Now that the NHL is finally back in action, it is time to start looking ahead at what is in store for your Florida Panthers. Expectations are extremely high in South Florida right now as the Panthers look to return to the playoffs after winning their first ever Southeast Division title last season. In a shortened season, I expect every game to have an intense playoff atmosphere and a riotous crowd. While we cannot know for sure how this season will inevitably play out, here are my bold predictions as to what may be in store for the Florida Panthers this season.
Brian Campbell will win the Norris Trophy
After taking home the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy last season, Brian Campbell will have to make room on his mantle for some more impressive hardware after he is awarded the Norris Trophy for being the NHL’s top defenseman this year. During the 2011-2012 season, Campbell finished tied for second in points by a defenseman with 53 (4G 49A) and led all defenders with 26:53 TOI/G. With another year under his belt in Florida, Campbell should look even better during a shortened regular season as he carries the bulk of the load on the Panthers’ blue line.
Peter Mueller will play in at least 40 games this season
Although concussions have kept Peter Mueller from putting together a respectable season since he played 72 games during the 2008-2009 season, look for the 24-year old center to stay healthy and play well alongside star rookie Jonathan Huberdeau. Playing a total of 40 out of 48 regular season games this season would be considered a triumph for Mueller and validate the risk the Panthers took when signing him.
Jonathan Huberdeau will win the Calder Trophy
With an abbreviated season on the horizon, this year’s Calder Trophy race looks to be tight as a bevy of talented young skaters compete to take home the prestigious award. Future star players like Nail Yakupov, Mikael Granlund, and Chris Kreider all have a shot at winning the trophy this season. However, out of this talented group, I expect Panthers’ winger Jonathan Huberdeau to emerge as the best rookie this season. While other rookies will be surrounded by star players and quality talent, Huberdeau will begin the season as a big fish in a small pond of scorers. Look for Huberdeau to get lots of ice time and scoring chances this season both at even strength and on the power play.
This will be Stephen Weiss’ last season in Florida
As hard as it is to imagine, I predict that this will be Stephen Weiss’ last season in a Panther uniform. A current alternate captain and lifetime Panther since being drafted 4th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Weiss will finally see his time in South Florida end as his current contract is set to expire after this season. While the club would likely love to keep Weiss, the fact is that in the open market he will most likely command a multi-year contract north of $4.5 million per year. With future centers Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore on their way to the NHL in the coming years, the team will be hesitant to spend that kind of money on an aging Weiss. The only way I can envision Weiss staying is if he gets sentimental and decides to stay in Florida for less money than he could get elsewhere.
Two teams from the Southeast Division will make the playoffs, including the Panthers
The once laughable “SouthLEAST Division” got a lot more impressive this past off-season as most clubs in the divisions made significant roster improvements. The addition of Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes, the emergence of Braden Holtby in Washington, and the continued success of Steven Stamkos in Tampa has lifted the Southeast Division out of the dumpster and into the spotlight.
With many returning faces, as well as new talent, the Panthers should have a great shot at defending their divisional crown. However, even if they cannot repeat as divisional champs, they should still have a great chance of making it into the playoffs as a 7th or 8th seed.
Ed Jovanovski and/or Scottie Upshall will be bought out at the end of the season
Now that compliance buyouts have become a reality in the NHL with the signing of the most recent CBA, underachieving players like Ed Jovanovski and Scottie Upshall will most certainly be on the chopping block in Florida come season’s end. While neither Jovanovski nor Upshall has played terribly, their combined $7.615 million cap hit for the 2013-2014 season will be too much for the Panthers to handle with a new lowered salary cap in place. I fully expect that either Jovonavski and/or Upshall will be bought out come June if the Panthers need to free up cap space.
Quinton Howden will get called up from San Antonio
The Panthers’ first round pick (25th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Quinton Howden will finally make this jump to the NHL this season. Howden is currently the Panthers’ most talented prospect at the left wing position and in my opinion is primed for NHL play. The Panthers are currently very thin at left wing and an injury to a fragile player like Tomas Fleischmann could make way for Howden’s inevitable call up. Howden is currently playing for the San Antonio Rampage where he has 17 points (8G 9A) through 36 games this season.
Kris Versteeg will lead the Panthers in scoring
After finishing 3rd in team scoring last season with 54 points (23G 31A), Kris Versteeg will have a career changing season as he leads the Panthers’ in scoring. While he was on pace to lead the team in scoring last season, injuries de-railed Versteeg towards the end of the year and he inevitably finished 7 points shy of team point leader Tomas Fleischmann who was able to play in all of the team’s 82 games.
Playing once again on the Florida’s top line alongside Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss, look for Versteeg to become the Panthers’ go to scorer early in the season as the team looks to defend their Southeast Division title.
Jose Theodore will be traded
Last season, Jose Theodore was an important part of the Panthers’ squad that was able to win their first ever Southeast Division championship. However, this season Theodore will start the season on a short leash as Panthers’ top goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom continues to play lights out in the AHL for the San Antonio Rampage. Due to the fact that Theodore is in the final year of his contract with the club, he will be both expendable and sought after by other teams at the trade deadline. Look for Theodore to be traded to either Chicago or Toronto for a late round draft pick this season.
The Panthers will finish top 20 in attendance
According to ESPN, the Florida Panthers finished 21st last season in average attendance with a reported 16,628 fans attending each game. While many people talk about the southern hockey experiment being a failure, the Florida Panthers are proving that hockey can flourish in a non-traditional market. Although the after effects of the NHL lockout could affect attendance, I still fully expect the Panthers to crack the top 20 in league attendance this season. The spill over from last season’s Southeast Division title as well as the excitement of a shortened NHL season should be enough to get fans in South Florida to get out and support the club.