2013-14 NHL Season Preview: Florida Panthers

Jonathan Huberdeau Florida Panthers

The following is a guest post from Todd Little who currently covers the Panthers for LitterBoxCats.com

Key Offseason Additions: Scott Gomez, Joey Crabb, Bobby Butler, Matt Gilroy, Mike Mottau

Key Offseason Losses: Stephen Weiss, Peter Mueller, Jose Theodore, Jack Skille, Filip Kuba, Tyson Strachan

Last Season Ranking: 15th in East

Offense: The Florida Panthers will likely struggle to score goals once again, but what else is new? The Panthers, who were ravaged by injuries last season, lost longtime first line center Stephen Weiss to the Detroit Red Wings and chose not to re-up the talented Peter Mueller, who chipped in 8 goals and 9 assists last season. The Cats also decided to let energy forward Jack Skille walk as well. Florida didn’t do much to address its offensive issues during the summer, only adding Scott Gomez, who should at least help out on the power play, and bottom-six candidates Joey Crabb and Bobby Butler. The club also signed a handful of forwards to fortify their AHL farm team in San Antonio and to provide depth in case injury issues continue to haunt the club again in 2013-14. The biggest news from an offensive standpoint was the selection of Finnish center Aleksander Barkov with the second overall pick in the Entry Draft. Barkov is expected to play in Florida right away and to make an impact.

Last season’s leading scorer Tomas Fleischmann, who totaled 35 points on 12 goals and 23 assists, returns and the Panthers will also be looking for Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau to continue his ascent to potential superstar status. Despite the lockout, veteran Tomas Kopecky equaled a career-high with 15 goal and will be counted on to provide that kind of output again. Another player of interest will be 25-year-old Shawn Matthias, who scored a career-high 14 goals last season and could possibly open the season as the Panthers’ number one center.

If Florida is going to find the back of the net more often in 2013-14, the increase is going to have to come from veterans returning from injury and/or the further addition of some of the club’s prized forward prospects to the lineup. The return of Kris Versteeg, who notched 23 goals in 2011-12, to full health will definitely help out. Unfortunately, Versteeg is still recovering from a knee injury and is expected to miss the first few months of the season. Florida will also get back Sean Bergenheim, who adds grit and some pop, and will hope to finally get a full season from Scottie Upshall, who has missed a large portion of the last two years. Highly regarded youngsters Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden and Vince Trocheck will be looking to make the squad and could help provide some additional scoring punch.

Defense: The Panthers top five on the blue line appears to be set with Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kulikov, Mike Weaver, Erik Gudbranson, and Ed Jovonovski all returning for another season. The rapidly-aging Jovo-Cop only saw duty in 6 games last season and time seems to be running out on his long, illustrious NHL career. With two years left on his contract, one wonders if the Panthers would have been better off using a compliance buyout on the veteran defender. Weaver also missed significant time, so the Panthers’ defense could use a return to health almost as much as the forward unit.

The Panthers used a standard buyout on Filip Kuba and saw Tyson Strachan leave for Washington via free agency, so that opens up a spot on their top three defensive pairings and likely another as a spare defenseman. The competition to fill those slots will see veterans Matt Gilroy and Mike Mottau doing battle with rising youngsters Colby Robak, Alex Petrovic, Michael Caruso and Jonathan Racine.

Florida needs for this to be the season Dmitri Kulikov finally puts it all together and realizes his vast potential. The 2009 first-rounder took a step back last season and needs to solidify his game to help take some of the burden off the overworked Brian Campbell. Campbell led the team in ice time and put together another nice season offensively with 27 points, but he could be more effective doing a little bit less. Highly-touted Erik Gudbranson also needs to show improvement and to display more maturity. It’s high time for the rugged defender to show why the Panthers took him with the third overall pick in 2010. As a group, the Panthers need to work on their positioning, be more physical, and get better at moving the puck out of their own end instead of being constantly hemmed in by their opponents.

Goaltending: The Panthers said goodbye to veteran UFA Jose Theodore, leaving the starting job to the physically-gifted Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom certainly has the talent to be an NHL starter but does he have enough experience and mental toughness to lead the Panthers out of the cellar? Scott Clemmensen is the veteran backup who will be counted on to spell the youngster or to carry the ball if Markstrom falters. Clemmensen, like a lot Panthers, had a season to forget last time out, so confidence in Florida’s current tandem is a bit on the low side as we near the start of the campaign.

HWB Playoff Prediction: Out of the playoffs. As long as Markstrom proves he has the goods as a full-time starter and the team stays relatively healthy, the Panthers should show improvement, but not enough to make a trip to the postseason as they will be overmatched against too many of their new Atlantic Division rivals.

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