By Luke Dixon, Staff Writer
Now that the NHL lockout is for all intents and purposes, done, finished, kaput, the league can get underway and back to what it does best: hockey.
The Panthers were an intriguing team before the lockout, and they still are. I predicted them to finish second place in the Southeast Division behind the Capitals, but still make the playoffs. I am sticking with the pick, although 90 points is well out of the realm of possibilities in this 48-game season. With no jaw dropping superstar to stand out amongst the rest, the Panthers are going to be team that outworks their opponents every night and more often than not, get the two points.
The top line of Stephen Weiss between Kris Versteeg and Thomas Fleischmann will continue to be the catalyst of Florida’s offense. They provided over 170 combined points for the Cats last season, and were all at least 21 points ahead of the next forward not on their line.
George Parros and Peter Mueller will add grit and some added veteran experience and solidify a solid 12-14 forwards the Panthers are likely to have opening night. They had second lowest amount of goals scored of any of last season’s playoff teams and Mueller certainly can help improve that mark. (It’s worth noting the lowest scoring offense of any playoff team last season was the 2012 Stanley Champion Los Angeles Kings who had only 194 goals during the regular season.)
On the back end, Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski and Filip Kuba will bring veteran leadership and a scoring touch at the offensive end. Kuba had 32 points with Ottawa last season before signing with Florida prior to the lockout. His point total would have him third amongst Panthers defense behind Campbell and Jason Garrison who left via free agency.
Keaton Ellerby and Tyson Strachan will provide a younger flavor to the Panthers defensive core. Both will be in their second seasons on Florida back line.
Goaltending is probably the biggest curiosity for the Cats. Jose Theodore is the presumed starter with Scott Clemmensen as the veteran backup. Jacob Markstrom is the top prospect between the pipes and it’s assumed he will eventually get the call to be the No.1 backstop in Sunrise. This is assuming the Panthers don’t land Roberto Luongo, who is now the focus of teams looking for a long-term solution in net. It makes even more sense now to land Luongo or prepare to hand over the reins to Markstrom after this season. Theodore has 1-year left on his current deal, which turns into half a year due to the lockout and I don’t think anyone in Florida’s management believes Clemmensen is their goaltender of the future.
Regardless of what the Panthers do at the goaltender position, I see them returning to the playoffs in a 5th seed or lower spot and winning around 25 games. As mentioned earlier, the previous standings predictions stays with altered point totals to account for the shortened schedule:
1. Capitals- 61 points- Yes
2. Panthers- 58 points- Yes
3. Hurricanes- 52 points- Yes
4. Jets- 49 points- No
5.Lightning- 40 points- No