By Alain Poupart for floridapanthers.com
|One player that the Panthers hope to see a bounce back year from is forward Chris Higgins who scored at least 20 goals in his first three seasons with Montreal (Getty Images)
After a draft that universally was acclaimed as one of the best in the NHL, there’s little question the Panthers should make major strides before too long.
But what about this season? How much better can the team be after a disappointing 2009-10 season?
On the surface, the reflex might be to suggest the Panthers could take a step back because they traded away forward Nathan Horton and defenseman Keith Ballard, who happened to be two of their most gifted players.
But the Panthers also brought in an awful lot of veteran as well as young players — Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner, Chris Higgins, Marty Reasoner, Nathan Paetsch, Mike Weaver
and Dennis Wideman — to go along with their memorable draft class.
The end result is a team with a lot more depth than last year’s version.
“We have more depth, we have more positional players than we’ve had before based on what happened in the offseason,” said GM Dale Tallon. “So we’ll have a little more competition for jobs and that’s how you get success.”
Another reason for optimism is the return of David Booth.
After a breakout season in 2008-09, Booth was expected to play a major role last season but instead was derailed by injuries. He had 31 goals two seasons ago and the Panthers were counting on him reaching the 30 plateau again last season.
Also up front, Higgins scored 23, 22 and 27 goals for the Montreal Canadiens during a three-season stretch (2006-08); Stephen Weiss
had a career-high 28 goals last season; Michael Frolik scored 21 goals each of his first two seasons in the NHL; and Grabner had five goals in a 20-game stint with the Canucks late last season.
So even without Horton, the Panthers should be able to score some goals, even if they’re not going to be on an offensive par with, say, Washington in that department.
On defense, Wideman should help boost a power play that ranked next-to-last in the league last season. Youngsters Dmitry Kulikov
and Jason Garrison
should only be better with a year of experience.
As usual, the Panthers should be strong in net with veterans Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen
Mind you, the Panthers are far from a finished product, and Tallon is well aware of that. But the building project is off to a good start.
And remember that Tallon said upon taking over the Panthers that he thought this team was in better shape than the Chicago team he inherited a few years back before building it into a Stanley Cup winner.
That said, the Panthers GM is taking a wait-and-see approach before gauging the progress of his new team and whether it’s in better shape than at this time last year.
“That’s hard for me to answer that question,” he said. “We’re never satisfied. We’ve got to move forward and get better every day. I don’t know yet. I’ll have a pretty good idea after training camp what kind of team we have.”