Panthers fans should be really excited by the off-season moves that were made by General Manager Mike Keenan and his staff that will undoubtedly improve the hockey club this season.
Good chemistry is the most important - yet most difficult - attribute a team can have and the Panthers are beginning to develop this. Character and experience are not too far behind either. Florida's bolstered defense may be the catalyst. Experienced defenseman Ruslan Salei became available in Anaheim and will compliment Bouwmeester very well along the Cats blue line. Defense seemed to dominate the off-season moves, closely followed by goaltenders. The eye opener was the Luongo trade to Vancouver, no more shocking than to Roberto himself. But then again 14 months of negotiations is weird in the NHL. Auld and Belfour in Florida make a solid tandem, but goaltending is no longer the most important position in hockey. We all saw the need for a good power play last season and throughout the playoffs. Certainly the addition of Bertuzzi should make the all-important power play more effective.
Disappointments will be part of every new off-season - losing a player to free agency, not getting the one you want - especially when the contract's value in terms of dollars and years are the only real consideration by today's players, and I should add agents. Defense returns as the key mover and shaker on the pond. The Pond? Anaheim should consider keeping Mighty in their name considering what they present on the blue line. Captain Scott Neidermayer was, in my view, the clear Norris Trophy winner last year, though the award went to Lidstrom of Detroit. Lidstrom is top notch but wasn't better last season. Now add Chris Pronger and you have a veritable one-two punch that hasn't been seen since the 1970's when the Canadians had Robinson, Savard, and Lapointe. Pick two of those three.
Zdeno Chara in Boston has changed the economics of the Bruins slightly more than when Bobby Orr came into the NHL in 1966. First year salary for Chara is $7.5 million. Bobby told me his first year payout including bonus was $15,000. Different world today, true, but still fun to ponder. I wonder what the Bruin hockey fan will expect from Zdeno? Although I will say that at 6-9 and 260-pounds he is the most skilled and mobile defensemen I have ever seen anywhere near that size, but a disappointing playoffs last season where puck movement was his nemesis should be cause for concern in the earlier going. His play of course could be a key factor in making the Bruins more competitive and coupled with the signing of Marc Savard formerly of Atlanta, the Bruins are looking to be playoff hopefuls.
In the scratch my head department, I feel Jay Mckee, in St. Louis, got a surprising amount of money, four million per year for four years and has set the bar higher for all defensemen contracts. The overpaid award goes to Tom Poti signed by the Islanders at $2.75 million per year. Other defense signings that are notable include Pavel Kubina, five million per year in Toronto and Aaron Ward to the New York Rangers.
John Graham to Carolina, Hasek to Detroit, Gerber to Ottawa, Denis to Tampa Bay and Cloutier to Los Angeles are major changes in goaltending directions for all these teams. Anaheim with Bryzgalov and Giguere are creating a very good trade situation for Brian Burke, the GM. I don't believe they will both be there very long. I can't tell you which one will go, but Burke will field all offers. Buffalo is also in the same situation with Miller and Biron. Darcy Regier, Buffalo's GM, has been listening to offers for over a year now and doesn't seem to be in a rush. Biron was resigned by the Sabres for this season but Miller isn't as of this writing. How about Nashville's Thomas Vokoun, cleared to play but hasn't skated since April when a blood clot was discovered in his abdomen. The life-threatening situation seems to be under control, though David Poile, the GM has to wonder. Meanwhile former Panther Chris Mason was signed. Plenty of new thought is going into the goalie position due to what we saw in the conference finals, there were three rookie goalies in the net and Roloson had only 15 playoff games under his belt prior to this season. Carolina benefited from both their goalies giving them good performances, as did Anaheim and San Jose.
I wish I could end my column with a fair prediction of what all the NHL off season moves will do to produce next season's top teams, but I am afraid that with the improvements made by many non-playoff teams and the loss of key players to last season's playoff teams, the field is wide open. Just remember who was picked 29th and 30th in the NHL last season by some pundits - Carolina and Buffalo.
Congratulations to our division rivals the Hurricanes for a sensational season and cup win, and former Panther assistant coach Lindy Ruff for the Jack Adams award as the NHL's best coach, both well deserved.
See you October 6th!