAtlantic Center will be packed with Panther fans.
But until all these pieces for the Panthers fall into place, we’ll just have to be jealous of the Predators and their accomplishments in recent years. One day we’ll get there, but for now we are simply in awe of what the Preds have done to turn their franchise into Cup contenders.
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