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Peeke's Points: Off-Season, Part VI

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Panthers Blogger Cliff Peeke
Cliff Peeke, a Panther season ticket holder since Day One, is back blogging on for another season, giving the point of view on the Cats from a serious, die-hard fan’s perspective.

A Michigan native who’s played hockey (admittedly average at best) most of his life, Cliff grew up watching Red Wings games at the old Olympia Stadium. His allegiance changed to the Panthers the moment it was announced South Florida would have a team.

Cliff has played in adult leagues at IncredibleIce and his oldest son (age 25) plays there as well. His youngest son (age 9) is a member of the Jr. Panthers ’98 Squirt Travel Team.

Peeke's Points Archive


Last night, I found myself following the Panthers exhibition game against Calgary on Now, before thinking that I must not have a life if that’s how I spend my Tuesday late evening… it’s really quite the contrary… I have an extremely hectic life.

Matter of fact, I don’t ever recall in previous seasons that I followed an exhibition game or even really cared. But I have to admit that I was pretty happy when I learned Olesz tied it up in the third period and we go on to win. This follows the excitement that was very apparent just this past Saturday at Incredible Ice when the Panthers took the ice for their first practice and scrimmage.

The place was packed.

I’m wondering…is their a different kind of buzz around the team this season? Are die-hard fans sensing that this team may really achieve levels of success not seen in the past eight seasons?

This time of year, I’m always optimistic… too much so. Last year, when I wrote my pre-season blog, I actually thought we were a playoff caliber team. Of course I cautioned that it all depended on the quick start (which didn’t happen), and it did not factor in the injuries to our defense (and I believed our defense to be strong going into ’07-’08).

This year…I’m even more optimistic. And not just making the playoffs… but going deep in them.


Here are my top seven reasons this team will succeed in ’08-’09.

#7. Amerks.
I never thought it made sense when we left San Antonio to share an AHL franchise with Buffalo in Rochester. Having our prospects mixed with players they will soon be battling against, coupled with a lack of cohesiveness in team style, just didn’t seem right. Now we have our own AHL franchise and it can only be a positive. Players forced to play in the ECHL because there wasn’t room will now be able to perform at a higher level. Two previous 2nd rounder’s, Shantz and Plante, along with Beckford-Tseu should reap immediate benefits, among others. And…all the kids on the Amerks will be able to learn our system.

#6. Youth. When can you recall having so many talented prospects on the brink of making the Panthers team? Not only is this group close to being ready, but their presence has got to get the veterans thinking that with these guys in the wings, they better play all-out every night. Right there are Noah Welch, Michael Repik, Keaton Ellerby, Janis Sprukts, Shawn Matthias, Anthony Stewart, Stefan Meyer, Michael Frolik, and Kenndal McArdle. That’s an impressive group… and there’s more in the system.

#5. GM Jacques Martin.
Enough’s been written about him wearing two hats which he’s no longer doing. However, the GM hat he’s worn the past two seasons has been positive. And we desperately need stability in this front office position. Keenan replacing Dudley in that spot several seasons ago set us back a few years, and having Martin teaming up with Randy Sexton full time will only benefit the team in terms of stability and vision. Besides, except for the Kilger fiasco, I’ve liked Martin’s moves. Trading for Vokoun was right on and timely. Free agents McLean, Dvorak, and Murphy added serviceable depth (although production this year must exceed last year). Bringing in Cullimore and Johannson helped a depleted defense, and getting Belak should pay dividends for this season. I really liked the trade bringing in Skrastins and am hoping his all-out defensive style sets the tone. How about the Matthias for Bertuzzi trade… Martin may have helped erase the ugliness of Keenan’s blockbuster atrocity. Then, from all reports I’ve heard, the Jokinen deal had to be made… and in doing so we bolstered our defense big time. And if that wasn’t enough, we also sign Ballard long term. Martin continued to shore up our defense by trading for McCabe. And we still have two other Martin acquisitions ready to play defense at the NHL level…Welch (Roberts trade) and Ellerby (draft).  Up front, Martin signed free-agent Cory Stillman, a player I always wished wore a Panther jersey rather than the Dive Team… now we have him. In the 2007 draft, we secured both Ellerby and Repik, who are good prospects. This year’s draft was considered a success even though we had no pick in the first round. The Hockey News rated it an A-, primarily because Martin got guys in later slots that were projected much higher… Markstrom, Robak, Comrie, and Jenks. While time will tell, I only see a positive track record in the short time Martin has worn the GM hat.

#4. Coach Peter DeBoer. Relatively unknown and untested, wasn’t it still a relief to know that we did not hire an NHL retread coach. I thought it immediately refreshing and was pleased to hear of his coaching style. Two things stick out, his ability to work with the youth on our team, and the real hope that egos won’t conflict within the management team. My personal message to Coach DeBoer is to get the team to play play-off style hockey in October and November… we have very little room for error in the first quarter of this season… we desperately need a quick start… and he needs it as well to gain the confidence from players, fans, and management.

#3.  Vokoun and Anderson. Two years ago, after the Keenan debacle, it was tough to feel good knowing Luongo was out and Auld/Belfour were in. But last year was different. Not only did we trade to get the services of a top six goalie in Vokoun, but Anderson goes ahead and emerges as a premium back-up. This year, knowing Anderson’s capabilities, he can man the net more often, resulting in a fresh Vokoun (especially since we will be in the post-season).

#2.  Nathan Horton.
In a recent Ross McKeon article on Yahoo Sports, he writes how frustrating it must be to the Panthers fan base that every other team in the Southeast Division boasts a young superstar (Ovechkin, Lecavalier, Kovalchuk, and Eric Staal) and we have none. But wait…we could have had Eric Staal had we not prioritized Nathan Horton and flip-flopped positions. This is the year Horton breaks out from the potential mold into the “star” (maybe super-star?) type recognition. Why? Because simply put… he has to. He’s been in the league long enough, has size and talent, and he obviously has the confidence from GM Martin, since Jokinen’s 30 + goals were not replaced by any one player. So… it’s Horton… and it’s his time to prove worthy of what really was the number one pick in the 2003 entry draft. Heck, Dion Phaneuf was even selected six picks later. Pressure’s on Horton…but I’ll bet he perfoms.

#1. Team Defense. And to think I was bummed that we didn’t sign Magnus Johannson.  Where would there be room? I’ve got to hand it to GM Martin, he didn’t just improve our defense… he made it (at least on paper) probably the strongest Defense in the east. I’ve always believed in building a team from the goalie out, so in that case, this should be the strongest Panther team in years. Bouwmeester, Ballard, Boynton, Skrastins, Allen, McCabe, Murphy, and Welch… I don’t recall talent and depth like that ever on a Panther team. And if we end up winning games 2-1 or 3-2, I’m fine with that.  We need wins, and besides, to hard-core fans…those can be the most exciting.

Funny, as I’ve written this all down, it’s starting to make sense why I followed our exhibition game last night and may very well do so again tonight as we play Edmonton in a not-so-meaningless game… at least to me.
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