Jan. 9, 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers players celebrate their 2-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks at the BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Sunday Conversation: Can The Florida Panthers Repeat As Division Champs?

With not much hockey news to report on the past few days, and potentially not much on the horizon either,  I wanted to toss this question out to all of you.  With the alleged improvements made by other teams in the Southeast division, many wonder if it’s a) possible for the Florida Panthers to repeat as division champs, and b) make the playoffs again.  We can all agree that this simmer has been significantly quieter here in South Florida than last year, however maybe we didn’t need to do all that much.  Or, maybe this group just gets better with a full year behind them.

Granted there were a few major free agent signings around the league, but in the grand scheme of things, there weren’t too many of those franchise type players available for us.  Especially at a price that would not only fit our budget, but be reasonable at the same time.  Next year’s crop promises to be better, unless some of those players come to terms during the season.  As it stands, the Panthers are most likely done making moves.  The chatter of the Roberto Luongo deal has finally given way to other newsworthy story lines.  And for the record, Shane Doan, while I’d like to sign him, is looking for too much money, and Alexander Semin who despite signing a one year deal, is now making too much money.  Congrats Dale for sticking to your plan.  Obviously if the Panthers were in a different situation, then maybe one of those moves makes sense.  Not yet.

Looking at this first from an offensive standpoint  all the teams in our division have some fire power.  Washington even with the loss of Alexander Semin still has Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johanson, Jason Chimera, and the newly acquired pest Mike Ribeiro.  I think the biggest weakness with the Caps is the defence.  They just don’t scare me much, and Mike Green is not…repeat not a that good defensively. Goaltending will be interesting as we’ll see if Braden Holtby gets a chance to take the number one job after his excellent performance late last season.  In addition new head coach Adam Oates will have his hands full with a team that has a ton of pressure on it, not only from the fans, but from the organization.

Tampa Bay has Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, and the up and coming Teddy Purcell.  On defence, they’ve added Matt Carle for a very high price in my opinion, and they have Viktor Hedman and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who is very dangerous on the power play.  This team can score, and they play an attacking style, but goaltending is a question mark.  Anders Lindback who is highly touted but not tested, will be counted on to be the number one netminder.  This is the year I think that we’ll find out if coach Guy Boucher starts to “lose” it a little.

Winnipeg who scratched and clawed all last season, riding the wave of their return to their fan crazed city has some spark as well.  Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Nik Antropov, Bryan Little, Kyle Wellwood, and the recently signed Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky all can contribute offensively.  In goal Ondrej Pavelec is solid and keeps them in more games than they should be in due to their erratic defence.  Which speaking of, isn’t the best, but isn’t the worst.  Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian are the prime blue liners with support from guys like Mark Stuart and Tobias Enstrom.  If nothing else, playing in front of a packed house 41 nights a season could electrify them.

The Carolina Hurricanes, at least on paper provide the most concern for Panther fans.  The addition of Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin, to add to Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen and Jiri Tlusty, makes Carolina a much bigger threat offensively than they’ve been in a while.  However if their entire progress rests on Semin, things could be difficult since they really don’t know which Semin they’re getting.  If the stories about his poor attitude are false, the one year signing will prove worthwhile.  If he turns out to be the cancer in the dressing room that he’s described as being, and one that coach Kirk Muller can’t control, there will be a different kind of storm going through Raleigh.  Cam Ward is solid in net, and as he goes, so go the Canes.  Defensively?  Well they have Joe Corvo!

How do, and can the Panthers compete and repeat?  With a returning cast of Versteeg, Weiss and Flash on the first line, you look for them to improve their numbers from last season.  A healthy season from both Sean Bergenheim and Scottie Upshall should be worth 40-45 goals between the two of them.  Adding Peter Mueller certainly adds to the offence provided he’s stays healthy.  Which brings up this point.  Just think how much better the Panthers could have been last season without so many injuries?  With a healthy crew this year, and still with depth at the forward position, this year can and should be better.  Added toughness with George Parros means that Erik Gudbranson won’t have to drop the gloves as much, and Jonathan Huberdeau, who is expected to make the team will be protected.  Defensively, losing Jason Garrison presents an issue……maybe.  Gudbranson is a year older, and could easily grab himself 6-8 goals this season.  Filip Kuba is no stranger to the game, and Brian Campbell may take on a more offensive scoring role.  The defence is older, but they are wiser and probably the tightest group of bluliners in the division. As for goaltending, Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen provide one of the best 1-2 combo in the league you’ll find.

By playing good solid defence as they did last year, sticking to their game plan, and staying healthy, the Florida Panthers absolutely have a chance to make the playoffs and repeat as division champions.  The Panthers have just as many question marks as the other teams do.  But guess what?  That’s why they play the games.

If nothing else, the competition in our division could be a little more fierce.  The Panthers have no where to go but up.  GM Dale Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen won’t let this team go backwards.  There’s too much at risk for that.

This was written to make you feel better about the upcoming season.  I hope you do.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

Follow the Rat Pack on Twitter: me @TheRatTrick , David Lasseter @davidlasseter , Josh Luecht@joshluecht, Patrick McLaughlin @PatrickRattrick3, Scott Mullin @GreatScottsman, David Rodriguez @davidbub_2, Paige Lewis @RatTrickLewiz Gabby Kiger @gabbykiger, Adam Reid@AdamReid Chrissy Parente @chrissaay44, Justen Rosenberg @justenrosenberg, and Kris Eberwein @RatTrickKris. Also, please join our Facebook Fan Page and hit the like button, send us photos, and tell us what’s on your mind.

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