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.

Bolts re-sign Sustr — one year, $1.95 million

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Tampa Bay shored up some blueline depth on Monday, agreeing to terms with Andrej Sustr on a one-year, $1.95 million extension.

Sustr, 26, appeared in 80 games for the Bolts last season, matching Braydon Coburn for most played among defensemen. Prior to the campaign, he represented the Czechs at the World Cup of Hockey.

A restricted free agent, Sustr gets a pay bump from the $1.45 million he made annually on his last deal. There’s a good chance he’ll see an increased role next year, especially after the Lightning lost Jason Garrison to Vegas at the expansion draft. It also remains to be seen if GM Steve Yzerman will bring back depth blueliner Luke Witkowski, an unrestricted free agent.

That said, Sustr could still be pushed for minutes.

The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder might face a challenge from the likes of Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek and Mikhail Sergachev, the prized youngster acquired from Montreal in the Jonathan Drouin trade.

Sabres hire Sexton, Greeley as assistant GMs

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It was reported Saturday and made official today — Randy Sexton is joining the Buffalo Sabres as an assistant general manager. He will also serve as GM of the AHL’s Rochester Americans.

Also joining the Sabres as assistant GM is Steve Greeley, who spent the past two seasons as assistant director of player personnel with the New York Rangers.

“Randy and I developed a positive working relationship during our time in Pittsburgh and I think his experience and insight will be advantageous for our front office,” said Sabres GM Jason Botterill in a release. “In Steve, we have hired a talented hockey executive who will offer unique insight to our organization. They both have experience at all levels of the game and we think they will be valuable assets for the Buffalo Sabres moving forward.”

Sexton’s job with Rochester will be especially important for what Botterill is trying to do with the Sabres.

“I think one of the successes of the organization that I’m coming from is the relationship between Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh,” Botterill said when he was hired in May. “We want to re-strengthen the relationship with Rochester and Buffalo.”

The last two years, Sexton has been the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting.

Report: Elliott making ‘tentative’ plans to live in Winnipeg

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The talk of Brian Elliott joining the Jets isn’t going away.

This morning, Rick Ralph of TSN 1290 tweeted that Elliott has “been making tentative accommodation plans for Winnipeg.”

The 32-year-old goalie is an unrestricted free agent, and the Jets’ goaltending was once again a sore spot last season.

“We’re going to a take a look at whatever is available to us and if there’s a good opportunity there that can help us, we’ll jump at it,” GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said Saturday at the draft, per the Winnipeg Free Press. “We’ve got a list of names lined up to reach out to their representatives and see if we’re a fit for them and as far as they want to consider us.”

Read more: Is Brian Elliott a fit for Winnipeg

The Jets have Michael Hutchinson under contract for one more year before he can become unrestricted.

Connor Hellebuyck, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent. The Jets are still high on him, but perhaps rushed him into the No. 1 job last year.

“We want forward progress for the team,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “Either Connor or Michael has to step up on that or we’ve got to get some help for those guys.”

Elliott, of course, had a tough first year in Calgary. The Flames then went a different way by acquiring Mike Smith from Arizona.

‘That’s definitely a huge option for us’: Brian Boyle wants to go back to Tampa

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Brian Boyle spent almost three full years with the Tampa Bay Lightning before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at last March’s trade deadline.

The veteran center liked his stint in Tampa so much that he’s willing to go back there when he becomes a free agent in less than week.

“We love Tampa,” said Boyle, per the Tampa Bay Times. “If Tampa wanted to work out a deal, that’s definitely a huge option for us. That’s something that I’ve kind of always thought about. I haven’t closed the door on anything.”

Boyle enjoyed quite a bit of success with the Bolts. During his time there, he scored at least 13 goals in each of his three seasons, which isn’t bad considering he was more of a bottom-six player when he was there.

It’s unclear if the Bolts would be willing to take him back at this point, but a big factor will likely be his contract demands.

“(Tampa) is a great place to be, great place to start a family. And, honestly, we’ll see what they say. You want to be wanted. That’s the other part.”

The Lightning have just over $23 million in cap space right now. That seems like a good amount, but they still have to sign Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Andrej Sustr. It’s also pretty clear that they’re in the market for a top four defenseman, and that won’t come cheap. As of right now, they only have three blue liners on one-way contracts.

The 32-year-old is coming off a contract that paid him $2 million per season. He should be able to fetch a higher number if he hits the open market.