April 24, 2012; Newark, NJ, USA; Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) and right wing Kris Versteeg (32) celebrate Versteeg

Sunday Conversation: Three Questions For The Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers won their first division title in team history last season.  It was the first playoff berth for the Cats in over a decade.  Last summer the Panthers were extremely active in free agency as general manager Dale Tallon revamped the roster, brought in players with skill, character and grit.  This summer has been less active, and with the exception a nagging rumor that still floats around, it appears that this season’s tuneup has been accomplished.

With a few new faces that have NHL experience, and the hope that one or two fresh faces make the club, the Panthers are determined to make sure that last season wasn’t a fluke.  While it would appear on paper that many of their Southeast division rivals made significant improvements, there are still unknowns.   For the Florida Panthers, here are three of them:

1)  Can the defence and power play survive the loss of Jason Garrison?  The loss of Jason Garrison would appear to some to be detrimental to both points in the question, with his nine power play goals, and his ice time that averaged over 23 minutes per night.  It was obvious too that Garrison who was in the last year of a two year contract, also benefited from having the smooth skating Brian Campbell as his defensive partner.  Campbell led the Panthers in assists with 49, as was an integral part of the Panthers power play.  Potentially more so than Garrison who only registered three goals after February 28th, Campbell is by all accounts the catalyst.

As we head into this season, the minutes that Garrison was playing will be taken up by Filip Kuba, who was signed to a two year deal.  While I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the money (probably a million per year too much), I like the signing, as he’s a stable blue liner who can play on both special teams, and is a quality shot blocker.  He also helped contribute to the Norris Winning Trophy year that Erik Karlsson had in Ottawa last season.  Kuba who will be 36 in December still can contribute quality minutes to this Panthers unit.  His experience will certainly help the youngsters Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kuilkov.  Speaking of,  I feel that we’ll see much more of Erik on the power play this season, taking the role that Garrison had.  Erik has a big shot from the point, and with help from Campbell, could be just as dangerous.  Kulikov, I see as a younger version of Campbell with a touch more scoring ability.   The defence is in good hands.  A little older yes.  But the two youngsters are also one season wiser.

2) What will it take for the line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann duplicate or improve on last season?  This is a very simple question that involves two answers.  The first is to stay healthy.  Kris Versteeg was well on his way to a 30 goal season when a hip injury curtailed his final month and a half.  With successful off season repairs having been made and a new contract to not only reward him, but to entice him, Versteeg will be looked at to have an even better season than last.  As for Flash, what can you say?  One of only two Panthers to play all 82 regular season games, the 28 year old LW, was a model of consistency and professionalism on and off the ice while gaving 100% effort nightly.  You would never know that he suffered from a blood disorder, and what he had to do to overcome it.  And will still have to do the rest of his life.  Stephen Weiss who finally tasted playoff hockey will again be asked to center the top line.  While not his fault, Weiss is not only overused, but he’s undersized for the position of having to handle other pivotmen that are usually bigger than he is for 82 games.  He tailed off after a hot start, and was rumored to be banged up at different parts of the season.  Probably a reason why he went through a couple of goal scoring droughts.  All three of these players must be in top shape when breaking out of camp in order to even equal last years performance.

The second answer is for the trio to do what made them successful early on.  If you were go go back and watch games in October, November and December you’ll see more driving to the net, more passing the puck north and south, and taking quality shots.  They were one of, if not the hottest line in the NHL at the time. It seemed after the all star break the “cuteness” factor continued to creep in despite pleas from coach Kevin Dineen.  We don’t want fancy with this trio.  Granted, they may have some nifty moves, but that wasn’t what made them successful.  Stick to the game plan, have a nose for the net, and don’t play tic tac toe every night.

3) Is the goalie tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen good enough?  Doubters from last year, where are you?  Either you changed your mind and came around, or you’ve kept your thoughts to yourself, there is no reason to think that these two netminders can’t have a repeat performance from last year.  22 wins from Theo, and 14 from Clemmensen in a backup role was outstanding.  If Clem does the same, and Theo can get anywhere from 25 to 28, or even 30, all the Luongo cries will have been wasted tears.  He’s just not needed.  These two also have something to prove.  Jose wants to be here, and wants to get to the playoffs again with this team, and go even further than last season.

I don’t need to discuss further my support of Theo.  Anyone who reads this site, or knows me that I was behind his signing even before it happened.  On the other hand, Scott Clemmensen who by all accounts is a true professional, and accepts his role, won me over last season.  He had some spotty starts early on, but his seven wins in January and February not only kept the Panthers in contention for the division crown, but kept the Panthers from panicking into making a trade that may have disrupted the dressing room.  I’m hoping that based on the performances of both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, those nagging summer rumors will soon be put to rest.

As of today, their are 69 days till opening night. These are just three of many questions that loom in the balance before the season begins.  We’ll talk about more next week.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

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4) Where will Jonathan Huberdeau line up?


5) What’s missing to take the next step?

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Tags: Dale Tallon Erik Gudbranson Filip Kuba Florida Panthers Jason Garrison Signs In Vancouver Jose Theodore Scott Clemmensen

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