30 in 15: Health, new faces create Panthers' battles

Monday, 09.16.2013 / 3:00 AM
Mike Battaglino  - NHL.com Staff Writer

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Florida Panthers entered last season as the defending Southeast Division champions. Almost every important player returned, and talented rookies were on the way. Expectations were high.

Then, one by one, key player after key player was taken by an injury. Losing streaks were common; winning streaks were not. Results were low.

"You have to acknowledge it; it happened to us; there's reasons why, we've started to talk about it, evaluate why," coach Kevin Dineen told the Panthers website during training camp.

Florida enters 2013-14 with a roster that could be in flux, a collection of role-playing veterans battling highly touted prospects for a place in the lineup.

"There's still opportunity for young guys to step up and take jobs that are available," Dineen said. "If they're not ready, I guarantee those veterans know; they can count, they see those numbers and know there's opportunity as well."

Here's what to watch while the Panthers sort it out:

1. Who is able to come back, and when? -- The Panthers lost 320 man-games to injury last season over a shortened 48-game schedule. That count is going to roll over into this season, but maybe not as much as they thought.

Forward Kris Versteeg had knee surgery in March, and in August it looked like he would miss the start of the season. But he and the team are now optimistic he'll play in the opener Oct. 3 against the Dallas Stars.

"There are so many people that played a part in helping me get back to where I need to be," Versteeg told the Panthers website. "You have to understand there's always a risk there, but in the end it's what you do. And you've got to go in and play your best regardless of what was in the past."

Defenseman Ed Jovanovski might not be much further behind. Though unlikely to start the season on time, he could return within the first month after having hip surgery in April.

"I'm skating right now and it's pretty much pain free,'' Jovanovski told the Miami Herald. "But that's skating where pretty much everything is controlled. Getting into a gamelike situation, we'll see what happens."

Forward Sean Bergenheim is returning after missing all of last season with a lower-body injury; Calder Trophy winning forward Jonathan Huberdeau is progressing after hip surgery; forward Alexsander Barkov, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is on the ice after shoulder surgery; forward Drew Shore had wrist surgery; and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov is back after shoulder surgery.

Forward Nick Bjugstad is sidelined after sustaining a concussion during a prospects tournament.

2. Will the backup goalie be a well-known veteran? -- With Scott Clemmensen sidelined at least three weeks after knee surgery, the goaltending depth chart of Jacob Markstrom and Michael Houser has a combined 31 games of NHL experience, all held by Markstrom.

General manager Dale Tallon reportedly extended tryout invitations to Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas, and former Panthers starter Jose Theodore, but had not received an "OK, sure" until Thomas agreed Monday.

"Obviously Markstrom is our goalie, but if something happens -- there's always that possibility, based on our experiences last year -- we want to make sure we have people in position to fill in and play well and allow us to win when we are banged up," Tallon said

The Panthers may have to play it safe with Markstrom during the preseason, because an injury Tallon speaks of would be devastating.

"My job is to play goalie, and play as good as I can," Markstrom said. "It doesn't matter who they take in. I don't put a lot of thought in that."

3. Will it be a young team, an old team, or something in between? -- Already armed with one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, Tallon stockpiled veterans during the offseason to add depth and create some job insecurity.

"No guarantees to anybody," Tallon said.

Veteran forwards Brad Boyes (31), Bobby Butler (26), Joey Crabb (30), Scott Gomez (33) and Jesse Winchester (29), and defensemen Brett Clark (37), Matt Gilroy (29) and Mike Mottau (35) were acquired to challenge for roster spots, perhaps at the expense of young forwards Barkov (18), Bjugstad (21), Quinton Howden (21) and Vincent Trocheck (20), and defensemen Colby Robak (23) and Alex Petrovic (21).

"They haven't said anything," said Howden, who played 18 games for the Panthers last season. "I have to earn that spot and I know that. I'm going to work as hard as I can and hopefully things can work out for me."

Veteran defenseman Brian Campbell said he expects the internal competition to improve the team.

"There's jobs waiting for them; do you want to take it or not?" Campbell said. "That's the options. Do you want to be a good player or do you want to be a great player? For me, that's what they're going to have to strive to do, and the opportunities are there, which is what you need and what you want as a young player. But you still have to take that opportunity. I don't think anything is going to be given to them. Or at least I hope not."

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