There’s no two ways around it, the biggest story of the Panthers’ remarkable 2011-12 season was the summer shopping spree that brought in close to a dozen established veterans from other teams.
That large group of players — from Brian Campbell
to Kris Versteeg
to Tomas Fleischmann
to Jose Theodore
, and on and on — not only greatly upgraded the Panthers roster, but also brought plenty of playoff and championship experience.
When the Panthers became the first team since the NHL went to a two-conference format in 1974-75 to win a division title the year after finishing last in its conference, it provided the exclamation point to the work GM Dale Tallon and Assistant GM Mike Santos did last summer.
But here’s the thing: Tallon and Santos didn’t stop fine-tuning the roster last summer just because they were able to add some many quality players.
The Panthers continued to add pieces even after the start of the regular season and, as it turned out, those became important pieces.
When the Panthers opened the playoffs with an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New Jersey Devils, their 24-man roster included six players who were not with the team at the start of the season.
All of them were forwards — Mikael Samuelsson
, John Madden
, Marco Sturm
, Wojtek Wolski
, Krys Barch and Jerred Smithson
— and all of them contributed to the most memorable Panthers season in more than a decade.
“It’s easy to see what contributions they all made,” Santos said on the eve of the start of the playoffs. “Most importantly, they all contributed in different ways.
“All these guys, the majority of them, are veteran players that have been there before. They helped us get to this point and they’re going to help us even more as we move forward.”
The six veterans were picked up in five different transactions, the first coming Oct. 22 and the last coming Feb. 25, three days before the NHL trading deadline.
The moves, in chronological order, went like this:
Oct. 22 — Acquired Samuelsson and Sturm from Vancouver for winger David Booth, center Steven Reinprecht (who had been playing for San Antonio of the AHL) and a 2013 third-round pick the Panthers had acquired from the Canucks in the February 2011 trade involving Chris Higgins.
Dec. 7 — Acquired Barch from Dallas, along with a sixth-round pick in 2012, in exchange for minor-league forward Jake Hauswirth and a fifth-round pick in 2012.
Jan. 4 — Signed Madden as a free agent.
Feb. 24 — Acquired Smithson from Nashville for the sixth-round pick acquired from Dallas in the Barch deal.
Feb. 25 — Acquired Wolski from the New York Rangers in exchange for minor-league defenseman Mike Vernace and a third-round selection in the 2013 draft.
Tally it up and it comes out to six veterans acquired for the price of Booth, three minor-league players and three draft picks (none in the first two rounds).
That’s called improving in the present without affecting the future.
And for a team with as many high-end prospects as the Panthers have, that was big.
“Dale and I have always maintained that this is a long-term plan here,” Santos said. “It’s a four- or five-year plan. We’ve always said that we were going to try to win while we waited for these young players to develop, but we didn’t want to rush the young players, we didn’t want to give up the young players. That’s what’s been really nice is we haven’t had to do that.”
The first move to bring in a veteran after the start of the regular season was made after the Panthers had suffered back-to-back shutout losses against Washington and Buffalo.
Before a home game against the New York Islanders, the Panthers announced the trade with Vancouver.
While it was suggested the Panthers made the deal in large part to get rid of Booth’s contract, which doesn’t expire until after the end of the 2014-15 season, this was a trade that paid off on the ice.
Samuelsson, who had played for Florida in 2003-04 and also won a Stanley Cup with Detroit, didn’t begin playing for the Panthers this season until December as he worked his way back after feeling the aftereffects of sports hernia surgery during his seven games with the Canucks.
By the end of the season, though, Samuelsson had become a key player for the Panthers.
He became the right point man on the first power-play unit, played on the highly-effective second line with summer acquisitions Marcel Goc
and Sean Bergenheim
, and also scored a couple of key goals.
Two that quickly come to mind were the shootout winner in the seventh round in the 4-3 victory at Winnipeg Jan. 21 and his third-period goal to tie the score at Montreal March 27 in a game the Panthers would win 3-2 in another shootout.
“Samuelsson brings us that experience, especially this time of year,” Santos said. “(He’s) a guy that’s won a Stanley Cup, a guy that’s been in Florida before and a veteran guy that was just necessary at different times throughout the year to calm the troops down, giving some of the younger guys the confidence that we’re on the right track, we’re going to be OK. Especially down the stretch, he scored some big goals, especially like the one he had in Montreal. His responsibility and his role went exactly as we had hoped and he was a big contributor.”
Samuelsson ended up with 28 points in 48 games for the Panthers, while Booth had 29 points in 56 games for Vancouver.
Samuelsson alone made this a good trade for the Panthers, who then got a bonus with Sturm. While he battled injuries a good part of the season, Sturm still chipped in with a couple of big goals, most notably a tally in a big victory at San Jose in December.
When Sturm scored against San Jose, Samuelsson was still waiting to play his first game for the Panthers.
|Forward John Madden, one with three Stanley Cup rings, was signed as a free agent on January 4th. |
Madden, meanwhile, was sitting at home wondering whether his long NHL career was over.
When the Panthers started suffering a rash of injuries up front, they reached out to Madden, the three-time Stanley Cup winner who became the oldest player on the roster.
Coming in around the halfway point of the regular season, it took a while for Madden to round into playing shape.
Even though he wasn’t brought in for his offensive prowess, Madden still went scoreless in his first 19 games with the Panthers before he had goals in back-to-back games against Boston and Buffalo in mid-March.
By the end of the season, Madden was centering what had become a very effective fourth line and also was a key part of the Panthers’ penalty-killing unit.
“It was a little tough at the beginning, no doubt about it,” Madden said near the end of the regular season. “You come in after guys got 35 games under their belt, it’s really tough. But it’s been a good ride. The guys have been real good and helped me get back in shape, in playing shape. It’s been fun. It’s been a great experience. A bunch of good guys in this dressing room and we’ve got a good hockey club.”
With the Panthers, Madden rejoined Campbell, Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky
, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in Chicago in 2010.
Madden also brought yet more experience to the Panthers dressing room.
“He’s been terrific for us,” Tallon said. “His attitude in the locker room, his winning approach, he knows how to get it done. Our veterans really came to the fore under pressure and knew what to expect, knew how to get ready and knew how to handle it. And John has been terrific for us, especially the last dozen games where we really needed his veteran leadership and his good play, his smart play.”
Another area where Madden has helped the Panthers is on faceoffs, which also is a strength of Smithson’s game.
A ninth-year veteran who Santos was familiar with from his time in Nashville, Smithson ended the regular season winning 56.1 percent of his faceoffs to rank 12th in the NHL.
Wolski, a first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2004, is an offensively gifted player who’s had success in the shootout in his career.
After a slow start in that department, he ended up 3-for-7 on shootout attempts for the Panthers and he had the game-winner in that March shootout victory at Montreal. His 42.9 percent success rate was second on the team behind the surprising 50 percent put up by defenseman Dmitry Kulikov
Wolski also became a regular on the power play.
“I think we saw his value as a shootout performer during the end of the regular season,” Santos said. “ That was one reason we got him. He helped us win a couple of shootouts, and we weren’t the best shootout team this year. He helped get some real important points. And he gives us some skill, he gives us the ability to put two power-play units on the ice now that can score and I’m not so sure we had that type of depth before we picked him up.”
Finally, there’s Barch, and Barch gave the Panthers a physical presence that was missing at the time of the trade because summer pick-up Matt Bradley
was out with the first of two significant injuries this season.
Barch also only added to the Panthers’ overall team speed and he showed some impressive offensive skills when he scored on a breakaway against Ottawa in an early-March home victory.
Barch wasted no time showing his new teammates he would stand up for them, fighting Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton on his first shift in a December game the Panthers would win 2-0.
“I think that he really felt that he wanted to show the guys that he had their backs,” Santos said. “At different times during the year, like it or not, we’re going to play against some teams that you’re going to have to stand up to and maybe even get into fisticuffs with once a while. He did that. It really takes the pressure off guys on our bench when they know there’s somebody out there that’s got their back, and Krys Barch definitely did that.”
Whether it was the occasional fight, the big goal, the key faceoff, the determined backcheck, the six in-season acquisitions by the Panthers all found a way to chip in.
They helped turned the excitement brought about by the summer shopping spree into a season to remember.
“We got off to a really good start and there were different things that happened during the year where we had needs,” Santos said. “One of the things that we did so well as a management team and as a scouting team was we addressed our needs as they came up. When we needed toughness, we went out and we got a Krys Barch. When we needed some veteran presence and maybe another guy that’s got Stanley Cup experience, we went out and we were able to get Mikael Samuelsson
and Marco Sturm
. And then when we needed help on winning draws, we go out and get a Jerred Smithson
and even a John Madden
“I don’t think you ever anticipate how many moves you’re going to have to make, but it’s a real tribute to our scouting staff and to the management team here that when we had a need, we addressed it and we didn’t wait and we went out and got a person that could fill that role.”