Getty ImagesYes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Florida Panthers.
History was made last season in Sunrise as the Panthers won their first ever division title and qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 1999-200 season. (That's three arena name changes ago now that BankAtlantic Center will be called the BB&T Center.) Despite a massive overhauling of their roster from the season prior, the Panthers shot out of the gate quickly and spent 128 days atop the Southeast Division, boosted by an NHL-high 18 points from overtime and shootout losses.
The rats returned, but the Panthers were exterminated in the opening round by the New Jersey in seven games thanks to the first of Adam Henrique's postseason heroics for the eventual Stanley Cup runners-up.
But despite the disappointing end to the campaign, there was much optimism to be had for the future. GM Dale Tallon's off-season spending spree had paid off and the passion for hockey in South Florida returned, even as the Miami Heat were en route to the NBA title. Average attendance (16,629) and sellouts (17) at BankAtlantic Center were the highest they've been since the team moved there in 1998.
So now that the Panthers finally have expectations placed upon them for the first time in forever, can they maintain their success?
As was expected, defenseman Jason Garrison cashed in on a career season (16 goals, 33 points) and left for greener pastures in Vancouver. Attempting to replace his offense Tallon signed Filip Kuba (6 goals, 32 points with Ottawa) to a 2-year, $8 million deal. Where Garrison excelled on the power play (9 PPGs), Kuba and others will have to pick up the slack.
A fresh start could do Peter Mueller some good. After dealing with concussion issues the past few seasons, he signed a 1-year deal and if he can stay healthy, Mueller could be a vital part of Florida's top-six. It's a low-risk, potential high reward move by Tallon; and so far they've paid off.
Adding toughness at the bottom of the forward group will be George Parros, who replaces Matt Bradley and Krys Barch in the team "You wanna go?" department. With a number of youngsters coming through the ranks the next two seasons, Parros will provide adequate protection and also be a visible face (and mustache) in the community.
Acquired during the season, Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit), Marco Sturm (UFA) and Wojtek Wolski (Washington) were not re-signed, while veteran forward John Madden retired and joined the Montreal Canadiens' front office.
At forward … Aside from the Los Angeles Kings, the Panthers were the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs averaging just 2.4 goals per game. Seven of the eight players who hit double digits in goals will be returning, including leading scorer Tomas Fleischmann (27 goals, 67 points), franchise stalwart and likely next captain Stephen Weiss (20 goals, 57 points) and rapper extraordinaire and new $17 million man Kris Versteeg (23 goals, 54 points).
The top line did most of the heavy listing (70 of 197 goals) and they'll once again have to rely on their depth in order to make a run at a second straight playoff berth. Scottie Upshall has had an injury-plagued career, but shown he can contribute when healthy. Same thing for Mueller, who hasn't produced at a high level since his rookie year in Phoenix when he netted 22 goals. Sean Bergenheim scored a career high 17 goals in just 62 games last season, proving he wasn't just a playoff performer. Marcel Goc is likely the most underrated player in the league.
Hoping to come in and contribute right away will be rookie pivot Jonathan Huberdeau. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 Draft lit up the QMJHL last season with 30 goals and 72 points in 37 games after leading the Panthers in scoring during the preseason. He's done all he can in Saint John. It's time for his to perform on the big stage.
On defense … The blueline will miss Garrison's booming slap shot and Kuba will have to try to help fill that offensive void despite only reaching double digit goals once in his career. One of Tallon's biggest moves was convincing Brian Campbell to come to Florida and it paid off. Campbell was the team's only All-Star last season, a deserving honor. "Soupy" led all NHL players in time on ice, averaging 26:53 per game; posted a career high in points with 53 and became the first defenseman to win the Lady Byng Trophy since Red Kelly in 1954.
The Panthers were 12th in goals against with 2.63 per game and feature a mix of vets (Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Mike Weaver) and kids (Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Keaton Ellerby and potentially Alex Petrovic) on defense. The penalty kill was 25th in league (79.5 per cent) and despite spending the second-lowest amount of time in the league shorthanded (383:28).
In goal … For now it's once again the Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen show. The pair started 76 games last season with rookie Jacob Markstrom getting the nod in six games as an injury replacement. With the 36-year old Theodore entering the final year of his contract, the path was set for Markstrom to take over the job. But with the never-ending rumors of Roberto Luongo and the 10 years left on his contract returning to the Panthers, the franchise's "goalie of the future" might soon be someone else's.
If any opponents -- or say, local beat writers -- want to take shots at the Panthers, no worries, they'll just keep on succeeding and include you in a "Suck on that!" video.
The question facing rookie head coach Kevin Dineen last season was how long it would take him to find the right chemistry among the lines with so many new faces. While everyone was still learning each others' names, the Panthers started off strong and maintained their position in the Southeast Division, earning the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Now in his second season, Dineen will need to learn how to duplicate that success.
GM Dale Tallon helped build a Stanley Cup winner in Chicago -- albeit, after he was fired; and he's quickly doing the same in Florida. From behind the bench to on the ice, his changed since he arrived in May 2010 have worked to alter the culture of the organization. After years and years of losing, Panthers fans are expecting a winner now and Tallon will need to continue having a Midas touch to keep the interest level high in South Florida.
A healthy and happy Campbell meant a productive one. The 33-year old was refreshed last season and with the absence of Garrison, he'll once again need to be a stable presence out of the back. He eats minutes, contributes on the power play and helps control the tempo. Campbell is the Panther defenseman who can handle all that responsibility successfully.
Filip Kuba is not going to replace Garrison's offense. Panthers fans realize this coming into the season. But Kuba's been a contract year player. He put up 40 points in 2008-09, then signed a 3-year, $11.1 million extension with Ottawa. Over the next two injury-plagued seasons Kuba combined for a total of 44 points. After last season's comeback with 32 points, he earned a 2-year, $8 million deal with Florida. Which Kuba will the Panthers see?
"A hockey arena. A safe harbor for you and your family. A place where children don't have anything to fear.
"Unless, of course, you're in Sunrise, Florida.
"The Florida Panthers. Yuck. Paid for by Cats."
What once was the known as the "South-least" Division was competitive down to the wire. The Panthers made the biggest jump, but many believed they benefited from an off-year by the Washington Capitals. Was it an aberration? We'll find out; but the results on the ice speak volumes. A number of Panthers sported career seasons, which powered them to a division title. The Southeast will once again be tight with Carolina is expected to provide powerful opposition. Can those offensive leaders once again carry the load?