2011-12 season preview: Florida Panthers

2010-11 record: 30-40-12, 72 points; 5th in Southeast, 15th in East

Playoffs: Did not qualify

Considering the wholesale changes that this franchise underwent in the summer, it seems rather pointless to discuss the 2010-11 season. The only important thing to note is that the Panthers missed the playoffs for a record 10th seson in a row and haven’t seen the postseason in 12 of 13 seasons. It would be understandable if they missed them again, but this team needs to turn things around as soon as possible.

Offense

Stephen Weiss and David Booth will continue to be the team’s two best offensive players. Weiss has been there through thin and even thinner, refining his game to become an underrated two-way center.

The rest of the offense is a fascinating mystery, but it couldn’t get much worse than last season’s squad, which generated just 195 goals. The Panthers spent a bunch of money on risky guys such as (potential one-hit wonder) Sean Bergenheim and injury worry Tomas Fleischmann while overpaying for Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky. Oddly enough, their best offensive upgrade kind of fell under the radar, as Kris Versteeg could be a solid winger – wherever he falls in this dramatically altered roster.

Defense

Florida features a strange mixture of overpaid veteran defensemen and intriguing defensive prospects.

Ed Jovanovski’s four-year deal was the worst contract of the summer. The price tag is too large and the term gets scarier when you consider Jovocop’s track record of injuries and the fact that it’s a 35-plus contract.

If that deal wasn’t enough to make for a bloated Florida blue line, Dale Tallon bought it one of the worst contracts of the post-lockout era by trading for Brian Campbell. It’s a contract only the GM who signed it could love, so it makes sense that Tallon traded for him from his former team in Chicago. On the bright side, Campbell can contribute to Florida’s power play and be an asset if people can look beyond his comical contract.

Alongside those costly veterans, 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.

Goalies

Many people dismiss Tomas Vokoun because he flew under the radar in Nashville and then wallowed in obscurity in Sunrise. The thing is, the Czech-born goalie put up great numbers year in and year out on a bad team, much like Roberto Luongo before him.

It looked like the team would roll into the season with two guys who were backups last season (Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen), but Clemmensen got injured. That injury opened up the backup job to arguably the hottest prospect in a very hot Florida farm system: Jacob Markstrom. This situation reminds me of those times when an NFL team tries to get through a rebuilding year with a flawed, aging quarterback while fans clamor for a maybe-not-ready-yet first round pick to carry the torch.

The Panthers are likely to take a big step back in net next season. That being said, Theodore-Markstrom is a lot more intriguing than Theodore-Clemmensen.

Coaching

It only seems right that a wild card team will be coached by a wild card as well. This is Kevin Dineen’s first gig as a head coach and he isn’t exactly getting eased into the job with all these new parts.

On the positive side, Dineen won’t feel as much pressure to coddle players who were used to different roles from last year. He can make this roster his own – we’ll just see if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Breakout candidate

The best thing the Panthers have going for them is that they have multiple breakout candidates, especially if this year’s third overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau makes an impact.

On defense, Kulikov already has two seasons of experience under his belt but could really blossom. Big blueliner Gudbranson also has a chance to make an impact, although he’s far less experienced.

The most intriguing candidate though is Markstrom. Considering the situation, he might have a chance to be this year’s answer to Corey Crawford, Michal Neuvirth, Sergei Bobrovsky or any number of impressive rookies from 10-11.

Kulikov might be the safest pick, but this team’s mid and long-term future looks promising because of their strong crop of prospects.

Best-case scenario

The Theodore-Markstrom tandem ends up being a big hit. Dineen finds a way to take a wide variety of new parts and make a well-oiled, attacking offensive machine. Jovanovski shows that he’s not done yet, Campbell produces plenty of offense from the blueline and the team’s young prospects end up being ahead of schedule. The Panthers finally make the playoffs after a decade-long absence. Their actual postseason output would just be gravy.

(If the team’s postseason drought wasn’t so long, one could argue they’d be better off missing the playoffs and stocking up on prospects for one more season.)

Reality

Tallon is creating a scenario that seems a lot like Chicago’s in one way: pricey free agent moves might clash head-on with the development of outstanding prospects down the line. This season seems like a transitional period for a team that’s still looking for an identity, so a playoff berth might be a bit much to ask.

It’s possible that it will all work out, but gambles like Jovanovski, Bergenheim, Theodore and Fleischmann seem shaky at best. Expect some improvement but for the team to fall short of the postseason once again. At least the future looks brighter, though.

Tortorella admits Jackets ‘laid an egg’ in Game 4

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Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella clearly wasn’t happy about the way his team played in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Washington Capitals. He was pretty clear about it after his team’s 4-1 loss.

His post-game press conference shouldn’t be described as “vintage Torts,” it was more like “Torts classic”.

After a few minutes of answering questions, Tortorella got fed up with the line of questioning.

“We weren’t good,” Tortorella said after the game. “We weren’t good! There’s no sense in asking me things about the game. I’m telling you, we laid an egg. So I’m not going to break it down for you. We sucked! We sucked! So let’s move by it and see if we play better on Saturday afternoon.”

The next reporter tried to ask a follow-up question and was given the same treatment.

“We laid an egg. That’s all I have to say guys, I’m sorry. I’m not going to break it down for you. Nothing went well for us. We have to figure it out and we will.”

Torts walked off after the next question.

After winning the first two games of the series on the road, the Blue Jackets managed to drop both contests at home. This best-of-seven series is tied up at two, with Game 5 coming up in Washington on Saturday afternoon.

They’ve got to be better than they were in Game 4. The stats don’t lie:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: How Marchand became a pest; What are Rangers looking for in new coach?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Sean Couturier, who missed Game 4 against Pittsburgh, could return to the lineup in Game 5. The Flyers could certainly use a boost, especially because elimination is staring them right in the face. (NHL.com)

• Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan admitted that the next coach of the New York Rangers will have to understand how to develop young players. (New York Post)

• All the success the Golden Knights have had in their inaugural season makes absolutely no sense, according to Vice’s Dave Lozo. They’ve used a bunch of cast-offs and they’ve been successful doing so. (Vice)

• Ever wonder how Brad Marchand became a pest? Well, he outlines it for you in this story he wrote for The Players’ Tribune.

• The Hart Trophy doesn’t always go to the player with the best offensive numbers. (Greatest Hockey Legends)

• The Carolina Hurricanes have hired Paul Krepelka to be their Vice President of Hockey Operations. He has NHL experience as a player, attorney, agent and manager. (NHL.com/Hurricanes)

• The Athletic’s Katie Strang wrote an emotional piece about former NHLer David Gove story. Gove was the victim of sexual abuse, and it affected him until the day he died. (The Athletic)

• NHL official Shandor Alphonso didn’t dream of being an official,  but he’s now working in the NHL. Sportsnet wrote an interesting story about how he went from a financial advisor to being an official in the best league in the world. (Sportsnet)

• Devin is an eight-year-old Predators fan that has battled cancer during his young life. Not only have the Preds made an impact on him, but it’s pretty clear that he’s had an impact on some of the players on the roster. (Tennessean)

• After another miserable season in Buffalo, owner Terry Pegula wrote a letter to season ticket holders telling them that the team won’t be raising prices. (Buffalo News)

• Even though he was fired by the Calgary Flames, Glen Gulutzan believes the team’s future is bright. (Calgary Herald)

• The Art Dorrington foundation, which is named after the first black player to sign an NHL contract, is struggling with funding right now. Atlantic City mayor Frank Gilliam is holding back the $25,000 that was supposed to be given to the foundation. (AC Primetime)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.