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2007: A Whole New World

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
By Dave Joseph for

Panthers GM and coach Jacques Martin and Panthers captain Olli Jokinen
”Everything is here and ready.” Captain Olli Jokinen.

And so it begins.

Five months after playing their last game, 144 days after being dismissed for the summer, the Panthers will gather Friday morning at Dobson Ice Arena in Vail, Co., to begin the process of becoming a team that contends for the playoffs and, yes, the Stanley Cup.

A team that can compete for 82 games.

A team that can have a winning November.

A team that can make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

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“Now it’s up to us to get it done,” Jokinen said.

It won’t be easy. Every team in the Southeast thinks they have a shot at winning the division and making the playoffs. And while teams like the Sabres and Devils took a hit during free agency, other teams like the Flyers, Rangers and Capitals have taken giant steps forward.

For the Panthers, a plan formed six years ago to build through the draft and sign those players to longterm deals has finally come to fruition. There’s Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, Rostislav Olesz and Bryan Allen. There’s veterans like Jokinen, Ruslan Salei, Richard Zednik, Mike Van Ryn, Ville Peltonen, Radek Dvorak and Jozef Stumpel, and the promise of Cory Murphy and Noah Welch.

And it all begins Friday when 43 Panthers take part in the team’s first practice before playing four preseason games on the road in five days the following week.

Training camp, according to Peltonen, will be a chance to “get the team, yourself and everybody ready, step-by-step, for a good start.”

“We have to be able to push ourselves,” he added. “There are times when it’s going to be tough. So we have to get the mentality to be consistent in our detail and work ethic. It starts, I think, in training camp.”

And it starts, as always, with questions heading into the camp.


Nathan Horton
The biggest question during camp might be who will join center Olli Jokinen and left winger Ville Peltonen on the first line. According to Martin, there’s “good chemistry” between Jokinen and Peltonen, who have played together for Finland in numerous World Championships and the 2006 Olympics.

“It is a matter of finding someone that is going to complement those two,” Martin added.

So who will be on the left? Pick a name, any name.

Nathan Horton, who had a career-high 31 goals last season, was very productive when playing alongside Jokinen. As for chemistry? At one point Jokinen started referring to Horton as ‘Hortonen’ so that all three first-line players had the ‘en’ at the end of their names.

But maybe Martin wants Horton to play the role of sniper on the second line? If that’s the case, Jozef Stumpel, who has also spent time on the first line, or free-agent signee Richard Zednik could land alongside Jokinen and Peltonen.


Instead of handing out big money to one free agent, GM and coach Jacques Martin added speed and depth by signing free agent forwards Richard Zednick, Radek Dvorak and Brett McLean. The hope is Dvorak and McLean can add between 15-20 goals and Zednik can add another 20-25 and boost the power play.


Not that anyone needs reminding – although, that may not be a bad thing when it comes this – but the month of November has wrapped itself around the Panthers the past two season like Marley’s chains.

The Panthers have won four games – count ‘em, four games – during the past two seasons in the month of November. Needless to say, the boys have left themselves a little too much to do come the remainder of the season after tripping and stumbling into December.

If the Panthers are going to contend, they must start quick and win games during November. How huge is the month of November? Ten of the Panthers’ 14 games will be against Southeast Division rivals.


Let’s be honest: The blue line hasn’t always been a strength for the Panthers. But this time there’s eight legitimate NHLers vying for the top six spots.

Start with the top pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan Allen, the second shift of Ruslan Salei and Mike Van Ryn, and then throw into the mix Cory Murphy, Steve Montador, Noah Welch and Branislav Mezei.

The Panthers are counting on Murphy, the MVP last year of the Finnish Elite League, to quarterback the power play. Welch, a Harvard graduate who was acquired from Pittsburgh last winter in exchange for Gary Roberts, has a big-time potential to match his 6-4 frame. Montador is proven to be gritty and tough.


Remember him, the big, 6-5 defenseman with the big shot and lots of potential? Well, the 26-year-old has played only 61 games the past two seasons due to shoulder and ACL injuries. But Mezei has worked diligently over the summer, is back on the ice, and is clearly the wild card on the blue line.


Remember him, a first-round draft pick (25th overall) from the 2003 Entry Draft? After losing much of his 2005-06 season due to a wrist injury, Stewart has spent the summer working out with former Olympic track star Ben Johnson in an attempt to make his mark on the team and earn a roster spot out of training camp. In the last year of his contract, Stewart admits this is a “make or break year.”


Goaltender Tomas Vokoun
Tomas Vokoun.

Panther fans can’t say that name enough.

Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun, Tomas Vokoun…

OK, you get the drift. After trying to patch the wound between the pipes last year with Alex Auld and veteran Ed Belfour, the Panthers stepped up big-time to acquire Vokoun, one of the top five goalies in the league. All the guy’s done is win 25 games each of the past four seasons.

What kind of difference does he make: His career goals against is 2.40. The Panthers last year had a goals against of 3.04. That’s a goal every two games. The Panthers lost 23 one-goal games last season.

Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun. Tomas Vokoun. Tomas…


Here’s what you need to know about Jay Bouwmeester: Despite having crazy expectations heaped on him five years ago as a 19-year-old rookie, Bouwmeester has survived and grown each season he’s been in the league. Although he’ll only be 24 come opening night, Bouwmeester comes into the 2006-07 season off his first All-Star appearance and a career-high 12 goals. And let’s not forget, he was a Plus-23 last season while logging up to 30 minutes in some games.


Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester all took their games to new highs last season. Many believe this year it could be Rostislav Olesz.

Although he’ll be only 21 opening night, Olesz has everything to be a big-time player, including speed and a great shot. Although he scored career-highs last season in goals (11), assists (19) and points (30), Olesz has tons of potential.

*WELCOME TO THE NHL, (fill in the blank)

With the addition of free agents Zednik, McLean and Dvorak – and with Jokinen, Horton, Weiss, Peltonen, Olesz, Stumpel, Gregory Campbell and David Booth returning – there’s not a lot of room on the roster up front. But the hope is a young player makes their mark during training camp and comes out wearing a Panther jersey Oct. 4 at Madison Square Garden.

Could it be Kenndal McArdle? Michael Frolik? Drew Larman? Kamil Kreps? Stewart?

Stay tuned.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s been a while. But you can’t argue with the fact the Panthers have never been this deep in home-grown talent. Mix in some free agents, a top five goalie, a promising group of 20-somethings and, yes, it’s OK to think about contending for the Southeast Division title and the playoffs.

Welcome to a whole new world.

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