The Florida Panthers were one of the biggest movers this NHL offseason, and it all started back in May when Dale Tallon was hired as the club's new general manager. At the 2010 NHL Draft in Los Angeles, Tallon and the Panthers made 13 picks, including three in the first round alone.
Outside of the infusion of young blood this offseason, guys like Keith Ballard, Nathan Horton and Dennis Seidenberg have been sent packing, as management hopes to give time to these young players sooner rather than later. 2009 draft pick defenseman Dimitry Kulikov would be a perfect example of such youth, and he'll be one that's expected to carry the load on the blueline this season for Florida.
As we sit at the start of the 2010-11 season, however, there's a reason why the Panthers are predicted to finish dead last in the East in SB Nation's NHL Preseason Power Rankings. Donny Rivette, of our Panthers blog, Litter Box Cats, puts it best, perhaps, in his in-depth season preview.
Many Florida fans have accepted the likeliness that the Cats are staring down the barrel of another playoff-less spring, for several reasons: Washington continues to rule the Southeast roost, Tampa Bay and Atlanta have improved significantly on paper, and Carolina is, well, Carolina - competitive to the end.
One-goal games against any of those rivals will require far more than a charged and focused Tomas Vokoun to win; that got ridiculously old last year, and one could make the argument it hasn't been improved upon. Booth's health is unquestionably a major factor in any success, as is continued improvement from Weiss and Frolik. A number of the Rochester kids - notably Repik, Ellerby, and Dadonov - will be under enormous pressure make the jump...and stick.
It's all about youth in South Florida this season, but while Panthers fans know what to expect (to a certain extent), there are still several questions they have about this team as training camp begins. Rivette and the boys from Litter Box Cats helped us out in picking out five of those Burning Questions that surround the team this season.
His questions, and attempted answers to those questions, appear below.
1. Is David Booth healthy?
No question on Florida fans' collective mind takes precedence over the progress of popular winger David Booth and his recuperation from not one but two concussions (both deemed legal) in a single season. A near-beheading at the hands (or arms) of Philadelphia's Mike Richards in October effectively negated any potential contributions by the Panthers' highest scoring forward from a year earlier. A follow-up smashjob by Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek mere weeks after his return ended the season for not only the player but his club as well. Booth finished the 2009-10 campaign with 16 points (8 goals) in 28 contests, understandably well below his pace of a year before. Is he truly ready for the grind? "I want people to know that I'm feeling great and it's like (the hits) never even happened." Evidently his employer agrees, even prior to training camp, and he'll be in the lineup opening night.
2. What's the deal with Coach DeBoer?
Two seasons have produced wildly varying results for the third-year bench boss; 93 points as a freshman followed by 77 only twelve months later. Explanations, as expected, run the gamut from sophomore slump to management not appropriately supporting him via the roster (read: $) to an infamous blowout with former defenseman Nick Boynton during the playoff chase of Spring, 2009 resulting in his loss of "the room". Every theory is nothing but that...a theory. But understanding the changes in the Panthers' hockey ops structure during his second year goes a long way toward validating the (publicly unspoken) concerns of a coach scrambling to drag some semblance of success from his troops. If faced with a 3-7 start, will GM Dale Tallon - the antithesis of former manager Jacques Martin - make the tough call? Is it wise to give up on one of the most sought-after coaches of only two years ago? Forget emotions and rear-view reverie: DeBoer needs a fast start out of the gate.
3. Will the real Rusty Olesz please stand up?
Believe it or not, the Panthers' first-round pick (7th overall) in 2004 has 305 career NHL games on his resume, compiling 115 points (51 goals) during that stretch. Names such as Stafford, Wolski, Radulov, Zajac, and Green were selected after him, but we're not going to hammer the guy for something he didn't engineer. He's driven Florida fans positively batty over the past five seasons with tremendous bursts of speed, exceptional athleticism, and silky moves around the opposition's net only to be overshadowed 5-to-1 by a failure to execute the proper maneuver in a given scenario; shooting instead of passing, and vice versa. Remember Horton's inablilty to read a play (of course you do)? It's frustration with a capital "F", and DeBoer's utilization of the 24-year old routinely results in a by-the-book shootout attempt. And the league indeed has that book. Virtually untradeable with a monumental four years remaining on a contract signed in 2008, the slick-skating but enigmatic winger is by no means done, but has much to prove.
4. Who to keep in net? Tomas Vokoun or Jacob Markstrom?
Tomas Vokoun will be Florida's number one goaltender. Period. At least until the trade deadline later this season. Can the logic be argued any further? Cats fans embrace "T-Vo" more than any current Panther save Booth, but with a blue-chip asset in Jacob Markstrom - a hungry prospect if ever there was one - Florida will have no choice but to move the superb veteran goaltender for something, anything. He's earned the honor of playing for a winner while still relevent. As well, the Cats' netminders are out of realistic options short of another loan (ala Salak) to a European club: standout prospects Marc Cheverie and Brian Foster - both under contract - will battle for a single position in Rochester.
5. Is this administration the real deal or yet another funnel full of Cats Kool-Aid?
It's reasonable to assume after the failures of numerous regimes that regardless of pedigree, Dale Tallon has been billed as one more in a long line of "saviors"; one move away from league legitimacy. Can't blame folks who have followed this at times sordid franchise while it promised championships - or even competitiveness - while spinning its wheels when push inevitably came to shove. For better or worse, another leap of faith will be required here as well. Chicago was the definition of inept when Tallon took over, and it could be argued the 'Hawks had attendance issues rivaling those of Florida. Detroit was a complete joke of a franchise for twenty years until the proper management team helmed the ship and never looked back. Even Colorado - left as roadkill in preseason rankings a year ago - shocked the jocks off observers throughout North America with their inspired play. Won't happen overnight in Sunrise, but it's coming.
Be sure to check out the full, in-depth season preview over at Litter Box Cats, as well as a preview of the Southeast Division over at our general hockey blog, From The Rink.