At the conclusion of the 2007-08 season in which the Florida Panthers failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs a seventh straight time, General Manager Jacques Martin vowed to upgrade a defense that needed improving.
Martin, whose team finished 29th in the League in shots allowed per game (33.6), has certainly stood by his promise.
After obtaining defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton from the Phoenix Coyotes for leading scorer Olli Jokinen at the 2008 Entry Draft, Martin re-signed their mainstay in the back end, Jay Bouwmeester, to a one-year contract on July 28.
On Tuesday, the blue line shuffle continued when Martin announced the acquisition of 33-year-old Maple Leafs defender Bryan McCabe and a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 in exchange for 29-year-old defenseman Mike Van Ryn.
McCabe, who already has moved to South Florida, was due a $2 million deferred signing bonus that was scheduled to be paid by the Leafs on Labor Day. Once that payment was finalized, McCabe, who was the Leafs highest-paid player, agreed to waive his no-trade clause and join the Panthers.
“We are very pleased to have acquired a player with Bryan’s talent level and playing experience,’’ Martin said. “Bryan is a big, strong, hard hitting defenseman who also possesses the ability to be a goal scorer and play on special teams. He will be counted on to play an integral role on our defense and to help bring future success to our franchise.’’
The 12-season NHL veteran played for the Islanders, Vancouver and Chicago before being traded to Toronto in 2000 in exchange for former Florida defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev. He scored five goals, 18 assists, 109 hits and 96 blocked shots in a career-low 54 games last season. McCabe missed six games early in the season because of a groin injury, then two months after breaking three bones in his left hand when he was checked into the boards during a loss at Montreal on Feb. 7. Still, he led Toronto in total minutes (25:55) and shorthanded minutes (3:36) per game while logging over 4:30 of ice time on the power-play.
““I’m excited about coming (to Florida). There’s a great group of young guys here and a good mix of talent."
-- Newest Panther Bryan McCabe
“I’m excited about coming (to Florida),’’ McCabe said. “There’s a great group of young guys here and a good mix of talent. Bringing in Cory Stillman, a guy with two Stanley Cups, and the acquisitions of (Keith) Ballard and (Nick) Boynton is a big upside. With myself added, and Jay Bouwmeester, who is one of the best defensemen in the league, hands down, I think we have one of the best defensive units out there. Plus you have an All-Star goalie (Tomas Vokoun)."
Martin actually had an opportunity to coach McCabe for Team Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
”Jacques was the ‘D’ coach (at the Olympics) so I got to spend some time with him,’’ McCabe said. “Jacques went out of his way to bring me here and I’m happy to be wanted. Jacques has done a great job (in Florida). He’s got good young talent. And, obviously, the acquisitions this summer have been great."
Last year marked the first time in four seasons in which McCabe failed to score at least 50 points. The Panthers are hopeful a change in scenery will re-energize the one-time 68-point producer (with Toronto is 2005-06). McCabe closes his career in Toronto 33rd on the team’s all-time scoring list with 297 points in 522 games. He also scored 59 power-play goals in seven seasons with the Leafs.
The trade of McCabe by Toronto General Manager Cliff Fletcher comes on the heels of the team parting ways with goalie Andrew Raycroft (Colorado), right wing Darcy Tucker (Colorado) and center Kyle Wellwood (Vancouver Canucks) this summer. Fletcher dove into the free agent market, however, and signed 28-year-old blue liners Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren in July to bolster his defense. The club also tabbed rugged 18-year-old defenseman Luke Schenn, the No. 5 ranked North American skater according to Central Scouting, with the fifth overall selection at the 2008 Entry Draft. Schenn recorded back-to-back 100-plus penalty minutes with Kelowna of the Western Hockey League.
“We wanted to make major changes to the Maple Leafs so, in essence, we started to put together a young team that we can build and that will grow together to become a very competitive hockey team,’’ Fletcher said. “We felt that it would be in our best interest and (Bryan McCabe’s) to move on. He agreed four weeks ago to waive his no-movement clause if we would move him to the Florida Panthers. So, hopefully it’ll work out for both parties. Bryan is a consummate professional who had a number of good years (in Toronto) and, hopefully, he’ll get his career back on track down south.’’
Despite Van Ryn’s recent injury problems, Fletcher is confident the former first round pick (No. 26 overall) by the Devils in 1998 will pick up where he left off in 2005-06, when he recorded 37 points and a career-high in 29 assists in 80 games. He posted 37 points and a career-high 13 goals in 2003-04 with Florida.
Van Ryn, who was hampered the last two seasons with various wrist injuries and surgeries, played in 20 games last season before opting for surgery on his right wrist. The 6-foot-1, 198 pound right-hander, who has undergone three wrist surgeries the past two years, admitted last month everything is properly healed and that he’s ready for the season.
“Van Ryn, as opposed to Bryan (McCabe), is a right-handed shooting defenseman and he’s a pretty good offensive-defenseman when healthy and playing up to his game,’’ Fletcher said. “He’s ready to go and I believe is looking forward to the challenges ahead at training camp in a couple of weeks.
“I don’t know him personally, but from what I’ve been told, he seems like a genuine young man who just wants to get back to the way he was playing before all the injuries occurred,’’ he continued. “I did speak to (former Maple Leaf and Panther forward) Joe Nieuwendyk, who recommended Mike very highly. Mike told me he’s glad to have a fresh opportunity.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.