While the divisional overhaul in the NHL this year will be kind to some teams (Detroit, Winnipeg, and Columbus being the main benefactors), the same cannot be said for the Panthers. Coming off a disappointing 2012-13 in which they finished dead last in the NHL, Cats fans should not expect things to get much better in the immediate future. If someone is willing to take the bet, put money on the Panthers missing the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons.
The days where Panthers fans could hope for their team to take advantage of a perennially weak Southeast Division (though they rarely did) are over. The Southeast Division is extinct and Florida is now a member of the new eight-team Atlantic Division, where they will have the pleasure of beginning new divisional "rivalries" with ho-hum teams like Detroit, Boston, Ottawa, and Montreal.
To make their current outlook worse, general manager Dale Tallon did virtually nothing to improve the club this offseason as 11-year veteran Stephen Weiss cashed in with Detroit on a massive five-year deal, only to be replaced in South Florida by the ever declining Scott Gomez. Other major additions joining Gomez in Miami this year are Joey Crabb, Bobby Butler, and former Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy. Do not expect much from this trio.
While the lack of big moves are obviously frustrating for hockey fans in the Sunshine State, Tallonís refusal to improve the club this offseason makes sense from a long term standpoint. The Panthers are going to be very young, inexperienced, and mistake-ridden in 2013-14. Tallonís strategy to play for another lottery pick this year is not a bad idea considering that the team is two-to-three years away from even contending for a playoff spot.
In the meantime, Florida will still be an interesting team to watch this year since head coach Kevin Dineen will have no choice but to let the kids play. Reigning Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, defensman Dmitry Kulikov, and goaltender Jacob Markstrom are all under the age of 23 and will likely be the top fantasy contributors this year for the Panthers at their respective positions. The other youngster worth rolling the dice on this year is the second-overall pick in this yearís draft, Aleksander Barkov. Barkov finished ninth in the Finnish Elite League in scoring last season as a 17-year-old, and has the size, strength, and skill to have an immediate impact in the NHL.
Chances are that you will most likely not own a Panther on your fantasy roster this season, but if you do so, the risk-reward is there for the aforementioned young guns that will see a bevy ice time. If you prefer the safer bet, Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, and Kris Versteeg (barring another injury) are the guys you can draft with relative confidence.
Other than that, the Panthers will be a fantasy crap shoot this year as they enter the new four-division NHL in the middle of rebuild mode. Cats fans can only hope that Tallon doesnít make the same mistake of passing on a much needed defenseman like Seth Jones with his lottery pick next year.
The Big Guns
Tomas Fleischmann (LW): Fleischmann turned in another solid stat line last season with 12 goals and 23 assists while playing all 48 games with the Panthers. He'll get top-line minutes again in 2013-14, and if he can get his point total around 60, he has big fantasy value. He had a minus-10 rating last season, and that makes him less valuable than 60-point guys from good teams, but that doesn't mean it's worth missing him altogether on draft day.
Jonathan Huberdeau (LW): Huberdeau, the third overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, had a really nice rookie season with the Panthers in 2013, recording 14 goals and 17 assists while playing all 48 games. What made his season even more impressive was the fact that he put up those numbers while playing with a hip injury for the majority of the year. He's still just 20 years old, so it's reasonable to expect some improvement from year to year. He's a kid that most people probably haven't heard of because of the limited exposure the Panthers got last season, but there is a ton a fantasy potential to be had here.
Brian Campbell (D): Campbell had another productive season on the Panthers' blue line last season, racking up eight goals and 19 assists while playing all 48 games. He's starting to get to the age where players begin to slow down, but there's no reason to believe the 34-year-old will put up drastically different numbers than last year. He's played every game the last two seasons for the Panthers, so he's been durable as he gets older. The major blemish on his stat line last season was the glaring minus-22 rating, but a big negative number is always a risk when you draft a player from a team like the Panthers. Even after you downgrade him for the plus/minus numbers, a defenseman that should put up around 50 points is a valuable asset to any fantasy team.
On The Rise
Dmitry Kulikov (D): Kulikov recorded a line of 3/7/10 in 34 games with the Panthers last season, but missed the end of the season with a shoulder injury. With the shoulder now surgically repaired, it will be interesting to see if the 22-year-old former first round draft pick can push his offensive game to the next level.
Shawn Matthias (C): Matthias will likely play alongside wingers Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann this season on the Panther's top line, and should benefit from having a couple talented scorers to dish the puck to. That being said, his 2013 numbers would indicate that he's more of a shoot-first center, having recorded 14 goals and only seven assists last year. It seems reasonable to expect about a 40-point season out of him and he'll probably be available later than he should be in many drafts since he's not very well known. He's just 25 right now and has really increased his offensive output in the past couple years. If his development continues, he could be a fantasy steal with a very high ceiling playing in his new role.
Two to Watch
Kris Versteeg (RW): His season ended after just 10 games with a knee injury, but a surgically repaired Versteeg may be a great fantasy steal. He only had four points before getting hurt, but posted 54 in 71 games the year before in 2011-12. He won't be at the top of most people's rankings, but he holds a ton of upside as a later-round draft pick.
Tomas Kopecky (RW): Kopecky turned in a nice season in 2013 and is probably in his most productive years right now at age 31. He racked up 15 goals and 12 assists in 47 games while playing a top-6 role for the Panthers last year, and will probably find himself in the same situation season. It seems like a 20-goal, 40-point season is well within his reach, and would be his most productive season since his 2009-10 Stanley Cup-winning campaign with the Blackhawks.
Scott Gomez (C): Itís been a while since the veteran center had his streak of consecutive seasons with 70, 84, 60, 70, 58 and 59 points. In fact, Gomez is a long way from being that player. In 2010-11, he finished with 38 points in 80 games, followed by 11 points in 38 games in 2011-12 and 15 points in 39 games last season with the Sharks. At 34, it seems that Gomezís best days are behind him. Still, donít underestimate his value to a Panthers team thatís long on young talent and short on the kind of veteran leadership Gomez can provide. Temper your expectations and pay attention to what kind of a role the Panthers put him in, but he could be a sneaky, last-round pick in a deep league.
Ed Jovanovski (D): Jovanovski used to be a high-end fantasy commodity, but the years have certainly taken their toll on him. He only suited up for six games last season and, in addition to being injury prone, he hasn't scored more than 15 points in a season since 2009-10. He'll provide veteran leadership for the Panthers blue line, but he gets slower every year. It's not likely he'll log a 35+ point season again.
Scottie Upshall (LW): Upshall appears to have completely lost his scoring touch since leaving the Coyotes in 2011. He only manages to post four goals and one assist in 27 games with the Panthers last year. Some fantasy owners may draft him because of his recognizable name, but it would be wise to hold out for lesser known players with more potential instead.
Aleksander Barkov (C): The Cats took Barkov second overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, and the 17-year-old has a very bright future ahead of him. He just signed a $3.575 million contract this summer, so it looks like that future is now. He'll be asked to step in right away and score for the team with the second-lowest payroll in the NHL. He won't be at the front of most fantasy owners' minds on draft day, but if he starts out the season well don't be afraid to pick him up early before everybody else catches on. If his 48 points in 53 games in the Finnish SM-liiga last season are any indication of his potential, the youngster could be an offensive force once he settles into the North American game.
Nick Bjugstad (C): Bjugstad played eleven games with the Panthers after his season ended at the University of Minnesota, but managed to notch just one goal. The Panthers are relying on the 19th overall pick from the 2010 draft to turn into the hulking power forward he's supposed to be this season, but only time will tell if he's worth fantasy consideration. If his production doesn't pick up, he doesn't warrant a second glance, but his numbers with the Gophers (21/15/36 in 40 games last year) suggest that he has the potential to be the top-line center of the future in Sunrise, Florida.
Eric Selleck (LW): Selleck is a penalty minute machine, having racked up 198 in 2012-13 over 62 games with the Panthers and AHL San Antonio. The former NCAA D-III All-American at SUNY-Oswego will likely spend most of the season with the Rampage again in 2013-14, but he could be a good spot pickup if he comes up for a couple games because he'll probably be trying to show his value as an enforcer. He had 17 PIMs in just two NHL games last year.
Vincent Trocheck (C): 2013-14 will be Trocheck's first year as a professional, and he likely won't have much of an NHL impact. He lit up the OHL last season with a line of 50/59/109 in 63 games with the Plymouth Whalers and the Saginaw Spirit, so he could potentially get called up if he's scoring a lot for AHL San Antonio, but it would be wise to wait for him to do that before thinking about him as a fantasy option.