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From division champs in 2012 to dead last in the NHL, the Florida Panthers fell hard in 2013. The disappearing act in South Florida was astonishing and now its coach Kevin Dineen‘s job to make sure his cats land on their feet. With a relatively unchanged roster, a turn around won’t be easy.
The Panthers were just plain awful at both ends of the ice ranking 29th in goals for and 30th in goals against. The Panthers’ league-worst -59 goal-differential was a stunning 23 points worse than that of the 29th ranked Colorado Avalanche.
Of course, Florida’s 2012 division title was somewhat misleading. Blessed with the NHL’s weakest division in recent memory, the Panthers topped the standings with just 94 points. That total would have been good for second to last in the Atlantic Division that season.
Nevertheless, the young Panthers should have progressed in 2013. Instead, they plummeted to rock bottom.
The Panthers were ravaged by injuries with star forwards Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg combining for just 27 appearances before each requiring season ending surgery. Captain Ed Jovanovski was also held to just six games with a hip problem that could end his long career, according to CBS Sports.
With Weiss gone to Detroit and Jovanovski’s future in doubt, Florida won’t soon be relieved of last year’s problems. If Kris Versteeg can’t get back on the ice in time for the season opener, the Panthers will have to look to their youth to lead the way.
2013 Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau will now become the face of the franchise after trailing just Tomas Fleischmann for the team lead in points with 31. Recent history hasn’t been kind to Calder winners. Past recipients Gabriel Landeskog, Jeff Skinner and Tyler Myers all struggled last season. However, the award is hardly a curse considering Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin and 2013 MVP Alex Ovechkin picked it up in their rookie years. Huberdeau can be a 30-goal scorer in his sophomore season, but a second year slump can always sneak up.
To augment Huberdeau’s production, the Panthers will also welcome second-overall pick Aleksander Barkov into the fold this season. A product of Finland’s SM-liiga, the center is coming off of a very impressive season against full-grown professionals. A two-way center, capable of performing all over the ice, Barkov could be just what Florida needs.
However, I criticized the Panthers for picking the 17-year-old on draft day. They passed on a potential future Norris Trophy contender in Seth Jones to take the center at number two, and they may be overrating his strength based on his dominance in a less physical league. Barkov should be a quality NHL player, but the Panthers risked a lot in taking him.
University of Minnesota product Nick Bjugstad rounds out Florida’s set of young forwards. The 6’5″ center is a monster in the middle of the ice, and he could be a difference maker as a rookie. His physically imposing style could set the town for Panthers down the line.
On the back-end, 21-year-old Erik Gudbranson is due for an expanded role. A defensive-defenseman, Gudbranson’s development will be crucial to the improvement of Florida’s porous defense. If he can join Brian Campbell on Florida’s top pairing this winter, it will get things rolling in the right direction.
The easiest way to improve a defense is to improve the goaltending. After his first full season, Jacob Markstrom should look more mature in the crease. The 23-year-old started 23 games in 2013, splitting time with Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. Set up for failure, Markstrom’s numbers were predictably mediocre. His .901 save-percentage wasn’t good, but it was markedly better than the Panthers’ alternatives.
To get back to the playoffs anytime soon, the Panthers need Markstrom to become a franchise goalie. Maintaining his confidence under the current barrage of pucks will be difficult, but the young Swede has the talent. He should be better in 2013 but no one could post all-star numbers behind this defense.
Though the Panthers could really use a break, realignment just piled it on by sticking Florida in the NHL’s toughest new division. Featuring five 2013 playoff teams, the new-look Atlantic is built to beat up on the Panthers.
They won’t get anywhere near the postseason in 2013-14. Despite their wealth of young talent, this team is a work in progress. If you’re a Panthers fan, I suggest focusing on the flashes of potential this season and not the scoreboard. Another last place finish lays ahead in Florida.
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