Welcome to another addition of Florida Panthers Hockey, where consistent failure to advance to the post-season has the potential to once again live on in the 2009-10 campaign, only this time however, the excuses may begin to run out, adding pressure to first year General Manager Randy Sexton.
Regardless of the off-ice shenanigans with upper-management that causes more drama than the ever so popular Frank Sinatra Theatre inside the Bank Atlantic Center, this Florida Panther hockey club is a unique one...they are right there. They are competing for a playoff berth, one that has been extinct in South Florida since before the lockout. They are sitting right there in the 8th spot, but they are holding on for dear life with the New York Rangers just 2 points behind them at #9.
With fewer than five games to go until the midway point, the Florida Panthers will need to begin to find ways to play 60 minutes of hockey, the brand of hockey that creates chances to not only grab 2 points, but to secure them a spot in this spring's quest for Lord Stanley. They will need to make it difficult on the opposition, and not hand out free passes to the win column. It’s plain and simple, and Head Coach Peter DeBoer undoubtedly would agree with me. In fact, judging by this year’s roster, with just a few holes to shore up, the right attitude and approach will go along way for this hockey club.
Starting with Center Nathan Horton who leads the Cats with 35 points in 37 contests; his on-ice awareness, preparation and leadership has improved immensely and is a huge reason for the first half success of this hockey team.
First round selection in the 2001 entry draft, Stephen Weiss, is not too far behind with 33 points in 37 games, and in most scouts eyes took a little longer than expected to come out of the gates for the Florida Panthers. It’s better late then never for the 5’11 speedster who currently has 17 goals on the season. The success and bright future for both Horton and Weiss are evident, but the importance of the contracts locked into place until year’s 2012 and 2013, will have a major effect on the long-term performance of the organization (especially in the salary cap era). Horton and Weiss may lead this team, but are not alone.
Forwards Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz have a combined 39 points in 37 games played, and don't appear to be taking a step back anytime soon. Both forwards have the speed, skill, and determination necessary to fit the mold of a top six guy in Florida. Frolik ranks 41st in the NHL with 101 shots on net, a stat that has to surely please Peter DeBoer.
David Booth, who took a vicious hit from Flyers forward and captain Mike Richards, is on the shelf with a concussion and hasn't laced up the skates since October 24th. Rest-assured one thing however, a healthy David Booth pays dividends all over the board for the Florida Panthers, as his stock is on the rise. He's also locked up to a reasonable long-term contract.
Journeyman Center Steven Reinprecht has fit in quite well with this younger looking Panther squad adding 11 goals and 28 helpers in 37 games for the Cats, and seems to have brought not only leadership to this hockey club, but an energy boost as well.
From a blueline standpoint, veteran Captain Brian McCabe, Keith Ballard and newcomer Jordan Leopold are tremendous leaders on defense for the Panthers. The Panthers 1st round selection in the 2009 entry draft was Russian Defensemen Dmitry Kulikov who checks in at 6'1 183. The Panthers coaching staff inserted him into the lineup on opening night, and so far so good for the talented young defenseman. He has 3 goals 9 assists, good for 12 points. His biggest assets are clearly his defensive first mindset, his ability to carry the puck into the offensive zone, and his strong shot from the point.
Many thought the departure of franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester last spring would push this team into a full rebuild mode, but the rearguards mentioned above have filled in nicely. Compare this to the Anaheim Ducks, who suffered a similar loss when Chris Pronger was dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Ducks are currently #13 in the Western Conference and haven't found a way to replace the grittiness and huge minutes Pronger took with him.
With what many would argue is a clear cut #1 goaltender as a backup to Tomas Vokoun, Scott Clemmensen's addition gives the panthers security between the pipes and much needed flexibility. Vokoun's 10-10-7 record with a goals against average of 2.63, is another indication of inconsistency. This year though, they have a backup plan in Clemmensen who has 5 victories thus far for Florida, and gives their goalkeeping a glimor of hope.
The positives throughout this lineup are promising for the Florida Panthers and their fan base. Yet while the pluses are there throughout, the weaknesses are still recognizable amongst Randy Sexton and his staff.
The Florida Panthers are right there in the 8th spot, a spot all too familiar based on past disappointments. Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles are always in the conversation when talking about young teams with a very bright future. Florida rarely gets that kind of recognition, despite finding ways to beat the elite of the Eastern Conference.
But they must still seek upgrades when possible. They must do whatever it takes to fill holes in areas of this current lineup. They need to captivate a market that's still trying to keep one leg off the bandwagon. They must put the finishing touches on a team that's surprisingly not too far from competing past mid-April. If Randy Sexton can accomplish just that in his rookie season as General Manager, he might be looked upon not only as a successor, but someone who finally get's the big picture in Sunrise, Florida.