The Panthers kicked off free agency Wednesday by re-signing two players who embody ‘Panther Hockey’ while reinforcing their defense.
After signing leading goal scorer David Booth to a six-year deal and veteran Radek Dvorak to a two-year deal, the Panthers went shopping and came back with goalie Scott Clemmensen
and defenseman Ville Koistinen.
Assistant GM Randy Sexton said Wednesday evening the Panthers were still talking to unrestricted defensemen, including Karlis Skrastins.
Sexton described the team’s chances of “remote” to sign defenseman Jordan Leopold, whose rights were acquired from Calgary in a trade last week involving Jay Bouwmeester. He also added the Panthers had filed notice with the league they would buy out the contract of forward Brett McLean.
As for Clemmensen, who signed a three-year deal, he played 40 games for the Devils last season when Martin Brodeur was forced to the sidelines with elbow surgery. All he did was help the Devils to the playoffs by going 25-13-1 with a .917 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average. Clemmensen, a four-year starter at Boston College, where he won a national championship his senior season, will take the place of Craig Anderson, who signed a two-year deal with Colorado.
“With Scott we think we’ve got a terrific goalie,” Sexton said. “He proved himself last year when Brodeur went down. The whole league was kind of licking lips thinking, ‘Finally these guys have no Marty Brodeur. We’re going to feast.’ Clemmensen was outstanding for them. I know (former Devils coach) Brent Sutter talked to (Panther coach) Peter (DeBoer) about him during the season. We have great connections back into his roots at Boston College. He’s going to do a great job for us. We don’t think we’ll skip a beat with Anderson gone and Scott Clemmensen
When asked if Clemmensen would challenge Tomas Vokoun for playing time, Sexton said; “We would envision an open competition.”
“Tomas is no shrinking violet, he’s not going to run, and Scott is a very determined, competitive guy. We fully expect a real competitive situation for that starting position.”
Koistinen, who played 86 games the past two seasons in Nashville, is a player the Panthers believe “has some upside offensively,” according to Sexton. In fact, Koistinen led the Finnish Elite League in scoring by a defenseman in 2005-06 with 34 points. And he was one of the top defenseman in the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2006-07 while in Milwaukee with 41 points despite missing 21 games with a concussion.
“We don’t think his numbers in Nashville depict what he’s capable of,” Sexton added. “He played behind three terrific defenseman there in (Ryan) Suter and (Shea) Weber and (Dan) Hamhuis). We think there’s some offense to be generated by Ville.”
Sexton said he could see the mobile Koistinen paired with Bryan Allen or Bryan McCabe. But Sexton added the Panthers weren’t finished trying to upgrade their defense and were looking at a number of other players for the blue line.
Before signing Clemmensen and Koistinen, the Panthers first order of business was signing the 24-year-old Booth, a fan favorite and the team’s leading goal scorer (31) last year, to a six-year deal. For Booth, signing with the Panthers was a “no-brainer.”
“I think the organization is going in the right direction,” he added. “We were so close last year and I think we’re only going to get better. It’s a good organization to be part of and I’m already looking forward to next season.”
The Panthers were equally ecstatic.
“We’re just delighted,” Sexton said. “I think David embodies everything that we believe is an ideal Panther. He’s got speed, he’s got skill, he’s got grit, he’s got work ethic second to none. He plays every shift with passion. He’s got a great off-ice, workout ethic. He’s got a great attitude. For us it was critical to get this guy signed because he is the future of our franchise in that we want players to come to Florida with his passion and determination.
“The second thing that was important to us is we think we have a terrific young line with Booth, (Stephen) Weiss and (Nathan) Horton. At minimum they’ve got all four years left on their contracts. So our fans will see those guys play a lot of hockey over the next four years. It will be exciting hockey and we think that’s kind of the hub around which we’ll build our team forward.”
Dvorak, who scored 15 goals, including four short-handed, was another important piece of the team.
“We’re really happy to have Devo back,” Sexton said. “He helped us create the identity we created last year as an up-tempo team; a team that likes to pressure up ice and pressure back ice. In my opinion he’s one of the top penalty killers in the Eastern Conference. His speed creates opportunity for himself and his linemates. He’s a positive, upbeat guy. He embodies a lot of the Panther traits.”
Sexton said heading into Day 2 of free agency he’s happy with the team’s top forward lines, having signed Booth and Dvorak and, last week, center Steve Reinprecht.
“We’re real comfortable with our top three lines,” he said. “Whoever (coach) Peter (DeBoer) end up playing, but our top six are Booth, Weiss, (Michael) Frolik, Stillman, Reinprecht, Horton. We think those guys can score. We think David will pick up where he left off. Stephen’s wrist surgery is healing nicely, so we fully expect him to score some more goals than he did this year, if he stays healthy. Horty was on a 30-plus goal clip, but he just missed some games because of injury. If he can stay healthy we’ll see him north of 30 goals again.
“Michael Frolik will pick up where he left off and Reinprecht is a nice, playmaking decision. Knock on wood, Cory stays healthy. So we’re comfortable with those top six. And the next line with whoever Peter winds up there…Devo will pitch in with his 15, 16, 17. (Gregory) Campbell had kind of a coming-out party last year and we think we’ll continue to improve.”
Goaltending appears solid with Vokoun and Clemmensen. On the blue line, the Panthers currently have McCabe, Keith Ballard, Allen and Koistinen. Jason Garrison
and Keaton Ellerby
and Dmitry Kulikov
are also expected to compete for playing time.