As we inch closer to the start of training camp, and the beginning of a new regular season, there are five factors that could have a significant impact on the fortunes of the Florida Panthers. Having said that, these same factors could also negatively lead to the misfortunes of a team that is desperate to rebound after taking two steps back since winning their first ever divisional crown two seasons ago. Dale Tallon the architect in charge of the “Blueprint” that is slated to have the Panthers compete for the post season on a regular basis, and is sticking to his plan, which to some looks like another rebuild.
Winning the Southeast division title in the 2011-2012 season may have been a curse since it came so soon in Tallon’s tenure, yet after last seasons poor finish that was marred by injuries, the Panthers continue to emphasize a slow and steady rebound. By refusing to rush their youth and resisting the urge to throw large bags of money at free agents, the Panthers are willing to suffer the consequences that go along with that plan. But hey, they’ll get a new scoreboard this season so there’s that to look forward to. Hoping for a fresh start, here are five key factors that will impact the outcome of this coming season. Four players and one very key component will directly affect the direction that this team takes.
Goalie: Jacob Markstrom has been touted as the future goalie of the Florida Panthers since he was drafted five years ago. At 23 years old, Markstrom will be given every opportunity to win the number one job this season. Not to debate whether he’s actually ready or not, Markstrom does have all the tools to win that challenge. The question is, can he? The elephant in the room when is comes to Jacob is consistency. Markstrom has proven that he is completely capable of stealing games, which he’s done a few times in the chances he’s been given. On the other hand, he’s also shown that he can be a complete train wreck in others. Goalies take time to develop, and while sometimes they can have immediate success, they can quickly fall upon hard times. Just ask Steve Mason who won rookie of the year with Columbus, and now finds himself in goalie purgatory with the Philadelphia Flyers. Markstrom has to work hard both on and off the ice, and mature quickly along the way. The two year contract that the player known as
Bigfoot The Alien signed this offseason allows the Panthers to send him to San Antonio this season if his performance isn’t up to NHL standards. While Markstrom can’t control everything, that alone should force him to play at his absolute best. He really has nothing left to prove in the AHL, but unless he shakes this inconsistency tag, trips to San Antonio will continue.
Forward: Shawn Matthias. The career of Shawn Matthias as a Florida Panther can be divided very nicely into two parts. As noted in NHL.com’s 30 in 30 segment, Shawn Matthias has played in 25 different months for the Panthers scoring 28 times. In March of 2013 he played 16 games and scored 11 goals, and made some highlight worthy plays. So which Shawn Matthias is the one we get this season? Another example of inconsistency for the Panthers, Matthias needs to have his best season ever, and prove that he has the tools to be a top six forward in the NHL. If he can’t, he’ll likely find himself relegated to the third or even fourth line on this or any other team that he ends up playing for. He’s certainly been given his chances and has been put in positions to succeed, yet hasn’t shown the ability to seize the moment on a consistent basis. With a good attitude and working hard in the summer, Matthias appears ready to step up. If he can use his size and his skills together, and harness those two parts of his game on a nightly basis, Matthias will develop into a very dependable player. There are a lot of “if’s” on this team, but if you ask me, Matthias is the biggest.
Defenceman: Erik Gudbranson. Selected at number three in 2010 Gudbranson all but made the team in training camp that fall, yet the two sides couldn’t agree on a contract which forced the Panthers to return their prized rookie back to Kingston of the OHL. This however is the season that “Big G” needs to prove he was worthy of that selection. His rookie year has been well documented with what was some inconsistent play (a common theme with players on this team), followed by a strong postseason, followed by an off season injury which limited him to only 32 games last season, many of which found him to be unnoticed. As hard as that was for this writer to type, it is a known fact, that Erik has all the tools to be one of the top defencemen in the NHL for years to come. He’s been touted as the future captain of the Panthers, and when you see him and listen to him speak you can see he has the maturity needed for that role. It just needs to be translated onto the ice with regularity. By working on his positional play, being more accurate with his booming slap shot, and knowing when to drop the gloves, Gudbranson can be the complete defenceman the Panthers thought they were drafting. He played on a good team his rookie year and had a slow start, but finished strong. He played on a generally bad team last season and was average at best, part of which may have been due to his injury. Yet with those two seasons past him, Erik comes to camp healthy, and likely with a chip on his shoulder. Good. The Panthers need some nasty, and Big G is just the guy to bring it.
Rookie: Aleksander Barkov. Drafted second overall in this summer’s NHL draft, Barkov was a surprise pick to many who weren’t aware of his talents. The 17 year old youngster has been playing with adults in Europe, and that combined with his size, skill and hockey sense should be enough to make him the Panthers’ number one center to open the season. There’s nothing to be gained by starting him on the fourth line as many other rookie forwards that have come through this organEYEzation. Having to earn ice time by playing with the likes of Joey Crabb and Jesse Winchester, who are fine players for their roles, will do nothing but frustrate a talented and NHL ready player. Lining up with Jonathan Huberdeau and possibly Tomas Fleischmann, Sasha will have the right amount of skill and talent on his wings allowing him to grow into the position. His production is key to any success the Panthers are to have this season, and from what everyone says, there’s no reason to think he can’t handle the assignment.
Conditioning: A successful coach once said, there are no excuses, but there are reasons. That may never have been so true as it was last season with the Panthers. Burdened by a slow start, injuries, and inconsistent play all around, the Panthers seemed doomed from the start. Or at least after their first game. A number of players showed up at camp out of shape and not ready to play. With a condensed schedule due to the lockout, that lack of preparation led to many of the injuries, and contributed heavily to the often lackluster performance on many nights. It will be unacceptable for that to happen again this season. When you’re out of shape, you get tired faster, make poor decisions, and make mistakes at the worst time. Watching almost all home games from the press box last season, many of the mistakes could be telegraphed before they even happened. Show up ready to play, start each game quickly, and do something to dictate the pace, and have a great attitude. This team has the ability to be competitive which isn’t asking too much. Starting the year on the right foot by being in condition, and being prepared will go a long way in the efforts of having a rebound season.
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