After defeating the New York Islanders on Saturday the Florida Panthers have their sites set on their second Atlantic Division foe. The Pittsburgh Penguins will prove much tougher though, as they enter the game with the most points in the NHL and the league’s leading scorer in defenseman Kris Letang.
Florida spent more than $30 million this off-season to reach the salary cap floor. In all, ten players were acquired, five pieces from last year’s squad were let go, and a new coach was brought in. Pittsburgh may have won all four games against the Panthers last season but the Penguins will face a whole new unit this year.
The only way was up for the Panthers woeful offense. Last year’s unit was one of the worst in the NHL and didn’t produce a single 50-point scorer.
“You won’t get to the playoffs if you’re ranked 28th in goals for in the NHL. As one of four teams that didn’t hit the 200-goal mark (191), Florida needed an offensive injection after seeing justStephen Weiss(notes) (21 goals), Mike Santorelli(notes) (20) and David Booth(notes) (23) score at least 20 goals.”
As a result (and because of that whole salary cap floor thing) the Panthers reeled in Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, and Tomas Kopecky.
Versteeg—three times a 20 goal scorer—may be the most talented player on the team. Unfortunately, the ex-Blackhawk has proved that he needs a talented center in order to succeed.
Fleischmann, while talented, is not able to fulfill that role. After being traded to Colorado last year the former Capital lost the season to a blood clot issue. He is capable of producing goals but won’t rack up the helpers. Fleischmann’s career high in the category is 28.
Even after all the off-season moves, Stephen Weiss and David Booth are the Panthers two best forwards. The two led Florida in goals last season and Booth would have been a U.S. Olympian if not for a severe concussion in 2009:
“Booth, a 26-year-old left winger, had an nice bounce-back season in 2010-11, recording 23 goals and 40 assists in 82 games. Booth missed 54 games two years ago due to concussions.
Weiss, the longest-tenured Panther, is a solid playmaking centerman, although the 28-year-old had just 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) in 76 games last year after reaching 60 points in his previous two seasons.”
Sean Bergenheim, Scotty Upshall, and Marcel Goc will add depth at the forward position.
GM Dale Tallon didn’t just overhaul the offense. The former Blackhawks front office man spread plenty of cash around his defensive core as well.
Hockey’s most overpaid defensemen Brian Campbell was reunited with Tallon after being labeled as a bust by just about everyone else. Many believe that Campbell is past his prime but the 32-year-old is still a skilled blueliner capable of producing monster points:
“It has become a trend in the NHL to criticize players based on their contract as opposed to simply basing assessment on their level of play. It’s a salary-cap thing. But perhaps no one has been more scrutinized in recent years than Campbell, who went from top free-agent bauble to a salary-cap joke after Tallon signed him to an eight-year deal worth a shade more than $57 million when the GM was in Chicago.
Maybe that weighed on Campbell, maybe it didn’t. Regardless, he helped the Blackhawks win a Cup in 2010 and agreed to waive his no-trade clause to come to Florida when Tallon called. That speaks volumes about Campbell’s character and loyalty. We expect a monster season from a player who was in the shadow of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in Chicago.
Veteran Ed Jovanovski joins Campbell on defense. Jovo scored ten goals two seasons ago and should make Florida’s powerplay an intimidating unit. This is his second stint with the Panthers. He will have to be the defensive anchor considering that Campbell is a joke in his own zone.
Most exciting about the Panthers are young defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Eric Gudbranson. Kulikov scored six goals last season and is an offensively-capable defenseman. Now entering his third season, the first-round-pick will be ready to contribute in a big way:
“Alongside [Campbell and Jovanovski], the Panthers have two blue chip defensemen: Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson. Those two players are the future of Florida’s defense, but we’ll see how long the team will need to wait for them to break through.
Jose Theodore mans the net for the Panthers this season. As one of Tallon’s off-season acquisitions Theodore is considered Florida’s number one option in goal. The Panthers are the fifth team he has played for over the last seven seasons. A one time Vezina and Hart Trophy winner, Theodore is not the goalie he once was and is certainly a downgrade from last year’s Tomas Vokoun.
MOST SKILLED PANTHER: David Booth
Booth scored 31 goals in 2008-09 and is the Panthers most lethal offensive threat. The creative offenseman is a fast skater with a quick shot. At only 26-years-old, Booth is entering his prime and is poised for a big season.
PANTHER MOST LIKELY TO HAVE SUCCESS AGAINST THE PENS: Sean Bergenheim and Jose Theodore
This is a toss up. Theodore has 19 wins in 26 career starts against the Penguins. Those 19 wins are his most against any team. He also has only four regulation losses to Pittsburgh—the same number of shutouts he has against the team.
Bergenheim will forever be remembered in Pittsburgh for his series winning goal against the Penguins in game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year. He had three goals and four points in the series. Oddly enough, the Penguins held him scoreless during the regular season.
PANTHER MOST LIKELY TO BE VICTIMIZED BY THE PENS: Brian Campbell
Campbell currently leads the Panthers in scoring with two assists. He may even lead the Panthers in scoring at the end of the season. That is exactly the reason why Campbell should be an offenseman. He is often trapped up ice and misses his assignments on defense when he is in position. One-on-one, Campbell is no match for the sports’ best.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE SERIES:
The last time Pittsburgh surrendered more than two goals to Florida was January 3, 2010.
The Panthers have missed the playoffs 11 straight years. That is the longest streak in NHL history.