STATE OF THE UNION
The Florida Panthers have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since accumulating a franchise-record 98 points in the 1999-2000 season. If the Panthers are to break that drought before it stretches into a second decade, they will do it with a distinctly new look.
The departure of Olli Jokinen started the current transformation. The franchise center was traded at the 2008 Entry Draft to Phoenix for a package anchored by Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton.
Following last season's near-miss, Jacques Martin, the team's general manager and former coach, walked away in early June to become coach of the Montreal Canadiens. The Panthers have yet to name a new GM, and front-office duties are being handled by legendary executive Bill Torrey and assistant GM Randy Sexton.
Jay Bouwmeester, the team's franchise defenseman, was the next one out the door. Unable to get the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent under contract, the club made the difficult, but necessary, decision to move the All-Star defenseman. The deal, after much speculation, went down at the 2009 Entry Draft, sending Bouwmeester to Calgary for defenseman Jordan Leopold and a third-round pick in the 2009 Draft.
Leopold and Ballard will likely anchor a completely rebuilt defense this season. The club also signed European vet Ville Koistinen and returns Bryan Allen and Bryan McCabe.
The Panthers also took Russian defenseman Dmitry Kulikov in this year's Entry Draft, tabbing the QMJHL product with the 14th pick. There are quite a few scouts that believe Kulikov has the skill set to step right into the NHL this fall.
Amazingly, all six players were drafted and developed by the Panthers. Management hopes that this group will come of age together and form the foundation of a team that will be competitive for years to come.
The Panthers believe that era can begin this year, especially with proven vet Tomas Vokoun between the pipes. In his two seasons with Florida, Vokoun has 56 wins and a save percentage that hovers around .921. Craig Anderson, one of the NHL's best backups, signed with Colorado -- but Scott Clemmensen, who helped save the Devils when Martin Brodeur was injured at the start of last season, was brought in through free agency as an insurance policy.
Now it is time to discover if the alterations made in the past calendar year are enough to end Florida's playoff drought.
Considering the fact that Florida barely missed the playoffs this past season -- finishing with the same 93 points and 41 wins as Eastern Conference qualifier Montreal (the Canadiens qualified by winning the season series) -- it appears that there is plenty of basis for optimism in South Florida.
While the Panthers' lineup is already stacked with youngsters -- especially up front -- that doesn't mean that the franchise's reserves have been fully tapped.
Thanks to a reservoir of high draft picks, courtesy of eight straight non-playoff seasons, the Panthers still have a number of players that are on the cusp of contributing at the NHL level on a full-time basis.
Here is a closer look at five of Florida's most-touted prospects:
Shawn Matthias -- The bounty for the Trade Deadline trade of Todd Bertuzzi to the Detroit Red Wings a few seasons ago, Matthias is on the verge of becoming an NHL power forward. The 6-foot-3, 211 forward saw limited time with the parent club this past season and scored 10 goals in 61 games with the AHL's Rochester Americans.
Michal Repik -- A second-round pick, No. 40 overall, in 2007, Repik scored his first two NHL goals this past season during a five-game call-up. But he had already shown that he has the hands and wheels to be a NHL contributor during a 75-game run as a rookie in the AHL, scoring 19 goals and finishing with 49 points with Rochester.
Jacob Markstrom -- This Swedish goalie might be the most experienced 19-year-old netminder in the world. He already has two years as a starter in the Swedish Elite League under his belt, facing a ton of shots as the No. 1 goal for Brynas. He has also played a ton internationally for Sweden at the junior level.
Keaton Ellerby -- Ellerby, the No. 10 pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, had a solid inaugural pro season after a stellar junior career. Playing with Rochester, Ellerby managed 23 goals and 44 points in 75 games with the Amerks.
Colby Robak -- A big-bodied defenseman taken in the second round of the 2008 draft, Robak just finished his third -- and best -- season with Brandon in the Western Hockey League, putting up career highs in goals (13), assists (29) and points (42).
For much of the past decade, Florida has done a good job accumulating enough draft prospects to keep the NHL pipeline primed. In 2009, it was more of the same, with many in the scouting community believing that Randy Sexton and his scouting staff lugged home another bountiful haul with its seven selections in the draft.
Dmitry Kulikov -- Although he lasted until No. 14, there is a significant school of thought that Kulikov might be the most NHL-ready defenseman after No. 2 selection Victor Hedman. The 6-foot-1 Russian has all the tools to be a game-changing defenseman -- and, just as impressively, put up 62 points with Drummondville in his first season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Drew Shore -- Florida drafted more size in the second round, taking this 6-foot-3 playmaking center out of the United States National Team Developmental Program. Shore had 49 points, including 32 assists, in 62 games and helped the U.S. win the 2009 U-18 World Championships.
Josh Birkholz -- The Panther used the pick obtained in last summer's trade of Olli Jokinen, to take Birkholz, who's headed for the University of Minnesota. The 6-foot-1 right wing had 36 points in 55 games with the Fargo Force, an expansion team in the USHL.
Garrett Wilson -- Florida rolled the dice on this left wing from Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League. Wilson showed some promise last season, putting up 35 points in 53 games despite serving a 15-game suspension for a slew-footing incident.
Corban Knight -- The MVP of the prestigious Mac's AAA midget tournament in 2008, Knight is bound for the University of North Dakota. Past winners of that MVP award include NHLers Zach Parise and Ryan Malone.
Wade Megan -- A 6-foot-1 center out of Canton, N.Y., Megan had 53 points in 36 games at the Kent School as a junior. Megan is a rugged power forward-type who's hard to knock off the puck. He has committed to Boston University.
Scott Timmins -- A point-producing center out of the OHL, Timmins had 73 regular season points and added 16 more in 20 postseason games with the Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires.