The Florida Panthers failed in their strong late surge for a playoff spot, but emerging left wing David Booth played a major role in getting them so close.
In 2006-07, Booth's rookie season, he had just 10 points in 48 games. Older than most rookies in the League at 24, he averaged just 9:33 of ice time. This past season, he benefited from an increased role, averaging 16:10 of ice time per game.
"Playing more helped out a lot," Booth said. "It's easier to get your feet under you. The more you play, the more chances you get. Playing more minutes also helps me get into the flow of the game."
Booth earned a regular spot with the Panthers by the middle of the season and finished with 22 goals and 18 assists in 73 games. Booth attributes his success last season to his linemates in South Florida.
"I played with some great players in Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss," Booth said. "Playing with players that good makes a huge difference and helps elevate my game."
Booth received the opportunity to play more minutes due to Richard Zednik's frightening neck laceration on Feb. 10, coupled with a separated shoulder that forced left wing Jozef Stumpel to miss 23 games. In the 18 games Zednik and Stumpel missed, Booth scored 10 points and played less than 18 minutes in just three games during that span. Booth also assumed a role on the Panthers' second power-play unit.
Toward the end of the season, Booth became a fan favorite, and whenever he would touch the puck, fans would yell, "Booooooth!"
Booth was third on the team in goals, but no Panther came up larger in the clutch as he led the team with six game-winning goals. His plus-13 rating on the 11th-place team in the Eastern Conference proved his defensive mettle. If Booth can continue his timely scoring and sound defensive play, the future in south Florida is sunny.
"We have to have the same mindset all year that every game matters," Booth said. "Toward the end, we felt the pressure and that's when we surged, but at the beginning of the year we didn't feel that pressure and we weren't playing as well."
If Booth continues his strong play next season, he'll become a popular player both among the Florida fan base as well as among rival managers when he becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2009.
The Panthers haven't made it to the postseason since 2000 and have won a playoff series in just one season -- in 1996, when they made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Panthers, however, can be cautiously optimistic about their future because the backbone of the club, goalie Tomas Vokoun, is signed until the summer of 2011. They have a young nucleus that includes Booth, Weiss, Horton, Rostislav Olesz and center Kamil Kreps. Weiss and Horton each are under contract for the next five seasons, and Olesz just signed a six-year deal.
There also are top-end prospects in the pipeline, including center Shawn Matthias, who had two goals in a four-game call-up in January; Keaton Ellerby, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft; and Michael Frolik, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 Draft.