Monday, May 16, 2011

Pool Outlook for Florida

The Florida Panthers were not short on hard work through the 2011 season, but there was a definite shortcoming in overall talent, which led to some fairly heartbreaking losses and a pretty woeful stretch at the end of the year, which dropped them down into 28th in the league standings.    With Dale Tallon at the helm as GM of this team and a year under his belt evaluating his squad, I think the Panthers may be in for some positive changes, but they will still likely have to wade through some murky waters before they get to the promised land again.

You can't seem to go a year without seeing Tomas Vokoun at the top of the table for the Panthers, as he finished on top of team scoring again, even with numbers that are somewhat down from his regular totals at the end of the season.  Vokoun finished 86th in pool scoring in 2011, only picking up 22 wins, 6 shutouts and an assist for 57 points.  That placed him 22nd among all goaltenders in the NHL, but he'll likely only be a 3rd or 4th round pick in next season's draft, especially if the Panthers don't immediately improve on paper.

No forwards on the finished roster of the Panthers finished with 50 or more points in the 2011 season, although Stephen Weiss was the closest, finishing with 49 points in 76 games.  Mike Santorelli had 41 points in all 82 games, David Booth had 40 points in all 82 games, Sergei Samsonov had 40 points in 78 games between Carolina and Florida, Niclas Bergfors had 36 points in 72 games between Atlanta and Florida and Marty Reasoner had 32 points in 82 games as well.  The additions of Samsonov and Bergfors were good, but too little, too late.  This team does have pieces in place up front, but not a lot of glue to keep it all together quite yet.

On the blueline, the Panthers were picked apart at the deadline with the departure of both Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman, which now leaves a very young defense to carry on the workload.  Dimitri Kulikov finished as the team's leading point-getter from the point with 26 points in 72 games, which isn't terribly impressive, but he is supposed to be the guy that will carry the load for the Panthers down the road.  He'll definitely get his minutes now.  Jason Garrison finished second on the remaining defensemen with 18 points in 73 games, while Mike Weaver finished third with 13 points in all 82 games.

Every year, it's a bit of the same down in the other goaltending spot for the Panthers, as there is a quick review of the back-up goalies.  Scott Clemmensen had his second season in Florida behind Vokoun and it wasn't better than his first season, although it wasn't that much worse.  Clemmensen finished with 19 points, down in the rankings by only 11 places to 423rd.  There was also a glimpse of Jacob Markstrom, who had one appearance this season, which had no decision in his favour.  We'll all begin to wonder if we'll see more of him next season.

2012 Pool Outlook
There's nothing terribly pretty about what is left behind to work with in Florida, as I've only got nine players likely to start with the big club at this point today.  There is some youth in the system that could very well make the jump, but I'm not going to get ahead of myself just yet.  Although, the rebuild process may be very kind to the youth in waiting.

Stephen WeissDimitri KulikovScott Clemmensen
David BoothJason Garrison
Evgeni DadonovMike Weaver
Rostislav OleszKeaton Ellerby

Salary CapThe nine players above, plus one buyout still on the books (with at least one more imminent, I think), only leaves the Panthers with a projected annual total of $16.5 million to work with, as of today.  There is still plenty of work to be done and plenty of room to fill.  With some good looking entry-level deals sitting in the wings, the Panthers should be able to work their way back up to the salary cap floor and I would think that the Panthers will try to be players in the free agent market, just to help out their numbers a bit.

The RFA market will be a good one for the Panthers to stock up on some easily signed players for some decent money.  Mike Santorelli, Niclas Bergfors, Jack Skille and Shawn Matthias should all be pieces going forward for the Panthers and at an elevated signing price, they may be able to boost their numbers back up into the accepted salary cap governed levels.

Big decisions on the UFA side, as Tomas Vokoun, Sergei Samsonov and Marty Reasoner are all free to go, if they don't sign on the dotted line before July 1st.  I could see a push for Samsonov and Reasoner to stay, but I do have a hard time believing that Vokoun would want to come back, likely opening up the door for better things in his career.

I like the idea of looking at some of the Panthers for the draft next year or even the possible keeper pool I've been talking about over the past couple of seasons.  Defenseman Erik Gudbranson, goalie Jacob Markstrom and forward Quinton Howden are names that have good shots at making the Panthers out of camp next season, especially Gudbranson, who was short a contract after training camp or else he would have likely played in the 2011 campaign.  I like where the Panthers are heading already, but it's still a little ways from being a good place to pick regulars from.

The Panthers are a team still in the infancy of their rebuild, again, which should keep the team's options fairly wide open in the 1st round of the entry draft.  The Panthers will be a team that has the ability to take the best player available and since they are picking 3rd overall this year, I would imagine that they will end up with a real blue-chipper with this pick.  Everything will depend on what the Oilers and Avalanche do ahead of them, but I don't think they'll mind too much either way.

What I said last year at this time... "In the 2011 season, I'm not entirely sure what to expect. If the team can stay healthy, they can be a very productive team, having a good core of players (both youth and veteran) ready to go and knowing each other fairly well. The Panthers have cap space again, but their own enforced budget is about the only thing that can restrict the team from making an extra leap or bound, but I won't say that the playoffs are impossible, just yet. The Southeast Division is getting harder and harder to compete in, so they will definitely have to make good with what they have in stock."

Even in my vague prediction for the Panthers in the 2011 season, it wasn't the most promising of looks forward on the year.  They did work pretty hard in a lot of games, but they were destined to fall short.  For a while, they did look like they could sneak into the playoffs, but a sudden drop off around the trade deadline after the moves were made was the tipping point, but the Panthers are now stocked up on futures, which they can use to build up.  Not quite a passing grade on the prediction, still.

The 2012 season likely won't be a dream season for the Panthers either.  If it will be a great season for something, it will be to evaluate what they have in stock, in terms of youth, and they should be able to find a decent number of grizzled veterans to help guide their youth along the path.  I don't necessarily expect the collective talent of the Panthers to do great things, but they might be able to come together for some small stretches, showing off some razzle-dazzle and possibly surprising some teams, becoming a late season spoiler for someone?

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