The Florida Panthers were one of the most active teams this past offseason, bringing in a host of new talent – 11 players in the two weeks following the NHL Entry Draft alone –
for first-year bench boss Kevin Dineen. Dineen spent the past six seasons coaching the Portland Pirates of the AHL and had a winning record in five straight seasons. He is the franchise’s 11th head coach and has the unenviable job of trying to make the Panthers relevant in the South Florida professional sports scene.
There are a number of questions about how the rebuilt club will gel as a team. With the majority of the newly signed players expected to make the club, fantasy potential among the group could swing greatly in either direction. For a team that has not made the postseason since 2000 and one that has been there just three times in its 17-year history, the Panthers will have to work hard to play as a team and move forward as one unit.
The Panthers have one of the best, if not the best, farm systems in the NHL and it could be just a matter of time before a bevy of young talented stars, including goalie Jacob Markstrom and forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden, start to make legitimate contributions at the game’s highest level. With the addition of a newly formed veteran cast, expectations should shift off of the youngsters, affording them more time to develop. However, with the Panthers loaded with long-term talent, it’ll depend on how well the veterans mesh together before the inevitable transition in Florida begins to take place.
Defense had been an area of need for the Panthers and was addressed in the offseason by bringing in veterans Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell. Also strengthening the unit is the expected arrival of rookie Erik Gudbranson. The third overall pick in 2010, Gudbranson is a plus defender with a big shot and will add much needed depth to a revamped defensive corps. The goaltending position took a big hit when former starter Tomas Vokoun departed for Washington at the start of free agency. Jose Theodore was signed and will battle veteran Scott Clemmensen in order to become the top goaltender for the Panthers during the 2011-12 season. Theodore has limited upside, but could have value in deeper leagues should he win the starting job or at least get the bulk of the starts between the pipes.
The Panthers have their top three scorers from last season (Stephen Weiss, 49 points; Mike Santorelli, 42 points; and David Booth, 40 points) returning this season and will hope that the additions of players such as Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg help improve an offense that finished 27th overall in goals scored.
THE BIG GUNS
Tomas Fleischmann (LW): The injury questions will continue to hover around Fleishmann as he enters the 2011-2012 campaign. The Panthers did not seem to worry too much when they signed the talented left-winger to a four-year $18 million deal and neither should you. After only playing in just 45 games this past season, spitting time between Colorado and Washington, Fleischmann averaged 72 games played the previous three seasons. Blessed with speed and the ability to make plays, Fleischmann has received clearance to play and will look to pick up where he left off in 2010-11, where he was averaging almost a point per game over some stretches.
Stephen Weiss (C): Weiss tallied 49 points (21 G, 28 A) last season and should see an increase in production with all the moves the Panthers made in the offseason. The Panthers completely revamped their offense, so we see Weiss having an uptick in production as a result. The lifelong Panther has shown the ability to remain relatively healthy over the past several seasons and remains a source of consistent offensive production. Expect about 60 points, with an upside of 70 or so if everything works out perfectly.
David Booth (LW): Booth led the Panthers with 23 goals this past season and will look to build upon a successful 2010-11 campaign with an even higher point production in the upcoming season. With the addition of a few more pieces to the Panthers lineup and being fully recovered from the brutal concussion suffered in 2009-10, Booth should be expected to score in 30-plus goal range, making fantasy owners quite happy
ON THE RISE
Kris Versteeg (RW): Like many other players on the roster, Versteeg is hoping to make a name and a home for himself in south Florida. After bouncing around between Chicago, Toronto and Philadelphia over the past four seasons, owners are hoping the fresh start could lead to an increase in production for the 2011-2012 campaign. In 2010-2011, Versteeg posted 46 points (21 G, 25 A) splitting time between the Maple Leafs and Flyers. Versteeg is a solid two-way forward and should see time on the second line as well as the Panthers’ special team units. The former Stanley Cup winner has a knack for making big plays and should score in the 25-30-goal range. Versteeg has scored at least 20 goals in three consecutive seasons and should not have an issue making it four straight for the offensively improved Panthers.
Evgeny Dadonov (RW): The 22-year old Dadonov finally made the jump to the NHL, but was forced to miss a significant amount of time after breaking a finger. Dadonov tallied eight goals and nine assists playing in just 36 games for the Panthers last season. Blessed with above average speed and offensive skills, the undersized forward could break camp as a top-six forward for the new look Panthers. Dadonov has worked hard to establish himself as a two-way player and we experts believe he is an NHL ready winger poised to make a significant contribution. Either way, Dadanov is a legitimate keeper prospect and could be a decent play at the winger position should he break camp and start off the season logging consistent ice time for the Panthers.
Mike Santorelli (C): Santorelli tallied 41 points (20 G, 21 A) during his first season with the Panthers in 2010-11. He finally had the breakout season owners had long hoped for and the Panthers rewarded the center with a new two-year deal. Santorelli's career-high 41 points was good enough for second on the Panthers this past season. With some better forwards to work with this season, we'd expect Santorelli's point production to meet or exceed his 2010-11 totals.
TWO TO AVOID
Jose Theodore (G): The Panthers signed the former Hart trophy winner to keep the seat warm for top prospect Jacob Markstom. In 32 games played (29 starts) for the Wild this past season, Theodore went 15-11-0 and posted a 2.71 goals against average to go along with a .916 save percentage. Theodore is not a lock to be the number one goaltender and will battle veteran Scott Clemmenson throughout training camp. Regardless of who wins, expect both to get their fair share of opportunities throughout the season. Theodore does have some value in deeper leagues assuming he gets the bulk of the playing time.
Ed Jovanovski (D): Jovanovski brings toughness and a powerful slap shot to the Panthers this season after spending the past five with the Coyotes. At age 35, injuries and being a defensive liability could cause Jovanovski to miss extended periods of time. Jovanovski is capable of posting a 25-30-point season considering the new-look Panthers are a better team than some people will give credit to, but the risk may far outweigh the potential reward on draft day.
Jacob Markstrom (G): Markstrom is the Panthers top goalie prospect and their goalie of the future. Jose Theodore was signed this past offseason to handle the goaltending duties and it is only a matter of time before he hands over the keys to the franchise to Markstrom. Markstom is a tall; butterfly style goalie with sound technique and will most likely spend a decent portion of the 2011-2012 campaign in the AHL as he works his way back from a serious knee injury. Markstrom went 16-20-1 with a 2.98 GAA and a .907 save percentage in 37 games played for Rochester this past season before undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
Erik Gudbranson (D): The Panthers drafted Gudbranson with the third overall pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft. The punishing defender is expected to break camp with the club and remain in south Florida. Ed Jovanowski was signed this past offseason and is expected to mentor the young defender. Already considered a good defensive-minded prospect, Gudbranson’s offensive game is still a few years away from making a legitimate fantasy impact and should benefit greatly under the tutelage of a player like Jovanowski.
Jonathan Huberdeau (C): The Panthers selected Huberdeau with the third overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft. Huberdeau topped off a great regular season (105 points) with a flat-out brilliant postseason, capturing the QMJHL and Memorial Cup MVP awards on route to a Memorial Cup championship. He’s one of the best one-on-one players in the 2011 draft class (some even compare his hands to those of Patrick Kane’s). And he’s already proven to be an exceptionally smart, two-way player who makes a difference when it counts. He needs to put on some pounds and like several others, he needs to work on his first-step quickness. But those will come easily for this future first-line center. He’s a must-draft in deep keeper formats.