A lot of people seem to frequently ignore Florida. Tucked away down there, miles away from ice, snow, and some might even suggest fans. However, despite how easy it is to dismiss it because of location, they actually have the makings of a good team and an excellent shot and making the playoffs this year.
For one, their division remains one of the weakest in hockey. Tampa Bay has the big three and they are certainly capable of carrying a team. Aside from that, there are more questions and “ifs” than you’d like. Carolina should be a better team after an off year which can be blamed significantly on injuries and the lack of Martin Gerber. (They should really get him back.) Washington is getting closer, but might not be quite there yet. Atlanta really faded down the stretch there and considering what they gave up and and subsequently lost they might be in a bigger hole than they are capable of digging themselves out of.
Another thing to consider is probably the most underrated goalie (and a frequent fantasy jewel) in Thomas Vokoun. Vokoun was one of the biggest reasons for Nashville’s rise to hockey respectability. Nobody ever seemed to notice they only missed the playoffs last year by 6 points and that was with the dynamic duo of Alex Auld and Ed Belfour. Auld’s injuries and 3.35 g.a.a. were a major cause of problems for them. Considering how much you hear that the Leafs could have made the playoffs last year with better goaltending, I think the Panthers are a much better example than that. Ed Belfour was considerably better yet sported a 2.77 g.a.a. and a .902 sv %. Of course goaltending stats never tell the entire picture as defence comes into play quite heavily, but it stands to reason that Vokoun should put up much better numbers.
Van Ryn, Mike
Florida’s defence is still quite young but another year of experience can only help. Bouwmeester is only 23 but already an elite defenseman. Bryan Allen (i.e. the guy Keenan traded Luongo for) is a solid if unspectacular defenseman who managed to actually be in the positive last year in terms of plus minus. With Salei being the only defenseman over 30, this is quite a young defensive corps and it can be argued that they certainly rival the defensive corps of any other team in the South East division.
Jokinen, Weiss and Horton give the panthers strength down the middle that would be the envy of a lot of teams around the NHL. Again, the forwards are very young still but have some NHL experience. Stumpel is certainly capable of being a solid fourth line center who can move up the depth charts in a pinch. Brett McLean is also a young center, giving the Panthers 4 capable centermen, although 1 will most likely have to move to the wing. The weakest position would most likely have to be their wingers. While Richard Zednik is certainly capable of putting up big numbers, will he?
Dvorak, Radek; Peltonen, Ville; Olesz, Rostislav ; Campbell, Gregory round out the wings. This combo might leave most with a few “who” remarks, but they should be capable of rivalling any other team in the Southeast.
Depth might be the bain of the Panthers existence this season as any injuries to key players could quickly spell disaster. Hockey’s Future rates their top five Prospects as Noah Welch (D), Michael Frolik (C), Kenndal McArdle (LW), Anthony Stewart (RW), Tyler Plante (G)
Welch might be the only one with a legitimate shot at making the team this season. Frolik should be an excellent player in the future, but is still too young to crack an NHL roster. Kenndal McArdle while being a little small, might have the work ethic to crack the team, especially considering their lack of strength up front. The Panthers biggest strength is the fact that they play in arguably the weakest division in hockey. There are a lot of IF’s surrounding the Panthers, but if they manage to avoid lengthy injuries to key players, they might be able to crack 100 points this year and squeak into the playoffs.