After nearly a month of informal practices – practices that have grown from a handful of veterans to nearly 30 players – the Panthers officially kick off their 16th training camp this weekend.
After going through physicals Saturday morning in South Florida, the Panthers will fly to Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia and begin on-ice practices Sunday in preparation for the upcoming season.
For the Panthers, there’s a lot of optimism. They’re coming off their best season since 2000 and expectations are high going into coach Peter DeBoer’s second season. But like every other team in every other sport, there are questions heading into camp. Will stars emerge? Will injuries occur? Will players improve or decline? Did off-season moves strengthen or weaken the core?
Below are the 10 biggest questions facing the Panthers as they move toward their historic regular-season opener in Helsinki, Finland. WILL BRYAN ALLEN RETURN 100 PERCENT FROM KNEE SURGERY?
This is huge. If Allen is healthy, and he’s had no setbacks in the weeks he’s participated in informal practices, the Panthers start the season with a strong top four on ‘D’ in Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe, Jordan Leopold and Allen. But if Allen has any setbacks, the Panthers may have to go into the season having to rely heavily on signed free agent Ville Koistinen (86 games the past two seasons in Nashville) and possibly some prospects.
All of which leads us to… WHO STEPS UP ON DEFENSE?
The Panthers used 11 defensemen over the course of the 2008-09 season, so warm bodies are a must. With Jay Bouwmeester, Karlis Skrastins, Nick Boynton and Jassen Cullimore all gone, the Panthers are going to need at least two others to be ready come their opener in Finland. Is No. 1 draft pick Dmitry Kulikov
the man? Will Jason Garrison
or Keaton Ellerby
make the jump from the American Hockey League (AHL)? Will the Panthers sign NHL veterans Martin Skoula and Christian Backman, who have been invited to tryout at training camp? And who eats up the time Skrastins and Bouwmeester played on the penalty kill? Stay tuned. CAN ROSTISLAV OLESZ EMERGE AS A TOP FORWARD?
Since being taken seventh overall in the 2004 draft, Olesz has been a bit of an enigma. He’s got the size to be a power forward, but he’s spent much of his time playing on the perimeter. Stunting his growth has been injuries: He missed 15 games in 2007-08 with a wrist injury and 43 last season due to a sports hernia. Signed to a longterm contract, Olesz enters his fifth NHL season and, quite frankly, needs to prove himself as a top forward. WILL THE PANTHERS IMPROVE IN SHOOTOUTS?
Oh, man. This was ugly last season. The Panthers won only three of 11 shootouts – hate to say this, but just another win would have got them in the playoffs – and scored only six goals. Yikes! There is good news. First, there’s nowhere to go but up. Second, Steve Reinprecht scored on two-for-three chances last season in Phoenix, and Koistinen was three-of-four. Better days. CAN NATHAN HORTON BE AN ALL- STAR?
Horton has size and one of the meanest shots in the league, but since scoring 31 goals in 2006-07 his goal production has decreased the past two seasons. That can’t happen on a team that struggles for goals. Horton’s decrease in goals last season (22) was due in part to injury (he missed 15 games last season) and because he spent much of the season at center. Back on the wing this season and alongside ‘Sunrise Express’ linemates Stephen Weiss
and David Booth, Horton appears primed for a breakout season. Horton is still young, but he needs to realize he be anything he wants in this league. WILL THE PANTHERS SURVIVE THE EARLY SCHEDULE?
There’s been a lot made about the Panthers travel schedule in September and October. They open camp in Nova Scotia, travel west to Edmonton, south to Dallas and Sunrise before opening the season in Finland. Six days later, they return to play their home opener at BankAtlantic Center. Yes, it’s a lot of travel but, quite frankly, they’re just going to have to deal with it. Veterans won’t be playing back-to-back games and DeBoer will get to see plenty of the rookies. The biggest key will be getting through preseason and training camp in the Nova Scotia backwoods without injuries. CAN SHAWN MATTHIAS FULFILL THE PROMISE?
Matthias has had fans salivating about what could be since he was acquired from the Red Wings in February of 2007. His legend grew when he scored two goals in four games later that year on an emergency call-up from juniors. But the 6-3 centerman, who was competing to make the team last year out of training camp, never stuck and was mired in the murk of what was the Rochester Americans. He was a minus-19 with only three goals in the Amerks first 19 games. After watching him play 16 games last season with the Panthers, DeBoer called Matthias a “sure fire NHL player.” And the kid dropped some 30 pounds over the summer, and he looked leaner and quicker during rookie camp. His size and productivity up the middle would be a welcome addition come October. WILL JEFF TAFFE MAKE THE TEAM?
In the words of Curly from The Three Stooges, Taffe has been a ‘victim of circumstances’ the past two years, playing in a Pittsburgh organization behind centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. But don’t think for a moment Taffe isn’t talented enough to find himself on the Panthers roster opening night. He was a point-a-game player in the AHL last season, a proven winner and scorer at the University of Minnesota, and is responsible at both ends of the ice. DOES VOKOUN HAVE AS STRONG A BACKUP IN CLEMMENSEN?
Short answer – yes. Craig Anderson was a key in the Panthers winning 41 games last season, stepping in to win 15 when things weren’t going Tomas Vokoun’s way. But Scott Clemmensen
proved last season in New Jersey when stepping in for Martin Brodeur that he’s the real deal – going 25-13-1 with a 2.39 goals against and .917 save percentage. The Panthers are solid in goal. CAN MICHAEL FROLIK IMPROVE ON HIS ROOKIE SEASON?
So here’s a guy who many didn’t expect last season to make the team out of training camp. All he did was finish third in goals (21) and tie Horton for fourth in scoring while proving his durability in 79 games. The upside for the 21-year-old Frolik is big, and there’s nothing to suggest he can’t improve on his numbers and his play. He doesn’t shy away from battles, is responsible defensively, can play a number of roles and, for a rookie, was quite consistent last season.