2010-11 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

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Thumbnail image for daletallon1.jpgLast season: (32-37-13, 77 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 14th in Eastern Conference) The Panthers seem like they’re in a perpetual holding pattern. It was only fitting that the team was bad enough to earn the third pick in the draft, which fell just short of earning them a potential star such as Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.

Head coach: Peter DeBoer took advantage of the recent trend of AHL coaches gaining a promotion to the NHL. Who knows how patient the franchise is, but you almost feel like the 2010-11 season should be part of a grace period. The team is in a clear rebuilding stage.

Key departures: F Nathan Horton, F Gregory Campbell, D Keith Ballard. In the short term, the Panthers might actually take a step back. Horton is an injury-prone but talented forward who needed a change of scenery, but the team didn’t bring in an immediate replacement. Ballard is a solid if overpaid defenseman who might be missed a bit.

Key arrivals: D Dennis Wideman, F Steve Bernier, F Michael Grabner, F Chris Higgins, D Mike Weaver. Wideman is an up-and-down defenseman who can be leaky in his own end but also put up big numbers. Bernier and Higgins are frustrating players while Grabner might benefit from a great opportunity in Florida. First-round pick Erik Gudbranson might make a jump to the NHL right away.

Thumbnail image for vokounsquashed.jpgUnder pressure: Tomas Vokoun is in a contract year on a rebuilding team. If he can put together another impressive statistical season, he’ll either be rewarded by the Panthers or another team with a big deal.

Protecting the house: Vokoun is the starter and flash-in-the-pan backup Scott Clemmensen should stay in place, although super-prospect Jacob Markstrom might get some playing time if the team is far out of the playoff race. Goalies have been the strength of this team all the way back to Roberto Luongo’s time there (heck, some might say since the days of John Vanbiesbrouck) and that’s still the case.

The Panthers defense is a weird mix of damaged veterans (the much-maligned Bryan McCabe, Wideman and Bryan Allen) as well as young guys who might not be ready yet (Gudbranson and Dmitri Kulikov). Essentially exchanging Ballard for Wideman is a considerable downgrade for a decent-at-best group. On the bright side, the future looks pretty good for their blue line.

Top line we’d like to see: Cory Stillman-Stephen Weiss-David Booth. Stillman is a nice playmaker who is getting long in the tooth, Weiss has the two-way skills that make him a stat-blogger favorite and Booth is a power forward in the making if he can conquer his concussion issues. This line would have a little bit of everything, although it would be far from elite.

bryanmccabecaptain.jpgOh captain, my captain: I’ll admit, I had to look this up, but … McCabe? Really? Hahaha.

Street fighting man: The Panthers put up a lot of fights last season (50) compared to their division mates, but they no longer have their leading fighter Nick Tarnasky listed on their roster (he’s currently a free agent). Still, with new GM Dale Tallon, I imagine they’ll probably throw some punches. Bryan Allen had nine fights last season and Byron Bitz sounds like the kind of guy that might pick up the fighting mantle.

Best-case scenario: Well, I guess a dark horse run to a playoff spot would be the best-case scenario? Honestly, the team would be better off tanking for some blue chip talent.

Worst-case scenario: The Panthers seemingly always end up just short of a playoff berth which is a bad place to be in the current NHL. They don’t get the premium prospects that come with high picks or the prestige and gate revenue of a playoff run. Doing so again would make Tallon’s rebuild process go much slower.

Keeping it real: Tallon is doing a nice job, but there will be some growing pains. The team is better off being lousy this season as they amass young, talented through the draft and shrewd free agent moves. Aside from their goalie duo, the team really doesn’t have many strengths.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Florida rates a 1. Perhaps they could ride Vokoun’s talent (and the inspiration that comes with a contract year) into a stunning playoff run, but they’ll likely trade him in the middle of the season and truly commit to the rebuilding process.

Expansion draft will force Ducks to make some big decisions

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Bob Murray managed to keep the Anaheim Ducks together for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

But after losing to Nashville in the Western Conference Final, Anaheim’s general manager will now have to make some big decisions — especially with the expansion draft looming.

If the Ducks decide to protect seven forwards and three defensemen, the blue line will definitely be worth watching. Hampus Lindholm will be protected for sure, and Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are each exempt. But that only leaves two spots for Sami Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson.

Bieksa, 35, has a no-movement clause, so unless the Ducks find a way to get around that, they’ll need to protect him. (Chances are, they’ll seek a way around it, either via trade or buyout or just convincing him to waive.)

Fowler, meanwhile, only has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent. And after the season he just had, with 39 points in 80 games, the 25-year-old won’t be cheap to re-sign. For that reason, it’s possible Murray may choose to shop Fowler instead. Or perhaps it’s Vatanen that goes on the block.

Yes, there is the option to protect four defensemen and four forwards. But Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler all have NMCs, and the Ducks won’t want to expose Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg.

In goal, the Ducks have John Gibson under club control for years to come, but they’ll need to choose a backup. Jonathan Bernier is an unrestricted free agent, and even though he played well during the regular season, his performance against the Predators wasn’t great. Murray may want to at least consider his options there.

Related: Fowler surprised he wasn’t traded

Carlyle says Ducks were dealt ‘tough hand’ by schedule-makers

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Call it sour grapes if you wish, but Randy Carlyle thinks the Anaheim Ducks got screwed by the NHL’s schedule-maker.

The head coach launched his complaint last night after his Ducks fell to the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t think we played poorly in the series,” said Carlyle. “I think that the toughest part I have about the whole thing is that this was our seventh game in 13 days.

“Now, there’s various reasons for that, but I think there’s got to be some consideration in the scheduling in the future between series. We finished on a Wednesday and had to open again on Friday, whereas other teams had to open on Saturday. An extra day would have given us a chance to recover. And we know how tough these games are. And that was a tough hand that was dealt to us.”

The “other” team to which Carlyle was referring is Pittsburgh. The Penguins beat Washington in Game 7 of the second round on May 10, then opened against Ottawa on May 13.

The Ducks, on the other hand, knocked out Edmonton in Game 7, also on May 10, then had to start against Nashville on May 12.

Fatigue may, indeed, have been a factor early in the series against Nashville. In Game 1, the Ducks were badly outshot, 46-29, and lost, 3-2, in overtime.

Carlyle said afterwards that the extra rest had made a difference for the Preds, who’d eliminated the Blues in six and gone four days without a game.

Ducks forward Sorensen signs in Swedish League

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Nick Sorensen, the forward taken 45th overall by Anaheim in 2013, has opted to return to Europe and sign a two-year pact with SHL club Linkoping, the team announced on Tuesday.

Sorensen, 22, returned to North America this season after spending ’14-15 and ’15-16 in Sweden (the latter with Linkoping, so this is a homecoming of sorts).

A former Quebec League standout, Sorensen impressed during training camp and made the Ducks’ opening-night roster, appearing in five games before being dispatched to AHL San Diego.

“Every game, every practice, every day for me, it’s a look to try to stay here,” Sorensen said back in October, per the Daily News. “Even if I play zero, one, five or 20 games, I’m not going to get comfortable up here. It’s the best league in the world.

“I’m just going to try to prove to them every day I want to be here.”

With the Gulls, Sorensen had 10 goals and 22 points in 48 games. He also chipped in with another four in eight playoff contests, but did suffer an injury during the postseason.

Sorensen was a pending RFA, having just wrapped the last year of his entry-level deal.

 

Sens owner: ‘very disturbing’ that tonight’s game may not sell out

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Entire rows in the upper deck of the Canadian Tire Centre still haven’t been sold for tonight’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Not surprisingly, the specter of a non-sellout for one of the biggest home games in franchise history has the Senators’ owner rather concerned.

“It’s very disturbing,” Eugene Melnyk told Postmedia, “however, knowing the players and coaches they will be trying their hardest for Ottawa.”

The Senators’ attendance has been a big story throughout these playoffs. In the second round, a crowd of just 16,744 was announced for Game 1 against the New York Rangers.

It was thought the story would go away once the conference final started. And for Games 3 and 4, capacity crowds were, indeed, announced.

But with no opportunity for the Sens to advance to the Stanley Cup Final tonight, it’s possible the building may not be full.

Via Ticketmaster, the blue dots represent unsold seats, while the pink dots are tickets available for resale: