Florida Panthers Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
The Florida Panthers have more kids than a day care center. Luckily for hockey fans in South Florida, their team will make as much noise as a roomful of screaming kids, too, if their top prospects pan out.
Most teams head to training camp with two or three jobs open, and about five or six players in a serious battle for them. The Panthers have six or seven jobs to win, with approximately 1,294 players battling for those spots. If the Panthers aren't good this season, it's a safe bet to think that the AHL San Antonio Rampage will be, because Florida's depth and plethora of young talent won't all make this roster. A Stanley Cup is unlikely in Florida, but a Calder Cup could be in San Antonio's near future, and that would bode well for the Panthers' future, too.
Every team preaches the importance of training camp battles to hone itstoughness and increase the level of play, but it will be especially critical to an organization such as the Panthers that possesses a wealth of young talent. Florida's average age last season was 26 years and 59 days, making it the second-youngest team in the NHL behind Buffalo (25 years and 260 days). The Panthers have been, and will continue to be, patient with their young players, but sooner or later those young players have to up their production and improve the team's result.
The Panthers are building the franchise around Olli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester and Roberto Luongo, a trio that is likely to be the face of the team for better part of this decade. While Jokinen enjoyed a breakout season and Luongo continued to play well in goal, it is Bouwmeester who has the highest ceiling. The 19-year-old blueliner was very impressive while logging big minutes as a rookie last season. Bouwmeester's role increased when Florida dealt top defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh on the eve of the All-Star Weekend.
The 6-foot-4 Bouwmeester is a rangy defenseman who could be the best skating rearguard since Paul Coffey. After playing in the YoungStars Game as a rookie, Bouwmeester could make the All-Star team in his second season and is likely to be a Norris Trophy candidate before too long. JBo began his offseason by helping lead Canada to the gold medal at the World Championships in Finland, where Bouwmeester was named the top defenseman of the tournament.
"We had a great group of guys, and it was a lot of fun going over there," Bouwmeester said. "And to win, there is nothing better than that. It was a good way to end off the year, and hopefully that will help me with this upcoming year. Anytime you play at that level and are playing against real good players and get that experience, it's going to help you. Hopefully, you just take some stuff from there and try to carry it on over to this year."
The soft-spoken Edmonton native returned home from Finland and spent the remainder of the summer working out with fellow NHL players such as Jarome Iginla, Geoff Sanderson and Ray Whitney at a camp run by Senators assistant coach Perry Pearn. Florida is hoping Bouwmeester can handle the load of being a No. 1 defenseman, which usually includes playing 25-28 minutes per night.
"It's hard not to be impressed," general manager Rick Dudley said. "He handles himself like a veteran. He played a lot of minutes (19:45 average) -- probably even more than he should have in his first year, but I don't think it hurt him. And he looks like he's five or 10 pounds heavier from working out, but his skating certainly hasn't suffered because of it. He did pretty well all of last year culminating at the World Championships where he was pretty dominant."
At age 24, Luongo is coming into the prime of his career with the luxury of 194 NHL games under his belt. Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jose Theodore both took huge steps forward at similar stages of their development, and Luongo could be poised for a breakout -- dare we say even a Vezina Trophy? -- season. Head coach Mike Keenan has coached five Vezina-winning netminders in the past, and Luongo has the tools to someday join Ed Belfour, Grant Fuhr, Dominik Hasek, Ron Hextall and Pelle Lindbergh in that honored group.
Last season, Stephane Matteau was one of few graybeards on the roster, but Dudley acquired several veterans this offseason to help bring along the youngsters. Jonas Hoglund was signed from Toronto. Lyle Odelein was brought in after spending last year in Chicago and Dallas, and Eric Messier was acquired from Colorado in a trade for Peter Worrell, which also netted Florida hotshot center prospect Vaclav Nedorost. Their presence (along with Todd Gill's on the blueline) should help the development of several of the kids on the roster.
Messier, in partcicular, will prove to be a valuable player for Keenan. Though he broke in as a defenseman, Messier has played on the wing for the past several seasons and has emerged into an impressive defensive player who always works hard and exels at backchecking, blocking shots and playing great positional defense on the penalty kill. Messier's presence as a grinding winger on the third or fourth line will be a big upgrade for the Panthers.
The Panthers are unlikely to keep both Matt Cullen and Stephen Weiss in the NHL this season because both play a similar style and aren't the big type of pivot that Keenan favors. If Weiss doesn't make the team, he will start in San Antonio. But if Cullen gets beat out by Weiss, Florida would look to deal Cullen, perhaps for some added experience on defense.
The other big roster battle will be for the final three defensive spots. Bouwmeester, Mathieu Biron, Branislav Mezei and Andreas Lilja are the core of young, but potential-filled top four, while Lyle Odelein and Pavel Trnka are pencilled in for now as Nos. 5 and 6. But after that it will be a wide-open competition among Gill, Petr Kadlec, Lukas Krajicek, Kristian Kudroc, Grant McNeill, Filip Novak, Jeff Paul, Kyle Rossiter and Mike Van Ryn.
"We think if the pieces fall into place like they can that we can take a run at the playoffs," Dudley said. "Our expectations that we put on ourself are reasonably high. If we don't do significantly well this year, we'll be disappointed. I hate to make predictions. I just want to improve. We improved by 10 points last year and if we improve by that again then we'll be in the hunt. And then anything can happen."
Playing in the wide-open Southeast Division gives the Panthers a reasonable shot at a big leap forward in the standings. Tampa Bay improved from 69 points in 2001-02 to 93 points last year, giving hope to Florida, Atlanta and Carolina that they could turn the division standings upside down in one season.
"I think everyone is just looking to improve and to take that next step and try to make the playoffs," Bouwmeester said. "That's a good goal for us right now. We have a real young team and everyone is pretty excited to get going. Every team has the goal of reaching the playoffs and we are no different. Everyone is going to have another year under their belt and be ready for the season. Hopefully things will work out for us."
Olli Jokinen, C -- Keenan always develops a pet project in each of his many coaching stops. Jokinen happens to be that guy in South Florida.
After four ordinary seasons with the Kings, Islanders and Panthers, Jokinen exploded for 36 goals and 29 assists, topping his career high of 29 points by 36. Jokinen made his All-Star Game debut in his home rink and excelled on a line with game MVP Dany Heatley and Jaromir Jagr, with Jokinen netting one goal and three assists. His marker with 10:22 to play tied the game for the East, though Jokinen later rang the final attempt in the shootout off the post to end the game. Still, the appearance among the game's elite was a confidence boost for a player who had just 87 points in 314 games prior to the 2002-03 season.
"He had success early and used it to make himself what he was supposed to be," Dudley said. "The evolution of players is sometimes different from player to player. Olli Jokinen is not an old man -- he's only 25 yers old -- and last year he finally became what people expected he'd be when he came over from Finland. He's a big man who can play. He got all the confidence and everything came together for him. He was put in a position to succeed by Mike with lots of ice time and lots of responsibility, and Olli responded."
The Panthers believe the affable Jokinen could be their next captain, as his rags-to-riches story would be good motivation for the rest of the team. He also will be counted on to duplicate his offensive performance, with the team hoping he can emerge as a solid 70-point player as he enters the prime of his career.
Scoring -- Despite Jokinen's breakout year, the Panthers had trouble putting the biscuit in the basket. Only Jokinen, Viktor Kozlov and Kristian Huselius scored more than 20 goals, and just Marcus Nilson and Ivan Novoseltsev joined them in double digits. The Panthers need several of their young forwards to take big leaps in the goal department if they have any prayer at making a Tampa Bay-like ascension in the Southeast Division.
"Nobody can guarantee that they are going to score 250 or 300 goals, but I believe this team is capable of having offense," Dudley said. "We think part of it will be a natural evolution of sorts. We have guys like Huselius, Jokinen, Kozlov, Niclas Hagman, Nilson, Hoglund, Valeri Bure and Cullen who are all capable of scoring goals for us. And Stephen Weiss certainly will be a scorer. If you go down the list we have enough. We think it's there."
Dudley remembers that his Ottawa team was questioned before the 1998-99 season about its goal-scoring ability, then went on to net 239 and finished with 103 points and in second place in the East. Dudley also was the architect behind the rise of the Lightning, and players like Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis all took big steps forward last season in helping Tampa Bay score 219 goals.
A surge from 176 to 239 (or even 219) goals is probably unrealistic, but the Panthers would be happy to split the difference and finish with somewhere around 200.
Why couldn't the Panthers win at home last season?
Normally even bad teams can play close to .500 hockey at home, but Florida only had a 8-21-7-5 at the Office Depot Center last season. Luckily, the Panthers went 16-15-6-4 on the road or else they would've been in big trouble. But Florida's home woes also make the organization wonder if it might have made the playoffs with even a .500 home record.
"I've never seen anything like it," Dudley said. "I've had lots of people ask me about it, and I wish to heck I could explain it. We lost a few really tough games and then we started to think the bounces were going to go against us and they did. You can look at it one of two ways. Was the aberration at home or on the road? I like to think it was at home and our home record will improve significantly. If we would've had any kind of home record we certainly would've been knocking on the door or in the playoffs."
Luongo's numbers, in particular, demonstrate the team's bizarre fortunes. Luongo went 7-19-4 with a 2.91 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage in 32 home games. On the road, he was substantially better, with a 13-15-3 mark and a 2.52 GAA and .928 save percentage. The Panthers are convinced they can't possibly be as bad at home as they were a year ago
Nathan Horton, C, 6-2, 201 pounds
The Florida Panthers have hit the draft lottery jackpot two years in a row. And as Dudley is wont to do, both times they traded down from the No. 1 spot. Luckily for them, both times they also got the player they were targeting anyway. The Panthers swung a draft-day deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins to move down two spots, picking up an additional second-round pick, as well. Florida knew Pittsburgh craved goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, while Carolina wanted center Eric Staal at No. 2. That left Horton for the Panthers at No. 3, and considering they would've taken him at No. 1, they viewed it as picking up a free second-round pick (No. 55 overall) and a decent depth forward (Mikael Samuelsson) for nothing.
The Panthers also selected right wing Anthony Stewart at No. 25 following a deal with the Lightning. Horton and Stewart may be spoken of as a package deal for several years to come. Both are excellent skaters, but also tough North American-style forward who should fit in well with Keenan's hard-working system. Dudley reluctantly compared Horton to Jeremy Roenick and Stewart to John LeClair, offering examples of the high hopes they have for these two talented forwards.
"We are pretty excited about some of the young kids we have coming in like Horton and Stewart," Dudley said. "Horton is big, he's fast, he's got good hands and he has a great deal of grit. You look at that you say maybe a kid like that could play. It won't be size and it won't be speed that stops those two kids from playing. We believe we had one of the better drafts in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory."
The Panthers have so much depth at forward that it's hard to imagine either one making the team out of training camp. Florida won't rule it out, but an additional season of junior would position both Horton and Stewart to have excellent chances to make next year's team.
"I don't know yet if we'll sign them," Dudley said. "If the price is right, we'll sign them. I guess it's more up to them. We're in a position right now where obviously we could wait and see what the new CBA is. We're not going to try to be unfair to anybody, but by the same token we think that some of the structrues that have existed in the entry-level system is not quite fair to the hockey team, either."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.