The Florida Panthers came into the 2011-2012 NHL season expected to finish towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the third consecutive year. During the off season they had faced one of the biggest roster overhauls in recent memory and the big question was how long it would take the roster to come together and find chemistry. A majority of Florida’s roster consisted of players signed or traded for in the off season, however they all had two things in common, experience and a winning attitude.
Florida started the season with one of their best October records since 2000, and it’s top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg terrorized NHL goaltenders for the first half of the season. Another thing that went unnoticed with Florida’s lineup is the depth it had, compared to years past, granted it’s top line would be the second line on most teams. This team was built to score by committee, not around one superstar for players to feed off of, Tomas Kopecky signed after being traded to the team from the Chicago Blackhawks coming off a career season. Sean Bergenheim would move into the season after being one of the hottest scoring threats the previous season in the playoffs for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and would have a career season scoring 17 goals. Ed Jovanovski would return to Florida, the team that drafted him first overall in 1994 and mentor the teams young players; a role reversal from his last stint with the team. Brian Campbell was brought in to be the teams quarterback on the powerplay and proved to the critics that while his $7m contract may be a bit high, he’s still a top defenseman in the league.
Being promoted from junior hockey in 2011 would be defenseman Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010. The season would start shaky for the young blueliner but he would quickly turn things around and become one of the teams stronger defensemen towards the end of the season and into the playoffs. The roster wasn’t all that was changed prior to the season starting, first year coach Kevin Dineen would take over in place of Peter Deboer who was let go after the season prior. Along with Craig Ramsey, hired after being let go from the Atlanta franchise and would revitalize the teams power play, helping it to finish seventh in the league.
Florida would finish the season with 94 points, good for first in the South East Division, the teams first division championship in it’s history. Florida would also finish the season third in the Eastern Conference, it’s highest ranking in team history as well. It was the teams first playoff appearance in more than a decade, and the first for lifelong Panther Stephen Weiss. The team would take the New Jersey Devils to double overtime of game seven in it’s first round series, but would eventually lose on a goal by Adam Henrique. The loss may still sting, but players and fans both have something to be proud of, they stood up to the critics and went further than anyone gave them credit for.
D Filip Kuba, C Peter Mueller, RW George Parros
Filip Kuba was signed to replace departing defenseman Jason Garrison and to add more veteran presence on the blue line. Kuba had played next to Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson with the Ottawa Senators in 2011-2012 and will be looked upon to provide some offense with Garrisons departure. He could replace Garrison on the powerplay alongside Brian Campbell or drop to the second powerplay line next to Dmitry Kulikov to help develop his skills further. Like Jovanovski the year prior, this will be Kuba’s second chance in Florida as he was previously drafted by them; and will most likely finish his career with them.
Peter Mueller was signed after the Colorado Avalanche opted not to sign him to an offersheet, making him an unrestricted free agent and able to hit the open market. He has had injury issues in the past, but prior to that had shown flashes of brilliance offensively and could be a steal if he can stay healthy. Dale Tallon will look like a genius for this signing if it does work out, just as he had the season prior by signing Fleischmann after a career threatening blood clott issue the season before.
With the departure of Krys Barch in free agency the Panthers targeted gritty winger George Parros and he looks to be an upgrade for the team in that respect. Parros is a big skater always known to drop the gloves and stick up for teammates whenever needed, he’s looking to get more ice time than in previous seasons. Not only is Parros an upgrade on the ice but off ice as well, working with multiple charities and being a fan favorite around the league. He’s also known as one of the smartest people in sports, having graduated from Princeton University. He is also the Panthers loan representative in the CBA negotiations and has attended many of the meetings that have taken place already.
D Jason Garrison, RW Mikael Samuelsson, LW Wojtek Wolski, RW Krystopher Barch
Garrison had expressed interest in re-signing with Florida, but had said if he wasn’t able to work out a deal his next option would be his hometown team the Vancouver Canucks. Garrison got his wish as it’s reported the Panthers were not willing to give him the contract length he was seeking after only one productive season. Vancouver was more than willing to sign him and have his cannon of a shot available for their power play, the question being whether he can repeat his 2011-2012 performance.
Samuelsson would return to the Detroit Red Wings, a team he had enjoyed playing for previously receiving a raise from his salary last season. He will be missed on the Panthers power play point, but with young players ready to make the jump it was expected he would not be re-signed unless the price was right.
Wolski and Barch simply did not fit into the lineup and were not qualified offers, Wolski’s play had dropped off since being acquired around the trade deadline and became expendable. Barch was a healthy scratch most nights and was used mostly to replace injured players or give a needy body a rest for a night.
Without a doubt I have to go with Peter Mueller for this, after only playing 47 games over the past two season due to injury. He has stated he feels better now than before he was drafted and had a tremendous rookie season for the Phoenix Coyotes. In just 32 games last season Mueller scored 7 goals and 9 assists for 16 points before a season ending concussion. Florida’s doctors inspected him head to toe before giving Tallon the nod to sign him, and if he remains healthy he could very well be the steal of free agency for less than $2m a season. Mueller has great hands and seems to make anyone on the ice around him better, with youngster Jonathan Huberdeau expected to play next to him the two could make for a very dangerous combination.
Mueller has the potential and the skill, but also is injury prone so this could easily go either way for the Panthers. As fans and experts everywhere have said, this is lower risk but has very high reward potential.
I honestly want to go with Jonathan Huberdeau here, I feel a majority of the roster has shown us what they can do and if there is improvement it won’t be considerable enough to be considered a break out performance. Huberdeau however is very talented and could easily win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the leagues top rookie. His size may still be a concern but he is bigger than he was the previous season in which he led the team in scoring in the preseason. Despite only playing in 37 games last season in the QMJHL Huberdeau put up amazing numbers and averaged nearly two points per game and showed he has nothing more to prove in junior hockey.
If he can stay healthy in his rookie season I would predict Huberdeau to score 20+ goals to go along with 30+ assists and take the rookie of the year honors for 2012-2013.
With the rest of the South East Division getting stronger this upcoming season will be a challenge for the Panthers to repeat as division champions. However they proved the critics wrong before and could do it again, as long as the injuries that plagued them the previous season don’t repeat. Jose Theodore has proved he can still be a number one netminder in the league and will look to repeat his 2011-2012 numbers if not improve on them, especially being in the final year of his two year deal and young goaltender Jacob Markstrom hungry to move up to the NHL.
The division is Florida’s to lose, but I think they’ll put up a fight for it and in the end it could come down to the final day of the season once again.