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Panthers hope young forwards can come of age

by Shawn P. Roarke
There is no question progress is being made with the Florida Panthers.

With a 41-30-11 record, Florida registered its most wins since the 1999-2000 season, when the club established the franchise mark of 43. The 93 points also were the most since that same 1999-2000 season and one more than the 92-point season in 1995-96 that paved the way for Florida's run to its only Stanley Cup Final.

But the Panthers still missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- albeit by a tiebreaker to the Montreal Canadiens for the final spot in the Eastern Conference. And for that reason, 2008-09 has to be considered a disappointment because the Panthers believed they were good enough to make the postseason.

How much did management believe Florida was primed to end its eight-year postseason drought? Enough that it resisted temptation and held onto unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Jay Bouwmeester at the deadline, despite significant offers from top-tier teams looking to bolster their lineups for runs deep into the postseason.

That gamble by Jacques Martin, the since-departed GM, didn't pay off and Bouwmeester was moved just before the draft to the Calgary Flames at a steep discount.

But there remains a belief in South Florida that things are on an upswing for this team. Coach Peter DeBoer made a seamless transition from junior hockey to the NHL in his first season behind the bench and seems to have the pulse of his team.

Plus, the club has a bushel of young players that now are reaching their prime and received some serious seasoning in last season's race for the postseason. David Booth, the face of that youth movement, just signed a new six-year deal and appears poised to become a top-10 goal-scorer in this League, giving the club the game-breaking force that has been missing since Olli Jokinen was moved two seasons ago.

The Florida Panthers have one of the most talented groups of young forwards in the League.

Booth has improved his goal and point total during each of his three NHL seasons, and finished last season with 31 goals and 60 points. Can he become the first Panther to reach the 40-goal plateau since Pavel Bure scored 59 goals in 2000-01? It's not out of the realm of possibility, although Booth no longer will sneak up on opponents.
Stephen Weiss led the team with 61 points, including a team-high 47 assists. Believe it or not, Weiss is just 26 years old, but 2009-10 will be his eighth NHL season.

Nathan Horton, 24, and Michael Frolik, 21, each had 45-point seasons in 2008-09, although they did it in far different ways. Horton is a prototypical north-south player who will as soon go through a defender as go around him. Frolik, meanwhile, has moves that are so silky smooth he has lived up to his nickname, "Baby Jagr."

Gregory Campbell, 25, also topped the 30-point mark this past season. And there is even more quality youth coming through the pipeline. Shawn Matthias, obtained in the Todd Bertuzzi trade in 2007, has shown flashes of brilliance and appears ready for full-time duty. Michal Repik, the team's second-round pick in 2007, had 49 points with AHL Rochester in his first pro season.

Fortunately, DeBoer has some veteran forwards to help these precocious youngsters find their way around the pitfalls that are part of becoming an established player.

Radek Dvorak, in the midst of his second go-round with the Panthers during his 13-year career, was a stabilizing influence last season. Cory Stillman, a two-time Stanley Cup winner (Tampa Bay, 2004; Carolina, 2006), knows what it takes not only to make it to the postseason, but thrive upon arrival. Stillman was nicked up last season and managed just 63 games, but he still had 49 points. 

The Panthers did lose a couple of stabilizing forces.

Richard Zednik took his 17 goals, 33 points and high-end creativity to Russia. Well-traveled and highly respected veteran Ville Peltonen also left as a free agent, leaving another dozen goals out of the mix.

That's almost 30 goals to be made up for a team that already had significant trouble scoring at times last season, especially on the power play. In order for those goals not to be missed too terribly, Florida's young forwards will have to continue developing at their projected pace and the veteran players will have to stay healthy.

This is where the Panthers' season will be determined. Simply, the blue line holds the key to Florida's fortunes.

If the Panthers can find a way to overcome the departure of Bouwmeester, who played extensively in all situations and outscored all but five forwards, then the playoffs will be more than just a fantasy.

If the team can't find a way to use the remaining defensemen to effectively replace Bouwmeester, who was second in the League at 26:59 of ice time per game last season, then the prospects look much bleaker. That's especially true when you consider the team also lost the following supporting-role defenseman: Karlis Skrastins, Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton.

All told, that is 26 goals and 91 points that walked off the blue line and out the door after the close of the 2008-09 season. Replacing that is a tall task at any time for any team.

So, to whom does this difficult job of plugging the holes fall?

Well, the Panthers signed Dennis Seidenberg just as camp opened. Seidenberg was a solid cog in Carolina's surprising ride to the Eastern Conference Finals, but even he will admit he is not in the All-Star orbit occupied by Bouwmeester. Jordan Leopold, a tried-and-true two-way defender, was part of the plunder from the deal of Bouwmeester.

Ville Koistinen was imported after two seasons as a part-time player with the Nashville Predators. And the club expects big things out of the two high-profile defensemen it has targeted in recent drafts. Dmitry Kulikov, this year's first-round pick, and Keaton Ellerby, the first-round pick in 2007, have legitimate shots to make the team.

Bryan Allen is a returning blueliner, but he played just two games last season because of a knee injury that required surgery. Keith Ballard and rugged veteran Bryan McCabe are the other returning defensemen.

While everyone focuses on the offense that must be replaced, there also are questions lurking in Florida's own end. Last season Florida allowed more than 2,800 shots, an average of 34.7 per game, which was the highest total in the League.

To save wear and tear on starting goalie Tomas Vokoun, who battled injury throughout last season, Florida knows the number of shots allowed per game must come down dramatically.

Vokoun is the team's linchpin, but he could not perform up to expectations last season, in part because of a battle with some back injuries. Still, he played in 59 games last season but won just 26, his lowest total since winning 25 games in 2002-03 with Nashville in his first season as a No. 1 goalie.

Vokoun, however, should be extra motivated this season as he looks for a strong start to impress the selection committee that will decide who plays for the Czech Republic in February's Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Last season, Florida learned of the importance of having an insurance policy in net when Craig Anderson played like a No. 1 when called upon during Vokoun's struggles. Anderson played so well, however, that he was signed as a free agent by the Colorado Avalanche.

Not surprisingly, the Panthers wasted little time in finding a replacement for Anderson, importing Scott Clemmensen from the New Jersey Devils. Last season Clemmensen stepped in when Martin Brodeur was injured and virtually saved New Jersey's season during the future Hall of Famer's 50-game absence.

Clemmensen went 25-13-1 with a .917 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average, the seventh-lowest in the League.

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