This off season for the Florida Panthers is going to be quite interesting, or busy at least. Ownership and GM Randy Sexton promised changes to the South Florida fan base prior to this season’s trade deadline and thus started the first phase of a four phase process: the 2009-2010 trade deadline, 2010 NHL Entry Draft, free agency and 2010-2011 training camp.
The trade deadline saw the departure of Dominic Moore, Jordan Leopold and Dennis Seidenberg. Their departures turned into two 2nd round picks this summer and one next summer, along with forward Byron Bitz. Four picks in the top sixty is a good place to start phase two. Experts have the Panthers chosing between defencemen Erik Gudbranson or Cam Fowler of the OHL with the number 3 overall pick this June. Depending on whether the Panthers see more upside in the physicality of Gudbranson or the offensive prowess Fowler would add from the blue line will tell a great deal about what kind of player they’ll look to sign in free agency to sure up the remaining spot on the blue line for the 2011 season. Having a player like Cam Fowler, who is ready to make the jump straight out of junior hockey, to this team would instantly add to the power play unit and give the Panthers a young puck moving d-man, with elite speed, who would make most bitter Panther fans forget about Jay Bouwmeester. Gudbranson would give the Cats a big bodied defender, who will only get stronger, that can also move the puck well and takes up a lot of space on the ice and plays very well in his own end. Either pick would add to the top-ten talent the Panthers got at the number 14 pick in last year’s draft, Dmitry Kulikov.
Look for the Panthers to peddle their stockpile of second rounders to a team willing to move out of the first round or package them around a player to upgrade their top two scoring lines. This team needs to get better up front and this off season should prove to be the starting point for a bigger, speedier offensive group. The turnover of players won’t be as many as you might expect though.
FORWARDS WHO STAY:
David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Michael Frolik will fill four slots in the top six. Steven Reinprecht, Radek Dvorak, Rostislav Olesz, and Shawn Matthias will take up four slots on the bottom six. The Panthers should stay in house to fill the remaining two positions on the third and fourth lines. Booth should be able to get back to the 30+ goal season he had in the 2008-2009, looking to put the concussions suffered this season behind him. Horton and Weiss were on multi-point per game streak at mid season and if Horton can stay healthy look for theses two to increase their totals from last year. Frolik will continue to get better as his NHL career continues, look for more goals out him next season. The Panthers will be looking to move Olesz, but ultimately his contract just doesn’t equal his production on the ice. Dvorak is one of Coach Pete Deboer’s favorite players, and for a veteran with over 1000 games of NHL experience and an excellent penalty killer, his spot on the third line most likely will remain.
FORWARDS WHO GO:
Cory Stillman will actively be shopped this summer and should find a home with a contender. His professionalism and 40 points per year will make him an easy sell. Restricted free agents, Gregory Campbell and Kamil Kreps will likely find work else where come next year to make room for Panther rookies looking to make the jump to the big club next year. Byron Bitz could also be moved or demoted to the Panthers AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans.
FORWARD FREE AGENT TARGETS:
With two spots open on the top two lines, the Panthers will need to fill one with a center. Odd as this may seem look for a Panther redux of former captain Olli Jokinen. His production has declined the past few seasons, but his close relationship both on and off this ice with Nathan Horton could trigger a return to Sunrise. Horton and Jokinen shared their most fruitful seasons while playing next to one another so this may not be too far of a stretch. Beyond Jokinen, center Matthew Lombardi of the Phoenix Coyotes has the size and speed to mirror what Randy Sexton is looking for offensively. The Panthers may look to spend some money on a top free agent winger if one doesn’t come in the form of a trade at the draft. Alexander Frolov may be on his way out of Los Angeles and could find his way to the Panthers. The price will be steep, however. Pairing him with a good passer like Weiss should help his goal totals rise again. Another option could be Alexei Ponikarovsky. His size and workmanship should help this club looking to score more “dirty goals” around the net.
The Panthers will more than likely be picking a great defenceman come June, and should look to free agency or a trade to fill out a void in the top four. Look for the Panthers to make a shut-down defender a top priority. The extended play of Keith Ballard and Bryan McCabe after the departure of Seidenberg and Leopold made this need quite obvious.
DEFENCEMEN WHO STAY:
Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard, Bryan Allen and Dmitry Kulikov will be locks for next season’s roster. Expect Jason Garrison to be resigned after a very strong effort, filling in after the trade deadline. Captain Bryan McCabe was undervalued and under appreciated in Toronto, but has put up solid numbers in each of his two years in Florida. No reason his production should change, and if the Panthers can upgrade the power play his numbers should get even better. Fan-favorite, Keith Ballard, is signed for the next five years and his speed and puck carrying abilities are the best on the current Panther blue line. Bryan Allen is a warrior and should be more physically imposing the more he distances himself from his year ending knee injury in 2008. Kulikov had great moments and a few low one’s last season, but was pretty steady overall. Look for the Panthers to exploit more of his offensive tools come next year.
DEFENCEMEN WHO GO:
The Panthers clearly took care of that at the trade deadline and can ill afford to lose any more defencemen on the current roster at this point.
DEFENCEMEN FREE AGENT TARGETS:
The Panthers may look to sign two defencemen this summer and a great place to start would be with the very affordable Mark Eaton of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Eaton can take up close to 20 minutes a game and a battle tested Stanley Cup Champion is never a bad addition, especially in the second or third defensive pairing. Paul Martin of the New Jersey Devils, coming off a broken arm injury last season (missing 59 games) should be more affordable than his $4.5 million contract next year. Martin can eat up minutes and plays well against other team’s top lines.
The strong suit of the Panthers organization from its inception has been goaltending. Next year will likely see a new number one for this team. The Panthers maybe the deepest team in the NHL in terms of goaltender prospects. This gives them the flexibility to make moves in goal.
GOALTENDERS WHO STAY:
Scott Clemmensen will either remain the back up or will split time with another goalie, depending on Florida’s return in the trade market. Clemmensen’s play came around late last season with more playing time. If the Panthers fail again to upgrade their play in their own end, Clemmensen should expect plenty of work in-game.
GOALTENDERS WHO GO:
Tomas Vokoun may very well be the best trade chip this team has, even more so than Nathan Horton. Vokoun has been arguably one the NHL’s elite net minders the past four years. Rumors were the Panthers wanted Philadelphia Flyer Jeff Carter straight up for Vokoun at the trade deadline and the club may re-explore that scenario at the draft. Chicago may also be an option, as they are looking to shed salary prior to next season.
GOALTENDER FREE AGENT TARGETS:
The Panthers will set their sights elsewhere in free agency than goaltending. Florida’s future number one is Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom. He will more than likely spend next year as Rochester’s number one, giving him a season to adjust to the style of North American hockey. With WCHA Player of the Year Marc Cheverie and Alexander Salak signed, the Panthers have plenty of options in goal for the next several years.
Florida has an interesting variety of prospects that should make the final roster spots very competitive come training camp, especially up front. Michal Repik, Evgeni Dadonov, Kenndal McArdle and Keaton Ellerby could be ready for NHL duty. Repik has the best offensive skill set of any Florida prospects and has a good chance to make the team out of training camp. His speed and strong shot were on display when David Booth went down with his second concussion this season. Dadonov needs to add size and strength to his frame but his fearlessness in front of the net and in the corners should raise his stock for Coach DeBoer. McArdle played hard with the club early last season but a shoulder injury caused him to miss two months. His window to becoming a steady NHLer may be closing. Ellerby will have to work hard to make the Panther blue line next year, especially if DeBoer likes the play of Fowler of Gudbranson, should Florida pick either player.
Much of Florida’s play in free agency will depend on what they get for Tomas Vokoun, if they can move him. Acquiring a top six center is a must in return for the Czech net minder. Upgrading with a top line winger is also imperative. Rounding out the defensive corps has to be addressed as well. Count on the Panthers being major players at the NHL Draft come June. Day one should give a pretty good idea of what the this team’s strategy for next season will be.
About the Author
Written by Jack Powell
My name is Jack Powell. I'm 26 and work for a civil contracting company in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I've been a Panther fan since the team was formed in 1993 and don't ever plan on not being one. Looking forward to see what new Panther GM Dale Tallon is going to do to rebuild this franchise and make us a Cup contender!!