NEW PLAYERS 14
NEW RULES HURT
BETTER THAN '03-04? YES
While many teams went with youth movements for the upcoming season, the Panthers' G.M. Mike Keenan rebuilt his club with proven commodities. He was determined to maintain the tone the Panthers set in May 2004 when they hired him and coach Jacques Martin, who had guided Ottawa to the playoffs for eight straight years. By the time the league was back in business, Keenan had dumped 15 of his 27 players and brought in 11 veterans, including nine who are over 30. "It's great to have young, talented players," says the preternaturally impatient Keenan, "but they have to learn from veterans, not only on the ice but also off the ice."
It was Florida that signed the first two free agents this summer, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, 39-year-old forwards and longtime friends. They grew up in rural Ontario, played youth hockey on rival teams in Whitby, were teammates on the Flames' 1988--89 Stanley Cup champions and were back together on the Maple Leafs in 2003--04. Off the ice Nieuwendyk and Roberts are partners in a golf course northeast of Toronto, which they named Wooden Sticks. Between them they've scored more than 900 goals in 2,200 games. Nieuwendyk's face-off skills and Roberts's grit and defensive diligence will help a team that in '03--04 was last in the league in face-off percentage (46.1%) and shots allowed per game (34.5).
Veterans aside--another key pickup was left wing Martin Gelinas, 35, who scored three series-winning goals for Calgary in the last postseason--the Panthers' fortunes will be tied to the play of Roberto Luongo, the franchise goalie who in '03--04 had seven shutouts and set the NHL record for saves in a season (2,303).
Florida is good enough to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and win its first postseason series since 1996, but given the ages of their new team leaders, time to remake the Panthers into a Cup contender is short. --B.C.
New coach Jacques Martin brings needed structure. He'll lean on Gary Roberts, whom he coached in juniors.
Rostislav Olesz [rookie]