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Team Previews: Seeking a Return to the Playoffs

Mike Gay

Mike Gay

Mike Gay writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

OUTLOOK

South Florida is better known for its warm climate and elegant beaches than being the host region for the Florida Panthers' hockey club. After all, this is a team still trying to claw its way towards respectability in the NHL. Nine straight seasons have gone by without the Panthers making the playoffs, and the team has yet to bring the Stanley Cup home.

Dale Tallon, eat your heart out. Serving as the new general manager for the Panthers, Tallon is quite possibly the perfect candidate to transform this group of young and talented underachievers into winners. As the former senior advisor of hockey operations for the 2009-10 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, it's safe to say that he has the proper credentials to turn things around for the Big Cats.

The boss in the front office has already made bold moves. Tallon shipped Gregory Campbell and Nathan Horton ranked No. 3 in franchise points (295) - to the Bruins for Dennis Wideman and a pair of draft picks, one of which was spent on Erik Gudbranson, with the third overall pick in the 2010 Entry Draft.

So what's been the main problem with the Panthers? An overall inability to stay healthy for one, but a more explicable limitation has been the obvious shortage of skaters who can deposit pucks into the net. Newcomer Michael Grabner should get plenty of ice time with Horton gone, but he likely still has another year before he busts out. There is a silver lining with Michael Frolik and Shawn Matthias, however. Both players underwhelmed last season, but more NHL experience could provide a huge boost to their levels of production. And then there is wild-card center Steve Reinprecht. He can score and make plays, but the only true constant in his game is the fact that he's always unpredictable.

One of the biggest areas of concern for Florida is the man advantage. The Panthers finished second to last by making good on only 14.2-percent of power play opportunities last season. Even if it's only a slight uptick, expect the Panthers to improve in power play situations, with Stephen Weiss and Bryan McCabe having the most value when opposing teams are short a man (or two).

Returning for another year in the crease is Tomas Vokoun, arguably the most valuable Panther that took to the ice last season. Interestingly, he posted a career-high in shutouts (7) last year, which also happened to be the first time in his three years with Florida that he had a losing record (23-28-11). Still, his 2.55 goals-against average was good considering the sub-par defense that was supposed to back him up.

On the back end, the Panthers lack fantasy-friendly defensemen outside of McCabe. Jay Bouwmeester and Keith Ballard had been serviceable options in the past, but neither is employed by Florida any longer. As part of the team's rebuild, they could rely heavily on second-year sleeper, Dmitry Kulikov, to deal damage offensively from the blue line.

Expect the Panthers to continue making necessary adjustments under the direction of GM Tallon and head coach Peter DeBoer. Unfortunately, the Panthers play in the South East Division, featuring the Washington Capitals easily one of the best teams in the league. In the end, Florida's success in 2009-10 should be measured by whether or not they embark on postseason play.

THE BIG GUNS

Tomas Vokoun (G): Being a puck-stopper for a losing team is the most significant reason to downgrade Vokoun in fantasy leagues. Suffice it to say, if more wins came his way, he would be among the league's elite. On a positive note, Vokoun usually boasts a strong save percentage (.923 over the past three seasons). Furthermore, you can expect Vokoun to get the lion's share of the work since the Panthers lack a quality netminder behind him.

Steven Weiss (C): Weiss played 80 games and led Florida in goals (60) in the 2009-10 season. He was spot on with his shot, too, as evidenced by a 15.6 shot percentage. It seems as though he's made a point to be more aggressive with the puck, which should help him be the team's leading point-getter once again.

Bryan McCabe (D): McCabe's second season playing for the Panthers was quite a success. He generated eight goals and 35 helpers from the blue line, ranking 17th among defensemen in points. Consider him for your fantasy team as a solid, yet unspectacular rearguard.

David Booth (LW): Booth sustained a nasty concussion that wiped out a huge chunk of his 2009-10 campaign. Had he not been limited to just 28 games, you might have witnessed Booth lighting the lamp on a frequent basis. Assuming he makes it through the next season with a healthy noggin, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect 30 goals out of him.

ON THE RISE

Dmitri Kulikov (D): In 2009-10, Kulikov averaged over 17 minutes of ice time in 68 games as a rookie. This 19-year-old is a well-rounded rearguard who could dent the box score more frequently as he matures. Already, he's known as a smart player who can hold his own on the ice. He'll be given every opportunity to thrive on Florida's blue line, but it would be smart to exercise caution when drafting him, as it could take him another season to fully bloom.

Shawn Matthias (C): If you've never heard of Matthias, chances are you will soon enough. Billed as one of the Panthers' top prospects, Matthias' ice time increased in each successive month in 2009-10 - his rookie season. In fact, his average ice time peaked as high as 17:53, which occurred last April. Even though he could stand to be more physical, the 23-year-old has time to fill out his slender frame, but time is not of the essence for fantasy owners who wish to buy low on him in keeper leagues and leagues with deep player pools.

Michael Frolik (LW): The Panthers have an extremely talented forward in their system with Frolik. Though he wasn't exactly consistent on a week-to-week basis last season, Frolik gets a free pass given that he's been in the league for just two years. His shot totals soared from 158 to 219 between his rookie and sophomore seasons, and with a little more consistency, the 22-year-old could find himself in the company of 50-point skaters.

TWO TO AVOID

Cory Stillman (LW): Collectively, the Panthers don't provide much in the way of fantasy value, and based on his free falling numbers, Stillman isn't the answer. His efficiency has taken a hit as of late and finding the positive side of the plus/minus rating has been a challenging endeavor for the forward. Despite the struggles, a healthy Stillman could end up being one of the better point producers for the Panthers, though that is not saying much given the lack of offensive talent across the team's roster. Simply put, there are safer alternatives at the forward position.

Rostislav Olesz (C ): Olesz has underachieved in his career so far. He's a former first-round selection who has stirred up more attention as an injury risk rather than someone to jump for in the fantasy hockey world. Unless he can start avoiding the injured reserve, a 30-point season appears to be his ceiling.

TOP PROSPECT

Jacob Markstrom (G): Markstrom was Florida's second-round selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Even though he will likely wind up spending most of his time backstopping for the Rochester Americans (AHL) this season, it's worth keeping tabs on Markstrom, as he is widely considered the Panthers' goalie of the future. Last season, the tall netminder (he's 6-foot-3) won the Elitserien Rookie of the Year award as a member of Bryanas IF of the Swedish Elite League. Based on his three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers in June of 2010, it has become evident that this butterfly-style goalie is vastly approaching the NHL stage.