The Florida Panthers made quite an impression at the 2010 NHL draft. Thirteen selections in seven rounds, including three in the 1st and three more in the 2nd, is quite the haul. New general manager Dale Tallon is looking to rebuild seemingly from scratch, and Panther fans may have a reason to be excited about the future for the first time in almost a decade.
Without going through all 13 picks the Panthers made (you can find that anywhere), the Panthers have added a number of players who should have an impact on this team for the next decade, with some stepping in as soon as this coming season. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson (#3 overall) should be competing for a starting spot, and will look awfully nice paired with 2009 #14 overall Dmitry Kulikov. There are still veterans Brian McCabe, Bryan Allen, and Dennis Wideman, who was acquired from Boston in a trade involving Nathan Horton. Toss in the duo of Jason Garrison and Keaton Ellerby, who should be ready to make the full time jump from the AHL, and you have (what should be) a solid defense. Tomas Vokoun remains a Panther and will anchor the team from the crease.
The biggest question the Panthers now have is scoring. It was their weakness last season, and is even more so now after the Horton trade. Horton made it known to GM Tallon that he was not interested in remaining a Panther, and Tallon was all to happy to get rid of someone who wasn’t committed to rebuilding. In return, he was able to add a solid NHL defenseman in Dennis Wideman. At the draft, the Panthers were able to trade for Steve Bernier, sending defenseman Keith Ballard to Vancouver. It was a trade that may have been based more on finances than hockey sense, but it had to be done. With the drafting of Gudbranson, plus the maturation of Garrison and Ellerby, there simply wasn’t room for Ballard and his $4+ million salary. Bernier is a good, relatively young forward who should step right in to the second or third line.
But the loss of Horton will only magnify their need for a scorer. Unfortunately for Panther fans, it might be another season or two before one emerges from this year’s crop of draft picks. Finding Mr. Hockey (Minnesota) Nick Bjugstad still available at #19 was a nice gift, but he just graduated from high school and will be attending the University of Minnesota for at least the next season or two. Quinton Howden and John McFarland could easily have been selected in the 1st round, but the Panthers snatched them up early in the 2nd. Again, however, they are probably 2-3 years away from reaching their NHL potential. As it stands, the Panthers have Stephen Weiss and David Booth, and a handful of question marks. Michael Frolik is probably the next best option, but didn’t make much progress last season after an impressive rookie year in 2008-2009. Bernier should chip in now and then, but is hardly a primary target. Shawn Matthias and Michael Repik looked solid enough while they called up from AHL Rochester, and could contribute on a nice 2nd\3rd line. Rostislav Olesz is still a Panther, since no one else is willing to take on his ridiculous contract, but he has shown flashes of the potential that got him drafted 7th overall in 2004. If this team succeeds in 2010-2011, it will be because they have three balanced scoring lines and the blue line matures ahead of schedule. Tomas Vokoun will still be there, but, as last year showed, you can only ride a horse so long before his legs start to wear out.
Fans often fail at keeping expectations realistic. With the Panthers, it can be even harder. It’s going to be a difficult sell to fans; a rebuilding year when this team is struggling to fill seats as it is. So much so that the Cats are planning to tarp off the top few rows in each section to lower capacity, thereby (in theory) creating a scarcity of tickets. Throw in the decade sans playoffs, and you can understand the impatience. But Florida’s management brought in Tallon to start from the bottom and build a winner. They saw what his blueprints can do in the Chicago Blackhawks. The ‘Hawks were long-time residents of the Western Conference cellar until the 2007 season. In just 2 short years, they were competing for the Western Conference title. We all know what happened last month. Can Dale Tallon bring that type of success to Florida? Time will tell, but maybe the most important thing Panther fans need to hold on to is patience.