After missing the playoffs in each of the previous 10 campaigns, the Panthers not only made it to the postseason last year, but they also won the Southeast Division title. In the first round of the playoffs, they pressed the Devils to a seventh game before getting eliminated by the eventual Eastern Conference champions. In truth, the Panthers may have been overmatched after compiling just 94 points – sixth best in the east – and carrying a minus-24 goal differential during the regular season.
The future is bright in Miami, but the Panthers lost a couple of regular contributors in free agency this summer. Jason Garrison signed with Vancouver after potting a caree-high 16 goals for the Panthers last season, while Mikael Samuelsson opted to re-sign with Detroit. The Panthers acquired Filip Kuba in their bid to recoup Garrison's production, but it's highly unlikely he'll reach that level of offensive output. George Parros was also signed to add an enforcer to the equation. The biggest additions may come from within, as top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau is a Calder trophy candidate in his rookie campaign after piling up 72 points (30 G, 42 A) over 37 contests with Saint John (QMJHL) last season.
While the Panthers were fortunate last season to exceed expectations and make it to the playoffs, general manager Dale Tallon and head coach Kevin Dineen are quickly building an intriguing young club that should consistently push for the postseason over the next half decade. If Jacob Markstrom emerges to be the dominant No. 1 goaltender that many have forecasted, the Panthers could compete for another division crown and prove capable of winning a playoff series as early as this season.
THE BIG GUNS
Tomas Fleischmann (C/LW): Fleischmann immediately paid dividends for the Panthers after signing a four-year contract prior to last season. Fleischmann lead the team in points and scored a career-high 24 goals. Fleischmann may not be the flashiest player, but he quietly goes about his business making him a decent fantasy option. The German sniper has shown an ability to score in his career, putting up 23 goals three seasons earlier for Washington. Florida's scorers don't attract much attention on draft day, so Fleischmann may fall in draft despite his considerable upside.
Brian Campbell (D): Campbell made the most of his transition to South Beach playing in all 82 games and chipping in with a career-high 53 points, good enough for second among NHL defensemen. The veteran defender may not pot the puck on a regular basis, but his ability to rack up assists and his durability at an advanced age makes him an attractive option heading into the 2012-2013 campaign. Florida's coaching staff allows him to roam the ice and start the rush, something he didn't do in his final years with Chicago. Campbell should continue to see plenty of opportunities to see his name on the stat sheet as the season progresses; he was a steal last year in most drafts, just don't overpay for last season's numbers, especially if there are defensemen on the board who score more goals.
Kris Versteeg (LW): Versteeg avoided arbitration, signing a four-year contract with the Panthers this offseason, and will now look to build upon a 2011-2012 campaign that saw the crafty winger set career-highs in goals (23) and points scored (54). A hip injury put a damper on an already productive season. Versteeg is on pace to start camp 100% healthy and will look to continue his productive ways, making him a savvy pick in the later rounds of drafts.
ON THE RISE
Dmitry Kulikov (D): Kulikov continues to progress, scoring a career-high 28 points in only 58 games played this past season. Injuries curtailed what was shaping up to be the young defender's finest season, as did several stretches of inconsistency. The former 2009 first-round pick has really picked up his game making him an attractive fantasy option. While there may be some dips in production throughout the course of a season, Kulikov remains a strong long-term prospect, especially in keeper leagues.
Jacob Markstrom (G): Markstrom enters this season as Florida's goalie of the future, but is expected to start the year in the AHL. The 6-foot-3 butterfly goalie has plenty of potential and could see himself with the big club sooner rather than later. In seven games played last season, Markstrom was 2-4 with a 2.66 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. Markstrom is a top keeper option and a viable sleeper option should he play himself onto the roster with a strong showing in camp as neither Scott Clemmensen or Jose Theodore have much upside remaining, making Markstrom the smart choice for those willing to wait for his opportunity.
TWO TO WATCH
Jonathan Huberdeau (C ): Huberdeau, the third-overall pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, is ready to make the leap to the NHL after scoring 177 points (73 G, 104 A) in 104 games over the past two seasons with Saint John of the QMJHL. A budding power forward, Huberdeau has an excellent two-way game and is expected to be a top-six forward for the Panthers during the upcoming season. Don't be surprised if Huberdeau plays his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation with his skill set and opportunity for heavy minutes right out of the gate.
Peter Mueller (LW): Mueller heads to South Florida for a change of scenery and a hope to jump start a once promising career that saw him post a 54-point season his rookie year. Injuries have forced Mueller out of the lineup over the past three seasons with Colorado and Phoenix, seeing him lace up the skates in just 47 games over the span. Mueller can be a productive player if healthy, as evidenced by his 143 points in 254 career games. By all accounts he is healthy and ready to make an impact this season. Mueller is a risk, but a risk worth taking when it can potentially yield a high return on investment considering his low average draft position heading into drafts.
Stephen Weiss (C): Weiss enters the final season of his current contract looking to build upon a productive 2011-2012 season that saw him light the lamp 20 times and chip in with 37 helpers. The veteran centerman reached the 20-goal plateau for the third-straight season and will once again be looked upon to lead the Panthers. His consistency leaves a bit to be desired, as 15 of his season's 57 points came in five separate three-point games. Weiss, who developed strong chemistry with Kris Versteeg, has hit the 50-point mark three seasons in a row and by all indications, a fourth is within reach. Although his points tend to come in bunches, Weiss is a safe option in the later rounds of deeper leagues, especially if he can challenge 20 goals again.
Jose Theodore (G): Theodore enters camp as the presumptive number one goalie for the Panthers. In 2011-12, Theodore posted a respectable 22-16 record with a 2.46 goals against average and a .917 save percentage while battling bouts of injury and ineffective play, including a few spotty games in the team's first-round playoff loss to New Jersey. Veteran backup Scott Clemmenson and top prospect Jacob Markstrom will be chomping at the bit to take over should Theodore falter. Theodore's value rides on the amount of playing he'll receive as the season progresses, but don't be surprised to see Markstrom as the Panthers' full-time netminder come season's end. If you plan on adding Theodore to your stable of goaltenders, have a secure contingency plan for the former Hart Trophy winner.
Jonathan Huberdeau – See above.
Jacob Markstrom – See above.