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Panthers aim to end 10-year playoff drought

by Brian Hunter
Is this the year?

That was the tagline for a series of ads the NHL ran several years ago -- but it's also the question Florida Panthers fans seem to ask on an annual basis as the summer begins to wind down and the new hockey season beckons.

As in: Is this the year the Panthers finally make it back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and end a drought that extends all the way back to 2000, when Pavel Bure was the most feared goal-scorer in the League?

Florida made a push two seasons ago, finishing with 93 points but losing out on a tiebreaker to Montreal for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers stayed in the race for a significant portion of 2009-10 before an anemic offense doomed them to a disappointing 77 points and a 14th-place finish, ahead of only Toronto.

Florida's 2.46 goals per game ranked ahead of only Calgary and Boston. If that didn't make things difficult enough for goaltender Tomas Vokoun, the Panthers also yielded the most shots on goal, with a 34.1 average. Vokoun finished third in the League in both shutouts (7) and save percentage (.925), but only sported a 23-28-11 record with a 2.55 goals-against average as he was asked to win games by himself on too many nights.

Still, there may be more optimism heading into this season than any in recent memory, thanks in large part to the hiring of Dale Tallon as general manager. The chief architect of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup-winning squad has already started the rebuilding of the Florida organization through trades, the draft and free agency.

Tallon has forewarned that it's a process building a championship team, but you've got to be in it to win it. Before the Panthers can lift the Cup, they must take the first step and get back into the playoffs.

Tallon used the draft to his full advantage in building the Blackhawks back into contenders, and he wasn't shy about stockpiling picks at this year's event in Los Angeles -- even if that meant saying goodbye to a number of familiar faces.

Already in possession of the No. 3 pick, Tallon added two more first-round choices to the Panthers' arsenal through a pair of trades that saw forwards Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell sent to the Bruins and defenseman Keith Ballard and forward Victor Oreskovich dealt to the Canucks.

The losses of Horton and Ballard figure to be felt the most. Although Horton's goal total has declined in each of the past three seasons, he still finished second on the Panthers in scoring last season with 57 points and led the team with 37 assists. Ballard's 8 goals tied him with Bryan McCabe for tops among Florida defensemen, and he was second only to McCabe with 28 points.

Erik Gudbranson received the honor of being the first defenseman taken in the 2010 Entry Draft when the Panthers selected him with the third pick. Known for his physical play, the 6-foot-4, 195-pounder will have a shot at training camp to make the NHL roster.

Not only did Florida get the 19th pick in the draft from Boston, which promptly turned into Minnesota high school standout Nick Bjugstad, it also received another scoring threat from the blue line in defenseman Dennis Wideman. Although he struggled in his final season with the Bruins, the 27-year-old scored 13 goals in each of the previous two seasons. He also rebounded in 2010 with a strong postseason, recording 12 points and a plus-3 rating in 13 games.

In addition to surrendering the 25th pick, which became Moose Jaw center Quinton Howden, Vancouver also dealt forwards Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner. Bernier is traditionally good for between 10-15 goals and 20-30 points a season, while Grabner broke into the NHL last season by playing in 20 games for the Canucks with 5 goals, including a hat trick April 2 against Anaheim.

Lastly, the Panthers brought in forward Christopher Higgins and defenseman Nathan Paetsch to compete for roster spots. Higgins is a former three-time 20-goal scorer for the Canadiens whose production took a major dip after 2007-08, when he recorded a career-high 52 points. He split last season between the Rangers and Flames. Paetsch had a career-high 24 points for the Sabres in 2006-07 and stayed with the team through last season, which also saw him spend time with the Blue Jackets.

Florida's playoff hopes took an immediate hit last season when David Booth absorbed a major wallop from Philadelphia captain Mike Richards in a late October game. He missed most of the season with a serious concussion, finishing with just 8 goals and 16 points in 28 games. The Panthers need a healthy Booth to return to form and team up with leading scorer Stephen Weiss (28 goals, 60 points) to provide some semblance of an offensive punch up front.

Michael Frolik, who won't turn 23 until February, is coming off back-to-back 21-goal seasons to begin his NHL career, while the Panthers return added depth up front in the form of veterans Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak and Steven Reinprecht.

Along the blue line, McCabe and Wideman will pack a powerful one-two punch, and Dmitry Kulikov impressed as a 19-year-old by playing in 68 games and regularly seeing over 20 minutes of ice time.

Vokoun showed what he's capable of when he gets a little help, leading the Czech Republic to victory at the World Championship with a brilliant effort against Russia in the final. Veteran backup Scott Clemmensen also returns.

The biggest challenge for Tallon and third-year coach Peter DeBoer may be making hay in a Southeast Division that has been owned for the past three seasons by the Washington Capitals. The Panthers have been left to jockey with Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay for a playoff berth that has managed to consistently elude them.

Maybe this is the year.

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