Remodeled Panthers hope to end playoff drought
In his second year as general manager of the Panthers, Dale Tallon spent the offseason doing everything he could to construct a winning team. There could be about a dozen new faces -- including a new coach in Kevin Dineen -- at the BankAtlantic Center, a sign that times are changing in South Florida.
For all the talent Tallon acquired in June and July, the Panthers didn't clean house entirely.
Their three leading scorers -- centers Stephen Weiss and Mike Santorelli along with David Booth-- remain with the team. All three had at least 20 goals last season and could improve on their totals with the influx of offensive talent acquired by Tallon.
The Panthers' other departures since the end of the season are more about quantity than quality.
Gone are forwards Steve Bernier, Sergei Samsonov, Byron Bitz, Mike Duco, Patrick Rissmiller, Niclas Bergfors, Marty Reasoner and defensemen Alexander Sulzer and Clay Wilson.
Of that group, only Samsonov has scored 20 goals during an NHL season, and that most recently occurred in 2001-02. There isn't a true difference-maker in the bunch, but there's young talent in there that could be effective for other clubs in the coming years.
There's probably no other fan base in the League that needs to buy the opening night program more than Panthers fans.
Starting with the forwards, the Panthers added Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley and Ryan Carter.
Fleischmann received the biggest free-agent contract of any new Panther, a four-year, $18 million deal. He's battled concussion issues and a pulmonary embolism during the past two seasons, but when healthy, he's an offensive threat with terrific speed. The Panthers clearly weren't afraid of his health problems.
At 27, Upshall is just entering his prime but has yet to realize his potential. His 22 goals last season, split between the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets, were a career-best, and the Panthers are expecting him to build on that success.
In Versteeg and Kopecky, the Panthers get two players who were key cogs in the Stanley Cup championship of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team Tallon basically built from scratch. Their leadership and experience could be invaluable.
Tallon also bolstered the team's blue line, acquiring Brian Campbell from the Blackhawks in a trade and signing former Panther Ed Jovanovski to a four-year deal. The pair will bring stability to a blue-line corps that has severely lacked that quality in recent seasons.
To replace the workhorse that is Vokoun, the Panthers picked up Jose Theodore in free agency. He'll likely split time with Scott Clemmensen until one of them emerges as the No. 1 goaltender.
Two wild cards are defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers' No. 1 draft picks the past two years. Gudbranson appears to be ready for the NHL, but he'll need to prove that to Dineen during training camp. Huberdeau was the third pick in this year's draft and will be given a chance to earn a spot.
But the Panthers have a lot of things they've been lacking in the past, including speed and Stanley Cup championship experience. Depending on how quickly everyone comes together, the Panthers could surprise a few people by the end of the season.
A lot of that will depend on the goaltending. For years, the Panthers had one of the best keeping them in games in Vokoun. If Theodore and Clemmensen keep the Panthers in games, a major turnaround could be in store.