The Florida Panthers surprised in 2011-2012, winning the Southeast Division and going to double overtime in Game Seven of their first-round playoff series, but they came crashing to earth in the shortened 2013 season, as injuries and subpar play conspired to leave them with the worst record in the NHL.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Panthers organization that has plenty of promise, but is seeking a big rebound next season.
"We were blindsided by it all and unexpected after what happened last season," GM Dale Tallon told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "The NHL is a tough league, and if you're not prepared or ready to play, and you're not at your best every night, you're not going to win."
It's fair enough for the Panthers to have been optimistic after 2011-2012, but a quick look at their top goal-scorers from 2011-2012 and what happened to them in 2013 makes it pretty easy to see where the problems started. The good news is that Tomas Fleischmann remained healthy and productive.
After that, though, it gets messy. Injuries leveled Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Sean Bergenheim; defenceman Jason Garrison signed with Vancouver and Mikael Samuelsson inked with Detroit. Once all those losses are taken into account, that left Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias and Marcel Goc as the returning scorers that were healthy enough to support Fleischmann in 2013 and, not surprisingly, it wasn't nearly good enough.
That doesn't mean a free pass for goaltending or defence, because there's plenty of room to improve those areas too, but the Panthers were the lowest-scoring team in the league in 2013.
Looking through the Panthers' organization, it's easy to see better days ahead. Jonathan Huberdeau is a Calder Trophy finalist, the player that the Panthers get with the second pick in the draft will be a tremendous prospect and there is a quality group of prospects in the pipeline. It just might take some time for it all to come together.
"You see it coming, but I want to win now, and I don't want to wait for years to pass," veteran defenceman Brian Campbell told the Miami Herald. If soon-to-be 34-year-old Campbell is impatient, it's understandable, but the way for the Panthers to become a consistently strong team is to play the long game -- draft well, develop talent and have a strong core around which they can make smaller moves year after year.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Dale Tallon/Kevin Dineen
Panthers Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Tomas Fleischmann, left for large parts of the season without the linemates with whom he enjoyed so much success in 2011-2012 (Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg), continued to produce offensively. Ideally, he's probably a better fit on the second line for a good team, but Fleischmann is as reliable as the Panthers have right now.
19-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau enjoyed a productive rookie season, tying for the freshman scoring lead with 31 points, and while his minus-16 rating stands out as a potential problem, a little digging reveals that Huberdeau's possession numbers were just fine. He had a positive Corsi, but a low on-ice shooting percentage and low save percentage (both of which tend to fluctuate) when he was at even strength hurt Huberdeau's raw plus-minus totals. As Huberdeau gets stronger, his combination of size and skill should make him a building block for the franchise.
It's taken some time for 31-year-old Tomas Kopecky to establish his level of play in the NHL and injuries helped give him more opportunities in Florida. Playing a career-high 17:41 per game, Kopecky tied his career high with 15 goals, though with a shooting percentage (16.3%) that was nearly double his career mark. There's no need to get carried away with offensive expectations, but Kopecky has size, versatility and enough skill to be a useful player in the top nine.
A solid two-way pivot who is unheralded, at least in part, because he has played more than 60 games once in the last six seasons, Marcel Goc has played a more significant role in his two seasons with Florida. Maybe he shouldn't be logging 18:16 per game, as he did in 2013, but Goc's steady play effectively forced him to take on more responsibility on a depleted team.
Earning a shot with the Panthers after little more than a half season in the AHL, power forward Drew Shore didn't look out of place in terms of puck possession, but he had the fifth-worst shooting percentage (3.1%) among forwards with at least 50 shots on goal. While that left Shore with only three goals in 43 games, the positive to take from that is that he isn't likely to shoot at such a low percentage over the long run and his ability to generate chances will likely result in better offensive production as he matures.
A four-time 20-goal scorer who put up a career-best 54 points in 2011-2012, Kris Versteeg had a mess of a season in 2013. Injuries (groin, chest, knee) limited him to just 10 games and, in that small sample, he was completely ineffective. There is some concern that Versteeg may not be ready for the start of next season, as he recovers from knee surgery, but once he is playing, the 27-year-old needs to be an offensive leader.
Injuries have been a regular part of Scottie Upshall's career. He's played 53 of a possible 130 games since signing with the Panthers, managing six goals and 10 points. Upshall is a feisty player who has shown some offensive ability in previous stops, but if the Panthers are looking to save money, buying out the last couple years remaining on Upshall's contract is a viable option.
A 33-year-old heavyweight, George Parros has 113 fights over the past six seasons, a span during which he has accumulated 29 points and consistently played about six minutes per game. There are probably matchups during the regular season that might fit Parros' particular skill set, but he could easily slide into a role as a part-time player at this stage of his career.
Sidelined all season by a sports hernia, Sean Bergenheim is a quality checking winger who scored a career-high 17 goals in 62 games in 2011-2012. Getting a healthy Bergenheim back, likely to pair with Goc on a checking line, would provide stability for the Panthers' forwards.
After scoring 25 goals in the first 205 games of his NHL career, Shawn Matthias tallied 14 in 48 games last season, his 11 even-strength goals tying him with the likes of Zach Parise and Max Pacioretty. By no means does this suggest that Matthias is in their class, but maybe the 25-year-old with good size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) is capable of providing secondary scoring on a more consistent basis going forward.
17 points in 43 games represented the lowest per-game point production of Peter Mueller's career, but it wasn't a completely lost season. He stayed relatively healthy, missing only five games, and he was effective possession-wise. He had poor puck luck, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to see if the talented 25-year-old would get some more bounces to go his way over the course of a full season. He'll probably never be what was hoped for when he was picked eighth overall in 2006, but Mueller can be an offensive contributor.
With 20 goals in 178 career games, Jack Skille isn't going to make much of an impact as a scorer, but he can skate, has good size and isn't afraid to use it, leading Florida forwards with 96 hits in 40 games. Skille can be effective in a depth role but, like Mueller, he's never going to fulfill the potential of being a high first-round pick (7th overall in 2005).
A fixture on the Panthers for more than a decade, Stephen Weiss is an unrestricted free agent this summer and, following an injury-marred campaign, could have some appeal on the open market. If Weiss returns, he would add reliability at the top of the Panthers' depth chart, but it's easy to see how he could fit in a second-line centre role on a contending team too. His 2013 results aside, Weiss has been a solid two-way player, with improving offensive numbers while playing against the opposition's best.
As the Panthers rebuild the franchise they are going to require some patience. Presumably, they will have the opportunity to draft Nate MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin with the second pick in the draft and the Panthers have a number of quality prospects on the way, including Nick Bjugstad, Corban Knight and Vincent Trocheck, that will embark on their first full pro seasons next year (Bjugstad got a late-season 11-game audition with the Panthers at the end of the season).
If the Panthers want to seek out some offensive help on the free agent market, Clarke MacArthur, Viktor Stalberg or Bryan Bickell might represent an upgrade at a reasonable price.
Free Agent Defence
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Panthers Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Brian Campbell has logged more than 26 minutes per game since arriving in Florida, prior to the 2011-2012 season, and his 80 points in that time is tied for third among defencemen, behind Erik Karlsson and Dustin Byfuglien. Campbell was a career-worst minus-22 in 2013, but it was a result of poor percentages as his possession stats were solid, as usual.
22-year-old Dmitry Kulikov has loads of potential and has shown enough to play more than 21 minutes per game over the last couple seasons, but he's also missed 36 games with injuries and that has hampered his development. If the Panthers are going to be patient with their forward prospects, they should exhibit at least as much patience with Kulikov, a skilled defenceman who is still developing as a pro.
Undersized blueliner Mike Weaver has ben thrust into a prominent role with the Panthers, playing more than 20 minutes per game for the past three seasons. He doesn't necessarily fare well in possession metrics, but Weaver also takes on the toughest defensive assignments. Ideally, the Panthers might have others to take some of the defensive pressure off Weaver, but he's a cost-effective alternative.
36-year-old Filip Kuba was used in a more offensive role earlier in his career. Now, he's supposed to be the steady vet, but he struggled in his first season for the Panthers and might benefit from a reduced role.
The Panthers are taking their time letting 21-eyar-old Erik Gudbranson develop, not forcing him into big minutes or a significant role, yet he's still minus-41 in 106 games through the first two seasons of his NHL career. Since 1990, there are 10 defencemen to be a cumulative minus-41 or worse in their first two seasons and while that's hardly the determining factor of a player's career fate, Gudbranson is precisely the kind of big, physical defenceman that the Panthers would like to use in a shutdown role, once he's ready for the challenge.
With nearly 1,100 regular season games on his career odometer and coming off hip surgery, Ed Jovanovski may be nearing (or at) the end of his career. While that may not be Jovanovski's plan right now, with two years and $8.25-million left on his contract, it's conceivable that he's not going to be a part of the Panthers' future.
Offensive defenceman T.J. Brennan got a chance to prove himself in the NHL when the Panthers acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres. Brennan is skilled with the puck and put up nine points (and am inus-8 rating) in 19 games with Florida, getting decent ice time (17:41 per game) while playing for Kevin Dineen, who had coached him previously with Rochester in the AHL. If Brennan can become serviceable defensively, his ability to create offence from the blueline could be an asset. Given his contract, he's an inexpensive gamble.
Prospect Alex Petrovic has a shot to make the roster next season, but if Jovanovski can't return, there could be a need for a proven veteran, whether that includes bringing back Tyson Strachan or signing a free agent like Mark Fistric, who may cost more because he's younger, or veterans Kent Huskins or Toni Lydman to improve depth.
Free Agent Goaltenders
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
35-year-old Scott Clemmensen had finally established himself as a reliable backup goaltender, posting a save percentage over .910 in four straight seasons prior to 2013, when he posted an .874 save percentage in 19 games. With another year remaining on his contract, though, it makes sense to give Clemmensen the opportunity to mentor Jacob Markstrom, who is poised to take over the starting job.
In 65 AHL games over the last two seasons, Markstrom has a .923 save percentage, so the 23-year-old is due for his shot in the NHL. He started out pretty well last season when he first got the call but, like many Panthers, struggled down the stretch (4.01 GAA, .876 SV% in April). For a young team, Markstrom makes sense as the starter because he will grow with the core of the team, but it could mean some additional growing pains because, no matter how good he is as a prospect, he still has to show that he's capable of handling a No. 1 job in the NHL.
||21-15-36, +2, 40 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||13-23-36, +14, 40 GP
||Boston College (HE)
||8-17-25, +15, 36 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||16-33-49, +16, 41 GP
||50-59-109, +49, 63 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||4-13-17, +8, 55 GP
||15-25-40, +12, 40 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||13-17-30, even, 55 GP
||San Antonio (AHL)
||5-18-23, -23, 63 GP
||4-3-7, -6, 40 GP
6-foot-6 centre Nick Bjugstad joined the Panthers after his collegiate season ended and he got to find out, first-hand, how difficult the jump can be from the NCAA to the NHL. In 11 NHL games, Bjugstad scored one goal and was minus-8. He could make the Panthers next season, or maybe some time in the AHL would allow him to make a bigger impact on securing a spot in the Florida lineup.
At the other end of the size spectrum, 5-foot-6 Rocco Grimaldi rebounded with a strong season at North Dakota, after suffering a knee injury in 2011-2012 but, given the forwards that the Panthers already have battling for spots, there is no need to rush Grimaldi into that mix. Whenever the time comes for him to challenge for a job, he'll have to overcome his lack of size, but he's done that so far in his career.
A skilled puck-moving defenceman, Mike Matheson had a strong freshman season at Boston College, but his game needs plenty of refining and he can use his time in college to get stronger before embarking on a pro career.
A late bloomer who scored 133 points in 124 games during his last three seasons at North Dakota, Corban Knight was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. There's plenty of competition for young players in the Panthers' system, so Knight may need time in the AHL to prove himself as a pro.
The Most Outstanding Player in the Ontario Hockey League, Vincent Trocheck has steadily improved throughout his junior career. He's not physically imposing, so he'll have adjustments to make as he starts his pro career, but he's raised his profile with a tremendous season.
A punishing physical defenceman, Alex Petrovic is a safer bet to secure an NHL job than some of the scoring forwards listed above because Petrovic can fit as a sixth or seventh defenceman if need be, though there is obviously hope that the 21-year-old can develop into a shutdown-style defenceman.
Another undersized forward prospect, Kyle Rau played with Bjugstad at Minnesota and put up 83 points in 80 games over the last two seasons. His offensive instincts and puckhandling skills give him a chance to succeed at the next level.
With good size and speed, Quinton Howden leaves the impression that he could be more if took a more aggressive approach and while he struggled in an 18-game audition with the Panthers, he's only 21, so it's reasonable to believe he could become a top-nine forward.
It didn't speak well for Colby Robak's chances when the Panthers went outside the organization to add a puck-moving defenceman (T.J. Brennan), but Robak fared well in 16 games with the Panthers last season to remain a viable prospect, as one might expect from a defenceman with good size and puck skills.
A fifth-round pick in 2011, Yaroslav Kosov may not be rushing to North America, but he's 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and has good puck skills; enough to make him worth keeping an eye on for a few years.
2nd - Nate MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin
According to www.capgeek.com, the Panthers have approximately $47.9M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Panthers lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three top six forwards, one top pair defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Panthers needed last year: Three top six forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
They added: Jonathan Huberdeau, Peter Mueller, Drew Shore, Alex Kovalev, George Parros, Filip Kuba.
Peter Mueller, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Jack Skille, Erik Gudbranson.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.