Lethbridge: From worst to first – the dramatic turnaround of the Florida Panthers

At the end of the 2010-11 season, the Florida Panthers seemed to be continuing down a slippery slope. The team finished last in the Eastern Conference and 27th in the NHL, with a record of 30-40-12. The previous season, the team finished last in the Southeast Division and 14th in the East. Heading into this season, the team held the dubious distinction of having the longest playoff drought in the NHL, going on 11 seasons. In fact, the team has made the playoffs just three times in its history. The poor play of the team, combined with the trading away of its assets like Roberto Luongo and Nathan Horton, did little to raise the image of hockey in south Florida.

This season, however, has been a different story for the team. The Panthers started the season well, going 13-7-5 through the first two months of the season, their best start since the 1996-97 season, the last year the team won a playoff game. The team sits atop the Southeast division, where they have for much of this season, and are staring down home-ice advantage in the postseason. This is especially interesting when one considers the sweeping changes the team underwent this past summer.

Coming off the disastrous season the Panthers had last year, general manager Dale Tallon realized he had his work cut out for him in the off season. The team was in need of a pretty drastic overhaul, and that is exactly what happened last summer. In total, the Panthers saw 11 new players join the team, a significant shake up. One need only look at the team’s depth chart to see the sweeping renovations it has undergone in the past year. Stephen Weiss centres the top line between Kris Versteeg and Thomas Fleischmann, two players that joined the team this summer. Their second line, composed of Marcel Goc, Mikael Samuelsson, and Sean Bergenheim, also features players in their first year with the club. Elsewhere, Jose Theodore has stepped in as the club’s starting netminder after signing a two-year deal as a free agent on July 1.

Speaking of Versteeg, he has been arguably the team’s best player this season, despite missing 11 games to injury. He’s on pace for 53 points, which would match a career high, but it’s not unreasonable to think that he would have far surpassed that mark, were he able to stay healthy. And more than just putting up points, Versteeg is contributing in tight situations, when the team needs it most. 17 of his 49 points have come when the team is down, proving that he has been able to step up under pressure. Not only that, but an impressive 23 of his points have come in the last five minutes of games this season.

Also new to the team is their No.1 defender, Brian Campbell, who is enjoying a renaissance year in Sunrise. Campbell never seemed to find his place in the roster of the Chicago Blackhawks, after signing a massive deal with the club worth over US$56 million. He saw his ice time and point production diminish significantly in each of the three years he played in the Windy City. He’s having a bounce-back year, currently sitting second in scoring among NHL defensemen with 49 points, his highest point total since tallying 52 in the 2008-09 season.

There is one caveat to the Panther’s success, however. It has been a noticeably weak year for the ‘Southleast’ Division. The once mighty Washington Capitals, who held the division title for four straight seasons coming in to this year, have had their share of problems, with a mid-season coaching change, as well as an injury to No.1 centremen Nicklas Backstrom, and are fighting for the final playoff spot in the East, currently tied with the Buffalo Sabres. Not to mention the uncharacteristically bad year captain Alex Ovechkin has had. Up until recently, the Winnipeg Jets were fighting for a playoff spot, which is more than a lot of people thought they would do this season, just one season after relocating from Atlanta.

Behind them in the division is Tampa Bay, who have slumped following their impressive showing last year, making it all the way to game seven of the Eastern Conference final, and the Carolina Hurricanes, whose abysmal start to this season nixed their chances of making a playoff run early.

The Panthers seem to be taking advantage of this division-wide deficiency — some have referred to them as the best of the worst. It is true that, without the rule saying division leaders hold the top three spots in each conference, the team would currently be 7th in the East, but the point remains that they would still be in a playoff spot. They have played well on the man advantage, operating at 18.6%, which is good enough for 11th in the league and best in the division. Their 79.6% penalty kill leaves something to be desired, but the Panthers are 23rd in the league in penalty minutes, so the damage is at least minimized.

Also, the team has scored by committee this season, with five players above 30 points, and six more players with more than 20 points. Thomas Fleischmann is having a career year, setting highs in assists and points, Stephen Weiss is on pace for 59 points, which is near his career best of 61, and currently has seven points in his last six games, and Jason Garrison has already set a new franchise record for goals by a defensemen with 16.

The true test for this Panthers squad will come in the post-season. There is some playoff experience on this team, with players like Campbell, Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim, who had 11 points in Tampa Bay’s playoff run last season, but it is likely that this team will struggle in the post-season. For one, the team’s minus-20 goal differential doesn’t bode well for them, nor does their road record which is barely .500, at 16-15-5. They are currently set to face the resurgent New Jersey Devils in the first round, a team that has had production from all over their lineup and saw Martin Brodeur rebound from two forgettable seasons. The Devils actually have three more points than the Panthers, as well.

At the very least, though, this season should be looked at as an overall success for the Florida Panthers. It isn’t often that a team can undergo such a drastic improvement in a span of one season, especially given that about half the team’s active roster is made up of players new to the team. With young players like Dmitry Kulikov, Jacob Markstrom, Erik Gudbranson, Quinton Howden, and Jonathon Huberdeau in the pipeline, the future for the Panthers looks bright, as well.

Stephen Lethbridge, Contributing Writer


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