Last season, Dale Tallon undertook an aggressive strategy to remake the Florida Panthers from also-rans to contenders. Paying heavily for free agents like Scottie Upshall and Tomas Fleischmann, trading for Kris Versteeg and Bryan Campbell, the moves put a "zing" on the franchise and captured the attention of fans in South Florida. Some moves, most notably Fleischmann, paid dividends, but Upshall's 5 points in the regular season in just 26 games were a notable flop.
Thanks to the new roster, some excellent coaching by Kevin Dineen, and a bit of good old fashioned luck, the Panthers managed to scrape their way into the Southeast Division title, but found themselves out of the playoffs after a hard fought seven game series against the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.
Despite relatively low turnover on their roster, the Panthers will be forced to defend their crown against a radically retooled Carolina, improving Tampa Bay, the reborn Jets, and the ever present Capitals.
It will be a difficult climb, and it's worth asking if Florida has done enough to keep them in the hunt for the postseason.
Though the Panthers lost impressive defenseman Jason Garrison to the Vancouver Canucks, they have reason to be confident in their youth. Dmitri Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, and Keaton Ellerby all gained valuable experience, and the addition of Filip Kuba should provide a good on-ice mentor as the kids are asked to step into larger roles.
Up front, Dale Tallon has thrown the dice once again by offering Peter Mueller a one year, $1.75 million dollar deal. If the young scorer can regain his form after missing most of the last two seasons with post-concussion issues, he could be an impressive and versatile weapon on the attack, but another major injury could easily spell the end of his NHL career.
The biggest question mark for Florida, however, is in net. Though Jose Theodore was a serviceable starter (2.46 GAA, .917 save percentage in 53 starts), many are starting to ask if it could be time for talented prospect Jacob Markstrom to get a larger role. At the same time, the team just extended backup Scott Clemmensen for another two years, and rumors continue to swirl that the Panthers are the preferred destination for Roberto Luongo, but what at what price?
Barring a blockbuster deal, the Panthers will be going into 2012-13 with some new blood and a lot of questions. How will the loss of Garrison affect their top ten power play? Can the reshaped defense improve on their wretched PK? How will the goaltending situation shake out? Will Mueller stay healthy? Can Upshall start earning that $3.5 million paycheck? Stephen Weiss, the team's longest tenured player, is heading to UFA status next season. Will he stay and continue to be the face of the club?
Oh, and last but not least, what do the Panthers plan to do about their vacant captaincy?
With so many questions, it's almost impossible to predict what will come next in South Florida, but it seems likely that their fans will be in for a fascinating ride.
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