It's been quite some time since the Florida Panthers
were mentioned in the same conversation with the best teams in the League.
That's because the Panthers have been historically one of, if not the worst, teams in the NHL for the past decade. They haven't reached the playoffs since 2000, when they were swept by the New Jersey Devils
. The Panthers haven't won a playoff game since 1997 and haven't finished higher than third in the Southeast Division since the 2000-01 season.
But thanks to a drastic overhaul by GM Dale Tallon
, the Panthers have quickly emerged as one of the better and more exciting teams to watch in the League.
Right Wing - FLA
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 31
SOG: 75 | +/-: 16
Two of their three leading scorers (Tomas Fleischmann
and Kris Versteeg
), No. 1 goaltender (Jose Theodore
) and top defenseman (Brian Campbell
) were all acquired over the summer either in a trade or as a free-agent signing. The team is one of the fastest in the NHL, and it's taking the NHL by storm.
Versteeg has 31 points in 29 games, while Fleischmann has 30 points in 30 games. Versteeg is leading the team in goals with 13. Campbell leads the team with 22 assists. Theodore is 11-6-3 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
"We didn't quite know [how long it would take]. We thought that we had a lot of good guys coming into the room, so we thought it could turn around quicker than maybe most people gave us credit for," Versteeg told NHL.com's Matt Kalman. "So it's been great, it's been nice to see a lot of success going around the room for a lot of different guys, and hopefully we'll just keep that rolling."
But there are some holdovers who are making big contributions too.
has 11 goals and 19 assists in 30 games. Jason Garrison
has 9 goals, the most by any defenseman in the NHL. Fellow blueliner Dmitry Kulikov
has 3 goals and 17 assists in 29 games.
It's all led to the Panthers leading the Southeast Division by six points through 30 games. They're 7-3-2 in their last 12.
But it's not just the players who are new. Coach Kevin Dineen
was hired by Tallon during offseason and has brought everything together right away. He said the challenge of coaching a team full of players who hadn't spent much time together was nothing new, as that was usually what he faced during his minor-league coaching days.
"Kevin, he brings a whole different type of system -- a system that guys want to play for, a guy that guys want to play for," Versteeg said. "And I think it's really shown in our game. We play a pretty good system game. And not only that, we bring work ethic every night. We're going to have to bring work ethic, especially against a team this big, this strong, this deep, if we're going to win tonight. But we definitely, I think, bring it on a consistent basis."
Despite a pair of losses last week, the Bruins are holding on to the top spot in the Super 16. But the League-leading Wild are breathing down their necks. There's not a lot that separates the top the teams on this list. There's no scientific formula to ranking these teams, so feel free to do your own in the comments section.
If you have any problems, questions, anger or praise for this list, you can let me know on Twitter: @davelozo
||Apparently the key to beating the Bruins is a lights-out goaltender. In their two losses last week, the Jets' Ondrej Pavelec stopped 39 shots; Jose Theodore stopped 40 for the Panthers.
||Winners of seven straight, the Wild are the only NHL team with 10 wins at home and 10 on the road. At 9-5-0, the Wild are the League's best when trailing after one period.
||N.Y. Rangers (17-6-4)
While the Red Wings ride Jimmy Howard
, the Rangers are easing the burden on Henrik Lundqvist
. He's on pace to make 64 starts, the fewest since his rookie season.
||Chris Pronger is out. Ilya Bryzgalov has a lower-body injury. Claude Giroux had his bell rung by a teammate. These could take a toll eventually, but right now, the Flyers are rolling.
||Remember that goaltending controversy that was brewing? Well, Roberto Luongo is 4-0-0 with a .940 save percentage since Dec. 4. Still, Cory Schneider is a great insurance policy.
has 17 of the Wings' 18 victories. He's on pace to make 70 starts. The last goaltender to make that many starts and win a Stanley Cup was Martin Brodeur
||St. Louis (17-9-3)
has looked good after missing more than a year with a concussion. In four games, he has a goal and two assists and is averaging 16:15 of ice time per game.
Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa and Keith are the Blackhawks' top five scorers. But did you know defenseman Nick Leddy
is sixth? He's not quite a rookie, but the 20-year-old has impressed.
||Perhaps the Penguins are destined to exist in a constant state of injury. Crosby, Letang, Michalek, Staal. All those setbacks seemingly do is make the team stronger.
||Jose Theodore is posting numbers that compare favorable to his Hart Trophy season of 2001-02. If he keeps it up, the Panthers are a lock for the postseason.
||San Jose (15-10-2)
||The Sharks have lost 6 of 8. The offense has been inconsistent, but Antti Niemi has been steady as she goes in net. Are they missing Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi?
||With Kari Lehtonen out until after Christmas, this is a big stretch for the Stars. Richard Bachman will need to throw it into overdrive to keep things from turning for the worse.
's disappointing sophomore campaign included a minus-29 rating in 82 games. This season, he's on pace for more goals, assists and is plus-2 through 27 games.
||The usually stingy Coyotes allowed nine goals in back-to-back losses to the Wings and Wild. Just as they did last year, the Coyotes are allowing the third-most shots per game.
Some of the shine is coming off Jhonas Enroth
, who has lost four of five. Ryan Miller
remains the goaltender who will have a say in the Sabres' fortunes this season.
||Have the Caps turned a corner under Dale Hunter? They've won two straight, but they have a big test Tuesday when they host the red-hot Flyers.