I'll call this an off-season wrap up because the Panthers are likely finished with player transactions, accomplishing everything they wanted to do.
At the end of the season, coach Jacques Martin targeted areas of need, stating he needed a scoring right winger and a pair of top four defensemen. Todd Bertuzzi, Ruslan Salei and Bryan Allen fill those spots. In goal, the assumption was Roberto Luongo would return. But when the opportunity arose to acquire Bertuzzi, Allen and goalie Alex Auld, it was too good to pass up. Without the trade, Florida would not have been able to fill all three holes. The Cats realize that Auld, while talented and successful last season, is still young and only has one NHL season under his belt. Enter the second winningest goalie in NHL history, Ed Belfour. The Eagle received an endorsement from Joe Nieuwendyk and that's good enough for me. Not only did the two play together most recently in Toronto, but they won the Stanley Cup together in Dallas in 1999. Belfour's health is good and he will be motivated to prove people wrong about his NHL ability at age 41. The goaltending duo will be more than adequate.
In addition, the Panthers now have everyone else signed and most importantly the best defense corps we've seen here in years. The team has a two year deal with rising star Jay Bouwmeester and a smart four year contract with solid defenseman Mike Van Ryn. Salei signed a four year deal as well, while Branislav Mezei, who will be in the top five on defense if finally healthy, inked a two year deal. The new star in the new NHL is the mobile defenseman who can move the puck. The Panthers obviously realize that and have locked up numerous defensemen. How far has this team come on the blue line? Well, last year at this time half the unit was made up of Sean Hill, Alexander Karpotsev and Eric Cairns. None are being counted on by any NHL team this year. Perhaps overlooked by many though, is the depth. Along with Bouwmeester, Salei, Allen, Van Ryn and Mezei, Florida also has Ric Jackman, Steve Montador, Joel Kwiatkowski and Alexei Semenov under contract. Those four will battle it out for 6th spot and 7th d-men. That's nine defensemen for seven or eight spots. Should someone go down the team won't be scrambling to get blueliners like last season. The replacement will already be there. Defense has been the Panthers achilles heal for years. This off-season the team finally had the surgery to fix the problem!!!
Up front just about everyone is back with Bertuzzi and Finland's Ville Peltonen added. The latter played with captain Olli Jokinen in the Olympics and will be a valuable penalty killer. That position is more important than ever with the referees calling the games so tightly. The top 12 forwards look to be (left to right, in order of likely lines to start camp):
Roberts - Jokinen - Stumpel
Peltonen - Nieuwendyk- Bertuzzi
Gelinas - Weiss - Horton
Olesz - Gratton - Kolnik
Greg Campbell and Anthony Stewart are factors as well.
From our standpoint, myself and you fans, the last month has been great. The Panthers have spent more money than they ever have on players, signed guys to long term deals and simply have proven ownership is committed to winning. Now, it's up to the players and coaches to bring it all together. This team has a good mix of veterans and younger players that are ready to emerge. And don't forget one of the best coaches in the game. Can't wait for October 6th...