After a 2012-13 season that created far more questions than answers for the Florida Panthers, one lingered above all others: "What the heck happened?"
A free-fall from division champ to NHL-worst has Florida entering this season wondering if anything else can go wrong.
These six questions will help determine who the real Florida Panthers are:
1. Is Jacob Markstrom ready to be a No. 1 NHL goalie? -- The Panthers don't score much, so they have keep the other team from putting pucks in the net, and last season they didn't. Their 170 non-shootout goals allowed were 11 more than any NHL team.
Primary responsibility for stopping the puck now falls to 23-year-old Markstrom, who is being handed the starting job with Florida choosing to not re-sign Jose Theodore and keeping Scott Clemmensen as veteran insurance.
"[Jacob is] by no means the complete goaltender we hope he will be someday," assistant general manager Mike Santos told the Miami Herald this summer. "But, again, he's young.''
Markstrom allowed 68 goals in 23 games last season for a 3.22 goals-against average that resulted in an 8-14-1 record. During the final month of the season, when the Panthers were playing a number of young players on a nightly basis, he gave up six goals in a game twice, five once and four twice.
"We were forced into that situation last year because of the injury [to Theodore's groin]," Santos said. "[Jacob] was thrown into a tough situation. Given the time he came up and all the injuries we had in the short season, I think it was difficult to expect him to come in and play to the best of his abilities."
Markstrom signed a two-year contract July 15, so he must prove he is the long-term answer.
2. Can Jonathan Huberdeau avoid a sophomore slump coming off hip surgery? -- The 20-year-old's Calder Trophy season became even more impressive when it was revealed he had to have the labrum in his hip surgically repaired.
"That tells you a lot about this kid," general manager Dale Tallon said. "He played hurt and played extremely well. And we didn't have a lot of players, with our injuries; they had to focus on that guy and he still contributed and played his heart out. It tells you what kind of player and person he is, playing hurt and he still won Rookie of the Year."
Huberdeau was second on the Panthers with 14 goals and 31 points, skating in all 48 games. That's 23 goals and 53 points pro-rated to an 82-game season, numbers he certainly should be able to reach if he's healthy.
"You feel good, but you don't want to go too quick too soon," Huberdeau said in mid-July. "With this injury you want to take it slowly; it's a process and I'm just following it."
3. Can the Panthers become the first team in 45 years to win have back-to-back Calder winners? -- Not since Derek Sanderson won the 1968 Calder after Boston Bruins teammate Bobby Orr won it the year before has a team produced consecutive rookies of the year.
In the past 13 seasons, 13 NHL teams have had a Calder Trophy winner.
Huberdeau pioneered what's expected to be a long line of future all-stars to emerge from the Panthers pipeline. Forwards Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck -- maybe even Aleksander Barkov, the 17-year-old No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft -- will be given ample opportunity to duplicate Huberdeau's feat in 2013-14.
"We're going to go with our young guys," Tallon said. "That's been the plan all along and that's the way we're going to go. … The Barkovs and Bjugstads and [Drew] Shores and Trochecks. Those are the guys that are our future. That's what's going to have to get done here."
4. Can Erik Gudbranson live up to his draft status? -- A No. 3 draft pick, just like Huberdeau, Gudbranson hasn't produced the same results as a defenseman.
It went completely off track for him last September, when he injured himself while wakeboarding. He was sidelined and suspended, costing him what would have been valuable development time in the American Hockey League during the lockout.
After starting his NHL season Feb. 7, he had four assists in 32 games and was a minus-22. He's minus-41 over the past two seasons, tied for worst in the NHL (Mark Streit).
"It was difficult," Gudbranson told the Miami Herald. "The season didn't start very well on a personal front for me after hurting my shoulder. It was a tough season, but we tried to make it better and it just didn't happen."
At 21 years old, the 2010 draft pick already is facing a career crossroads.
"I think we had real constructive conversations with him on what he has to work on this summer," coach Kevin Dineen told the newspaper. "He’s already taking steps to make sure that his preparation will be exactly what we're looking for."
5. Should the Panthers have drafted Seth Jones? -- If Gudbranson does not improve, the decision to pass on Jones will become even more scrutinized.
The Panthers lost the 2013 NHL Draft lottery to the Colorado Avalanche, who chose forward Nathan MacKinnon at No. 1. Sitting second, Florida also picked a forward, Barkov, rather than Jones, the defenseman who was Central Scouting's No. 1-rated North American skater.
Asked the day before the draft for pros and cons, Tallon said this:
"The pros [for taking Jones] are we would have the best crop of young defensemen in hockey. ... We'd have a stable of young defensemen that really would solidify that position for many years to come. It would affect our offense, at first, because we wouldn't get that prolific forward in this particular draft. But long-term, we'll get a lot more offense from our back end.
"As far as taking a forward, well, it's a need. It gives our other players [from] our other drafts in the last two years a little more time to develop so they can get more confidence and score more goals … then when called up they're more ready to perform."
With 22-year-old Dmitry Kulikov also coming off a step-backward season on the Panthers blue line, Barkov will be judged against more than just his own play, at least in the near-term.
Jones fell to No. 4 and the Nashville Predators, who could use him on their top pairing this season.
6. Will Florida find rough waters in the Atlantic? -- Even though the Southeast Division produced just as many Stanley Cup champions as any other since the 2003-04 season (two), realignment was not kind to the Panthers.
Florida is leaving a competition-cozy collection of teams to take on some tradition-rich Cup contenders in the Atlantic Division, the new home of the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.
At first glance, the Panthers likely will compete with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres for sixth place. Add to that a travel log of 45,136 miles (according to Ontheforecheck.com), most in the Eastern Conference.
The bright side? Midwestern snowbirds spending the winter in Florida could fill BB&T Center to watch their favorite teams.
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