A Look Back At Free Agency In South Florida. This Time We Got It Right.


With nine free agent players signed, one trade involving the acquisition of a puck moving defenceman, and another grabbing a gritty forward, the Florida Panthers have completely revamped their roster for the 2011-2012 season.  Questioned for the length of the contracts and the dollar amounts that have been handed out this summer, one must take a look a look back, and see what the activity has been since the lockout ended to realize that this year has been different.  For once, with maybe the exception of 2005, the summer signings will actually be relevant.  Let’s take a look back and see some the mistakes that were made.  I’ll bet there’s really only one year you’d call somewhat successful prior to 2011.

In 2005 after the new CBA was announced, free agency started a month later on August 1st.  My family and I were vacationing in British Columbia at the time.  Victoria Island to be exact on this particular day.  At exactly 12:01 eastern time, with the television on TSN in our room, the first announcement was made.  The Florida Panthers had signed Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyck to two year deals.  Awesome!  This was a big deal to grab two pro’s like these guys.  Mike Keenan made a hell of a splash with this.  Sure the guys were in the twilight of their career, but what better way to add veteran presence, leadership and toughness.  In addition the Panthers also signed Chris Gratton, Martin Gelinas, Jozef Stumpel, Eric Cairns and Dan Focht.  This team with Olli Jokinen, who led the Panthers with 89 points, Nathan Horton who had 28 goals and Jay Bouwmeester who had 41 assists, finished with a record of 37-34-11 which landed them in 4th place in the Southeast Division,  and 11th place in the Eastern Conference, unfortunately not making the playoffs.  Roberts and Nieuwendyck both missed time with injuries, and had they both been healthy for the entire season, the Panthers might have had a shot at the post season.  Roberts, Jokinen and Horton were a big, solid first line.  They brought a combination of toughness, hard work and skill.  Roberts was great for the team and good for Horton.  Gary however had some issues with coach Jacques Martin’s system.   He was traded the next season, much to the disappointment of this writer.

In the summer prior to the 2006-2007 season, Bobby Lose was traded to the Can’t Nucks for Alex Auld, Bryan Allen and Todd Bertuzzi.  The Panthers signed free agents Ed Belfour and defenceman Ruslan Salei.  Belfour split the goaltending duties with Auld, but eventually became the number one. Auld suffered a knee injury and appeared in only 27 games.  Alex was 7-13-5 that year.  Not the Auld we thought we were getting, especially since he had won 33 games the season before in Vancouver.  The combination of his knee injury, and Jacques Martin’s mishandling of the young netminder afterwards set his confidence back.  Belfour on the other hand appeared in 58 games, and at one point started 27 in a row. He almost single handily took the Panthers to the playoffs, keeping them in the hunt till March with his wonky back holding up better than anyone expected.  Chants of “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” rang through the Bank Atlantic Center, giving me goosebumps every time.  He was unbelievable on many nights.  A character for sure, I know you can’t forget this little show of emotion by Eddie The Eagle.  The season record again was positive at 35-31-16, but only good enough for 4th in the division and 12th in the conference.

In 2007-2008 the signings were Radek Dvorak ( his second tour of duty), Brett McLean, Richard Zednik, and small defenceman Cory Murphy.  Nothing major here that’s for sure as the Panthers brass seemed to insist year upon year that there was enough talent on the roster to make a playoff run.  Problem is that the team suffered from a lack of scoring, potting only 216 goals on the season, and were in the middle of their bad habit of losing games late in the period.  This was Tomas Vokoun’s first season in goal for Florida, appearing in 69 games, winning 30 and losing 29.  A defence that seemed to be put together with duct tape and paper clips, Vokoun faced more rubber than he cared to admit.  His save percentage was a pretty decent .919, but when your team can’t score, and your asked to make over 22o0 saves, something has to give.  The Panthers finished at 38-35-9, third in the division and 11th in the conference.  Again, no playoffs.  Remember too that this was the year that Richard Zednik had that horrible incident in Buffalo where Olli Jokinen’s skate accidently sliced Zednik’s neck.  From that point on, the Panthers season, Jokinen and his relationship with JM, were never the same.  Many people blame Olli for the Panthers spiralling away the season.  You and I will never know how he felt after the accident, but I’d have to say it certainly played a role in how he played.  Jokinen was traded in the offseason to Phoenix for Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton.  It was a battle between Olli, JM, and management.  One had to go, and Olli lost out.  His career hasn’t been the same since. This would thankfully be Jacques Martin’s final season behind the bench.  But only in Florida, could a coach be fired, then allowed to stay on as GM without even sniffing the playoffs for three seasons.  Thankfully new ownership and management within a couple years would make this debacle a distant memory.

In 2008-2009 new head coach Peter DeBoer was brought in with a stellar junior record, a fresh attitude, and approach.  Anything to change up the boring style of play that we had been watching thanks to Jacques Martin would be welcome.  JM”s idea of exciting hockey seemed to be to spill a couple of five gallon buckets of paint on the ice and tell his troops to watch it dry for three periods.  Free agent moves were boring too, as  Cory Stillman and Rory Fitzpatrick were the “big names” added.  Fitzpatrick was brought in as a minor league defenceman, and never saw action with the big club.  Someway, somehow though this Panther team, which was made up of a bunch of average players with a solid goaltender in Tomas Vokoun, teased us all season long, and almost made the playoffs.  The shootout, a part of the game I can’t stand, ultimately cost them a playoff position, as the Panthers finished tied with Montreal Canadians with 93 points.  However due to shootout wins and losses between the two teams, the Panthers didn’t qualify.  Another season of early golf.

The 2009-2010 season was a frustrating one as Jacques Martin was no longer the GM, getting a dream job to coach the Montreal Canadiens.  Purely a front runner for the position just because he spoke French I suppose.  Maybe if I had taken French instead of Latin in high school I could have applied for the job.  How hard is is to stand behind a bench like this?

Scott Clemmensen, Jordan Leopold, Jeff Taffe, and Clay Wilson were the new players brought in, that included a trade for Steven Reinprecht.  Nothing riveting and certainly again, no goal scorer, and no number one center, as Florida continued to put an average  team at best on the ice.  The goal scoring problem continued as Florida was only able to score 208 times.  Tomas Vokoun had seven shutouts, but still the Panthers had trouble winning and holding on to leads.  David Booth was knocked into the next century by Mike Richards in October, and the Panthers not only didn’t respond, they didn’t recover.  It was a long frustrating year.  Their final record was 32-37-13, finishing last in the division and 14th in the conference.  It was time for a change.  A big one as natives were getting frustrated, disenchanted, and some even stopped caring.

Prior to the Stanley Cup playoff win of the Chicago Blackhawks in June of 2010, the new ownership group of the Panthers made a bold move that would begin to turn the franchise around.  Dale Tallon, the man responsible for assembling the Hawks championship team, was brought in as the new General Manager.  Finally something good was about to happen.  Realizing that the 2010-2011 season would be one of transition and low expecation, the free agency bonanza was only slightly exciting.  Players signed that stuck were Chris Higgins, Bill Thomas, and Mike Weaver.  Higgins would later be traded at the deadline to Vancouver, but Weaver proved to be a very solid addition.  However for the third year in a row of DeBoer’s tenure, Florida experienced a decline in points.  Stephen Weiss was the top point getter with 49.  That kind of production from your first line just isn’t enough.  But if you weren’t looking or expecting much, then you shouldn’t have been disappointed.  A final season record of 30-40-12, placed them last in the division and conference.  With a trade deadline roster purge, or salary dump depending on how you want to call it, the Panthers would have $24 million to spend to get to the salary cap floor.

A very solid draft year in 2010, a clean slate at the trade deadline of 2011 by getting rid of bad contracts to give us flexibility, followed up by another solid draft this summer, the sweeping changes were under way.  So now here we are with the 2011-2012 approaching with an air of excitement that hasn’t been felt since Stu Barnes was traded for Chris Wells Pavel Bure came to town.  Sean Bergenheim, Jose Theodore, Matt Bradley, Ed Jovanvski, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Scottie Upshall, and Nolan Yonkman were all signed as free agents.  Brian Campbell was brought over from the Blackhawks in a trade that sent Rusty Olesz for a change of scenery.  We’ve defended ourselves as to why all the deals, and why there was overspending.  I’m not about to repeat that again.  But as you look back to the recent history of signings and trades, you’ll see that there is no way you can’t be excited about the upcoming season.  While we haven’t built a roster of superstars, Dale Tallon has brought in players that want to be here, work hard, and have something to prove.  Whether it be showing us they still have a few good years left, or that their best years are still ahead of them, this Panther club will have high expectations, and for the first time in a long while, they just might be met.

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