SUNRISE – The Panthers cleaned out their lockers Monday morning, had their final meetings with GM Jacques Martin and coach Peter DeBoer, and then left BankAtlantic Center with the realization they had five long months to consider what could have been.
“It’s always tough and disappointing when you don’t achieve the goal you had,” said goalie Tomas Vokoun. “I think, definitely, this is one of the most disappointing years I’ve played.”
Vokoun’s comments were echoed by his teammates, who one-by-one went from meeting-to-meeting before leaving the BankAtlantic Center for the final time this season.
“Very disappointing,” said defenseman Bryan McCabe. “Obviously, any season you miss the playoffs is a negative and a disappointment, and we let it slip away. We controlled out own fate with 10, 15 games left and we let it get away.”
Despite ending the season tied in points with Montreal for the eighth and final playoff spot, the Panthers lost out on the post-season because of their series record against the Canadiens.
“It stinks,” McCabe added. “There’s a lot of faces that wont be back, a lot of guys unrestricted going other places. It’s difficult. You battle all year long and miss the playoffs on a technicality, which hurts more. Considering we tied for points and missed on a season series…you look back on a lot of games and wish you could have snagged one more point.”
Said veteran Cory Stillman, “There’ll be a lot of looking back.”
“The season is such a grind, there’s so many peaks and valleys,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “I likened it to my wife the other day like running a 100 mph into a brick wall and stopping dead. You don’t know what to do. That’s what you feel like. You’re kind of wandering around aimlessly. When you go that hard for that long and don’t get rewarded for it in the end, it’s tough.”
Tough, yes. But DeBoer also believes the Panthers aren’t far away from playing in the post-season next year.
“At the end of the day we took a step in the right direction,” he said. “I believe we’re knocking on the door now, I believe our record indicates that, and now we have to find a way to get through the door.”
DeBoer said the Panthers improved on five-on-five play and closed the penalty/power play differential. He added the power play must improve, shots against can get better, and “we have to find a way to score more goals.”
Martin said the next several weeks will be used to meet with coaches and staff and figure out the best direction to go in regarding its free agents.
The Panthers unrestricted free agents are:
Forward: Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen, Richard Zednik.
Defense: Jay Bouwmeester, Nick Boynton, Karlis Skrastins and Jassen Cullimore.
Goalie: Craig Anderson.
The team’s restricted free agents are:
Forward: David Booth, Anthony Stewart
Defense: Steve Eminger.
Boynton said he didn’t know what the future held for him with the Panthers while Anderson said he would like to realize his dream of being a No. 1 goalie. Peltonen and Dvorak said they would love to return.
Martin was asked if he had a sense of who he might bring back.
“I think we’re going to take some time, take a chance to evaluate, having some meetings with the coaches sometime this week and next week and then meet with our staff,” he said. “I think it’s way too early to say who’s going to be back, who’s not going to be back. There’s a lot of other factors that enter into those decisions.
“I think it’s always prudent and good management not to make decisions on the emotions of being out of the playoffs.”
When asked if he had a clear off-season mandate as he did last year – when he specifically wanted to improve the defense – Martin said, “The only thing would be maybe address the fact, and I spoke of it during the season, is we need a center.”
“Will that be filled from within?” he asked. “I don’t know yet. I haven’t even had evaluations from our farm team yet. I think it’s too early to say.”
Martin said some of the players on the roster should be able to add more goals next season, including Stephen Weiss
, Nathan Horton, Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz.
Regarding Bouwmeester, who reiterated Monday he would consider his options in the next several weeks, Martin said he’s had good conversations with Bouwmeester’s agent and would continue talking to him.
“He’s going to evaluate where he’s at and where he wants to continue his career,” Martin said of Bouwmeester.
As he’s done all season, DeBoer spoke highly Monday of Bouwmeester.
“All the little things he does and the people he plays against,” DeBoer started. “In the Eastern Conference alone, with (Vinny) Lecavalier and (Martin) St. Louis and (Ilya) Kovalchuk and (Alex) Ovechkin and (Eric) Staal in Carolina and on and on and on. The assignment this guy gets on a nightly basis…and on top of that he’s asked to chip in offensively. He’s outstanding. I don’t want to even think about (coaching) without him.”
Did Bouwmeester ever give a hint he would like to stay with the Panthers, DeBoer was asked?
“The sense I got was he enjoyed the year and felt like we were heading in the right direction and some good things were happening,” DeBoer said. “It’s a tough day because of the disappointment of not playing in the playoffs again, especially for a guy like that going on six, seven years. it’s tough.”
So now the work begins on crafting a team that can finish the work of the 2008-09 Panthers.
“I think we have a good future with this group,” said Dvorak. “Everybody worked hard all season, everyone bought in. And I think next year will be better - much better.”DEBOER ON HORTON
DeBoer was asked about Nathan Horton’s play and production. Horton, who spent time at center this season, has seen his goal production drop from 31 in 2006-07 to 27 last season to 22 this year.
DeBoer said moving Horton from wing to center was made out of necessity, “and to Nathan’s credit he did the best he could with the situation.”
“He hadn’t played center since juniors and I thought he did a pretty admirable job considering the circumstances,” DeBoer added. “I think the reality for everybody is he’s probably a better winger, more fit to the wing. He’s become accustomed to it. He’s more a shooter than a distributor. But again, you look at the deck you have and cards your dealt and do what you have to do to make it work. And Nathan, I thought, took one for the team and did the best he could in a tough spot.”MARTIN CREDITS OWNERSHIPS
Martin credited ownership Monday for spending the kind of money they did to make the Panthers contenders.
“When you look back at this year’s payroll, let’s give credit to the ownership,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, it’s been the highest. Our payroll was increased $10 million over last year. I think (ownership) really stepped up and really supported the hockey program, supported me. When you look back, when we lost Bryan Allen, for instance, they approved me signing Jassen Cullimore. I’m very respectful and grateful for how they stepped up this year over very difficult economic times. When you look at the economic situation, they stepped up.”