Five Questions About The Florida Panthers

With training camp less than 30 days from now, and the dog days of August almost behind us, there is much to be excited about in this upcoming season as a Florida Panther fan.  No really there is!  A full 82 game season for starters.  First round pick Aleksander Barkov.  A new scoreboard at the Bank Atlantic Center BB & T Center.  Competing within a new division.  However, digging a little deeper there are a few questions, or rather concerns that surely are crossing the minds of the Panther faithful.  I’ll attempt to guess what they are in this article.

* Who Will Be The Number One Center?  There have been a number of thoughts on this one, and while everyone feels that their answer is right, it may not be as clear cut a decision for coach Kevin Dineen as we think.  Many have felt that Shawn Matthias is deserving of the role, but that choice is likely the wrong one.  Matthias is coming off a good year, but it was a year marred with inconsistency.  He had one good month.  His performance before March of 2013 and after March of 2013 makes you wonder which is the real Shawn Matthias.  Until he can play at a more consistent pace, he can’t be the number one center. Yet.  Besides Matthias, the obvious choice really is rookie Sasha Barkov.  Why?  He has the size, playmaking ability, and has played with and against players older than him (including former NHLers), giving him just enough experience to be able to handle the pressure.  Playing with Jonathan Huberdeau and Tomas Fleischmann, Barkov’s size will be the perfect compliment to his linemate’s speed and skill.  It’s a very tall order to expect Barkov to step right in and take on this role, however he wasn’t drafted second overall to play in San Antonio, and he wasn’t drafted second overall to start the season on the fourth line so that he could work his way up.  He needs to be put into a position where he can be successful, and where the Panthers can get the most out of him.

* Will Jonathan Huberdeau suffer from the sophomore jinx?  Winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie last season was well deserved for the budding young superstar Jonathan Huberdeau.  Playing for most of the season on a line with Peter Mueller and Drew Shore, Huberdeau made the most of his ice time, as he finished second on the team in points with 31, and was tied for second in goals scored with 14.  He may have appeared a bit out of gas at the end of the season, but you can attribute that to his playing 84 games in total if you count his time in juniors as well as the World Junior Championships.  Second seasons for all sophomore’s come with higher expectations, and the pressure to prove that their initial campaign of success wasn’t a fluke.  It’s normally a strong test not only of mental fortitude, but of a physical one as well.  Huberdeau may have a target on his back, as many experienced NHLers will attempt to make his life difficult.  From what I’ve seen from him as a player, and from his personality in the dressing room, Huberdeau has what it takes to continue making successful progress in the NHL.

* What’s to be expected in goal for the Florida Panthers?  This can be best answered in an analogy.  There’s a diner that I love going to for breakfast on occasion. It’s called Lester’s.  The food is always good no matter what you order, but with over 1,000 items to choose from (ok, maybe not that many), you have to wonder sometimes how can the food not only be good, but consistent.  And that is what we’re looking for in goal with the Panthers this season.  No matter who is in goal, they don’t need to be outstanding each and every night, but they need to be good enough to keep the Panthers in games,  with consistency being the biggest factor.  If there are no other additions to the roster in the form of goaltending, the Panthers will begin the season with Jacob Markstrom and Scott Clemmenson sharing the duties.  No offence to either one of these fine men, however they will only be as good as the defence in front of them.  Personally, I’m not prepared to give Markstrom more than 40 starts at the outset of the season.  The other side of that is giving Clemmensen more than 35.  It would appear that the job currently is Markstrom’s to lose, and while all of us hope that he’s able to handle the load, I need to be convinced early on that he can.  He’s on a two way contract, which should motivate him to come to camp ready to challenge Clemmensen for the number one job, and expect to win it.  The mere thought of potentially being sent to San Antonio even for a few games ought to make Marky realize that his performance at the NHL level needs to match the expectations of him on a nightly basis.  Is he ready?  Only his performance will tell us if he is or isn’t, however giving up early goals will be a clear indication that he’s not.  He has little to prove in the AHL, on the other hand he must show that he’s mature enough to handle the rigors of an 82 game schedule, and carry the load as the number one netminder for Florida.  If he can’t, then the Panthers will have to rely on Clemmensen a bit more than they would like, but at least they know what to expect.  Kind of like me at Lesters, when I can’t decide on what to eat……I just order the feta cheese and tomato omelette.  I know what I’m getting.

* Can Erik Gudbranson have a consistent season? This will be Big G’s third year in the NHL, and being able to start with a full training camp, completely healthy, ought to allow everyone to see why he was chosen number three overall in the 2010 draft.  He was brought along slowly in his rookie season, which included watching games from the press box in order to give him a bird’s eye view of the pace of the NHL.  It helped, and it showed the more he played, especially in the seven game playoff series against the New Jersey Devils.  Last season however, it appeared that he took a step back, and with a summer shoulder injury that kept him from being 100% ready for the opening of the season it’s no wonder why.  Coming into this season, with a full training camp, and no injury to be concerned with, Erik will be looking to make a major impact on the Panther blue line.  He’s a big and punishing player that will need to smartly use his size to his advantage, and not drop his gloves to fight anyone and everyone.  He’s much more valuable on the ice, than spending time in the penalty box for fighting majors.  He’s capable of doing multiple tasks, yet he needs to find his niche.  Will he be a defensive defenceman?  Will he be more offensive minded, or will he be a nasty, bruising combination of the two?  A lot depends on who he’s paired with.  If he’s with Brian Campbell, he can focus more on his defensive skills.  If he’s paired with Ed Jovanovski, he can be slightly more offensive minded.  If he’s paired with Dmitry Kulikov, he’ll have to focus more on his defense. I think Erik can be one of the premiere defencemen in the NHL.  He is mature beyond his years, which you can tell just by talking with him.  His confidence should be higher than last season, and his skill set is there.  All he has to do is put it all together.

* How will the Panthers fare in the new Atlantic Division? First let’s get the excuse of all the travel out of the way.  Yes the Florida Panthers will have one of the most rigorous travel schedules in the NHL, putting on significant air miles.  Over 45,000 according to ontheforecheck,com.  As someone who enjoys to fly, I also realize that jet lag plays a role in an athlete’s performance.  It’s something that must be dealt with, and as young as this team is, the first thing to pay attention to is your night life.  Beyond that, being in the Atlantic Division allows the Panthers to face some very stiff competition, which if handled properly can be used to their advantage.  By that I mean, teams that are inconsistent usually play to the level of their competition.  With that in mind, facing Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa and Buffalo should force Florida to be prepared to play their best.  In addition to that, if these teams initially take the Panthers lightly, as one would expect, Florida may be able to steal a few games by catching their opponents off guard.  The key to a successful season for Florida is getting off to a quick and good start every game.  Coming from behind, especially early, as we saw all too often last season forces you to play catch up.  Something that can’t be done with success over an 82 game schedule.

What are your questions as we approach the season?

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

Follow the Panther Parkway crew on Twitter: Frank Rekas @FrankRekas, David Lasseter @davidlasseter , Paige Lewis @PaigeLewisFL, Jameson Cooper @JamesonCoop, and Amanda Land @HockeyGirl2530.  Also, please join our FaceBook Fan Page and hit the like button, send us photos, and tell us what’s on your mind.

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