Florida Panthers v Dallas Stars

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.

Video: Rangers shut out red-hot Sidney Crosby and the Penguins

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The New York Rangers are likely too far behind the Washington Capitals to take any legitimate run at the Atlantic Division down the stretch.

But winners now of four straight, the Rangers have opened up a bit of a gap between them and other Eastern Conference teams in the playoff race. New York scored a 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners in six of their last seven games, on Wednesday.

In the process, they held a red-hot Sidney Crosby off the score sheet, which has been a difficult, sometimes impossible task for opposing teams since about the middle of December. He entered this game with a seven-game scoring streak.

(In fact, New York held No. 87 to without a shot on goal in the entire game.)

Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 34 shots he faced for the shutout.

Kevin Hayes gave the Rangers the lead in the first period, before Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast put the game away in the third.

Pittsburgh remains in the second Wild Card spot in the East. The Rangers now move three points clear of the rival Islanders for second in the Metropolitan.

Video: Wideman hearing ‘a tricky case’ as NHLPA hopes to get 20-game suspension reduced

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There is no certain timeline for when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might rule on Dennis Wideman‘s appeal, according to a report from hockey insider Darren Dreger on NBCSN, as the Calgary Flames defenseman hopes to get his 20-game ban for hitting linesman Don Henderson reduced.

“Now, ultimately what they’re hoping from a Wideman perspective and the Players’ Association is that commissioner Gary Bettman will rule and he will reduce the number of games suspended down from 20,” said Dreger during a segment on NBCSN.

“Is he going to reduce it by three games? Five games seems a bit of a stretch. And when might he do that? There’s no timeline on this.”

Report: Coyotes shut down Vitale (concussion) for the season

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Joe Vitale will not play again this season.

The Arizona Coyotes have shut Vitale down for the remainder of the 2015-16 campaign due to “concussion-related issues,” according to a report from Sarah McLellan of azcentral sports on Wednesday.

Vitale, a 30-year-old veteran center, appeared in only one game for the Coyotes this season. That was back on Oct. 17, when he suffered a concussion and broken orbital bone in a fight with Kevan Miller of the Boston Bruins.

Sens announce Frattin, acquired in Phaneuf deal, will stick with AHL Marlies

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Matt Frattin was traded by the Leafs to Ottawa yesterday as part of the Dion Phaneuf blockbuster.

But for now, he’s staying in Toronto.

On Wednesday, Sens GM Bryan Murray announced that Frattin will remain with the Leafs’ AHL affiliate — the Toronto Marlies — on loan, but will be available for selection should Ottawa require his services down the road.

Frattin, 28, has spent all of this season with the Marlies, scoring nine goals and 22 points in 47 games. His last NHL appearance came during the ’14-15 campaign, with the Leafs.

Prior to that, the former North Dakota standout had spent time in Los Angeles and Columbus.