This season will be an opportunity for many young Panthers, even those who may have been with the team over the last several seasons, to find their place going forward. The team made no shortage of changes during the offseason, after falling short of a playoff berth.
Craig Anderson has emerged as an exemplary backup to all-star Tomas Vokoun. The duo gives the Panthers a very solid platoon of netminders, that if last year is any indication, is capable of matching up depth-wise with just about any team in the Eastern Conference.
Tyler Plante is still a ways off, still not cemented as the No. 1 goaltender in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. With Buffalo no longer sharing the minor-league affiliation with Florida, Plante will no longer have to compete with Adam Dennis for playing time. The Panthers have erred on the side of caution, however, acquiring the young AHL veteran Chris Beckford-Tseu as insurance.
A year ago, Noah Welch seemed to be a lock to take a spot on the blue line until an injury forced him to undergo season-ending surgery. Now Welch will have to press through the team’s new-found glut of depth which resulted from multiple offseason adjustments. As is the case in goal, on defense, the odds appear to be stacked against Panther hopefuls looking to break through with the big club in 2008-09.
Jay Bouwmeester is still on board for the time being at least. The acquisition of former all-star and power-play specialist Bryan McCabe from the Toronto Maple Leafs will help. Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton are also newcomers, both acquired in the team’s draft day dealings with the Phoenix Coyotes that sent then-captain Olli Jokinen westward. Ballard, the cardinal piece of the trade for the Panthers, recently signed a six-year deal worth over $4 million per season, providing some long-term stability to a group that has changed much over recent years.
The contention for coveted lineup slots in training camp will be the most pronounced at forward positions, from top to bottom-six. While the team is for all intents and purposes set at the defense and goaltending positions, few commitments have been made yet up front. The Panthers will rely on new Head Coach Peter DeBoer to breathe life into an offense that struggled to get results in recent years. An injection of youth should factor heavily into the success of DeBoer’s newly implemented attack strategy which emphasizes speed and pressure.
Current Panthers such as David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and Kamil Kreps will all almost certainly have more expansive roles than ever before. There will also be a handful of forwards who got a brief taste of NHL life last season who will look to permanently take up bottom-six roles like David Brine, Drew Larman, and Tanner Glass. But the greatest buzz surrounds the possible new arrivals of Michael Frolik and Shawn Matthias, who will both seek to prove they are ready to make the jump — and it is not outside of the realm of possibility they both succeed.
Frolik has perhaps the highest offensive upside of any prospect currently in the Panthers organization. When he was drafted out of the Czech Republic, some scouts worried how he would adjust to the different nuances of North American hockey. His efforts in the QMJHL during the last couple of seasons with Rimouski Oceanic suggest he is moving in the right direction. Presently, Frolik is a more adjusted player, and a more versatile offensive weapon, than at any point in his career.
Since Shawn Matthias was traded to the Panthers organization, he has done nothing but impress. Matthias has excellent size and strength and the hockey smarts to take advantage. His physical acumen, work ethic, and two-way ability make him a very solid candidate to stand out in the coming days.