Last season’s lockout shortened campaign was made even more frustrating for the Florida Panthers by all the injuries that hit the club much harder than anyone expected. Coming off their first division championship ever the season before, there were hopes and dreams of a repeat in 2012-2013, especially after the opening night victory over the Carolina Hurricanes which saw Jonathan Huberdeau steal the show. Huberdeau would go on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, however that would be the only highlight coming from South Florida, as the Panthers finished dead last in the league. Only four players played all 48 games last season for Florida, in a year that was as tough to watch as it was to make a lineup, seeing a number of players who weren’t supposed to, made their NHL debut did.
With the initial wave of free agency over, the Florida Panthers appear to be finished as they made four signings of note, two of which will likely be for depth. Joey Crabb and Jesse Winchester are projected to make up two thirds of the fourth line, and Matt Gilroy and Mike Motttau were signed as defensive depth and should start the season in San Antonio. Dale Tallon indicated that the Panthers still have the balance of the summer to tweak the roster, one has to think that for all intents and purposed, there won’t be any major signings. As of this writing, players like Mason Raymond (have I told you I want him signed?), Brenden Morrow, Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas remain available.
As we look at the potential lines for this coming season, it appears that most of the roster spots are taken, yet a major signing, or trade, or a surprise youngster could change all that. This is how I see us lining up today:
LW Jonathan Huberdeau C Aleksander Barkov RW Tomas Fleischmann
LW Kris Versteeg/Scottie Upshall C Marcel Goc RW Tomas Kopecky
LW Sean Bergenheim C Drew Shore RW Shawn Matthias
LW Eric Selleck/Bobby Butler C Jesse Winchester RW Joey Crabb
Brian Campbell Erik Gudbranson
Mike Weaver Dmitry Kulikov
Ed Jovanovski Colby Robak/Alex Petrovic/Matt Gilroy/Mike Mottau
Starting the season, Kris Versteeg will be unavailable till possibly November, and Scottie Upshall will be given a chance to be a top six forward. It’s really a make or break season for Upshall and he needs to provide some consistent play, as well as be productive. When Versteeg returns to the lineup, Upshall’s performance could dictate his future with the club, as he’s not yet earned the value of his contract to date. Granted he was injured, but in the 53 games Upshall has played he has 6 goals and 4 assists. Not nearly worthy of his salary, and he is a better player than his production has shown. First round pick Aleksander Barkov is going to be given every opportunity to not only make the club, but be the number one center, as it appears it’s his job to lose. We are awaiting his official contract signing which we have been told is imminent. Huberdeau, Barkov and Flash make a fast, and skilled unit, and should be hard to play against. If they can develop chemistry in training camp and carry that into the season, they should be an exciting trio.
I have Goc and Kopecky together on the second line since they’ve played so well together in their time here in Florida. While Goc is not a true second line center, he’s responsible, and deserves that role at this time, until Shawn Matthias, or someone else proves that they are worthy of the assignment. Tomas Kopecky could have a breakout season if he plays all 82 games, and based on his play last season he qualifies more than any other player currently behind him for this spot. He was the Panthers most consistent and hard working player all season.
The third line of Bergenheim, Shore and Matthias provides some grit, energy, and physicality. Sprinkle in some goals, and on paper they give you excatly what a third line should. While Matthias is a center, I have him at the wing, which right now he’s better suited for until a roster spot at center opens up. I believe that Shore is better at the faceoff dot as well, and is a natural center.
The fourth line of Selleck, Winchester and Crabb is about as basic a fourth line as you can get. Bobby Butler will get an opportunity to play there as well, yet when the Panthers need that extra toughness in the lineup, I see Selleck getting some ice time. I will admit that none of these lines are scary, but, and a big but, if each player can stay healthy, and play consistently to their abilities, the Panthers will at least be competitive. However, it is blatantly obvious that a high profile top six forward is still needed. Goal scoring from the forwards will be a challenge, but Huberdeau has one year under his belt, Flash is always consistent, and if Versteeg can come back healthy from injury, you have at least 3 potential 20-25 goal scorers. The question remains will it be enough?
On defence and goaltending, there are some question marks. Will Erik Gudbranson rebound from what was an average season for him? The young defender is going through the maturation process of a defenseman in the NHL, and this needs to be a big year for him. Kulikov and Jovanovski must stay healthy, as neither has been recently. If we can get 60 games from Jovo, I think that’s a huge plus. The 6th spot is a toss up, with Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic hopefull of making the team, but either Matt Gilroy, or Mike Mottau won’t be far away. Defensively no matter who makes up the three units, they need to be more physical, and in better position than last year.
As for goaltending, and we can discuss this further at a later date, it looks like this is the tandem we start with. I would bet however that it’s not how we finish the season. I’m still not ready to give Markstrom the keys to the car for more than 40 games, therefore it will be interesting to see how things play out. Markstrom must find some consistency in his game ( a word that’s been used often here), and has to remain focused. Too many games last season where he gave up a quick goal, and that cannot happen. Markstrom has all the talent, has the size, but the question remains is he mature enough to handle it. Clemmensen needs to have a bounce back season, and I don’t think you need to tell him that. As professional as they come, the veteran netminder isn’t going to steal too many games, but when the overall team defence plays as poorly as it did in front of him, any goalie will be under fire. Signing Bryzgalov or Thomas is an option, but the Panthers don’t need three NHL goaltenders, and someone, likely Clemmensen would have to be moved if that were to even happen.
Some tweaking can still be done for sure, but as things stand today, this is what we likely look like come opening night.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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