Will a Change do the Panthers Defense Good?

By Mark Fischel

When your team is riding high and its defense is playing at it’s collective best, making changes sometimes can be a nerve-wracking thing for any GM to undertake. But when your team’s defense has been stagnant for so long, changes must occur and they have been occurring with the new look Florida Panthers defense.

As the old adage says, a change will do you good.

That is what the new Panthers General Manager Rick Dudley is hoping happens as training camp got underway this week in South Florida.

Coming over from Tampa Bay, where he served in the GM role for over 2 years, Dudley inherited a defensive corps that had already begun the process of rebuilding. Gone from that much-maligned group are the swift Bret Hedican, “Retired” Robert Svehla and journeymen Darren Van Impe, Lance Pitlick and brothers Jeff and Brad Norton.

This year, the top 4 defenseman for the Panthers are Sandis Ozolinsh, whose career experienced a resurgence in Florida, Dmitry Yushkevich, who came over from Toronto in a trade for the suddenly “Unretired” Robert Svehla. The leaner and meaner looking Igor Ulanov, looking to erase his forgettable year while with the New York Rangers. The only holdover in the top 4 from the beginning of last season is Brad Ference, who recently signed a new 3-year deal.

Battling for the remaining 3 to 4 spots will be a group of promising high first round picks in Branislav Mezei, Jay Bouwmeester, and Lukas Krajicek. Two second round picks in Kyle Rossiter and Filip Novak. Paul Laus is probable to miss the entire season after having wrist surgery, and rounding out the competition is 2nd year veteran Lance Ward, who seems to be doing everything in camp to keep the job.

It’s a numbers game at this point.

“Defense is going to be tough, because even if we carry 8 defenseman, there is going to be a couple of people who warrant a chance in the NHL who are not going to get it.” Panthers GM Rick Dudley said, “But defense is going to be really difficult when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, because there are a number of people you know are going to be on the team. When you get past that, you start saying “Oh, we got 5 or 6 people for two spots and all of them deserve consideration”

Last year’s defensive corps had severe troubles in the transition game, and this year’s version of the defense looks to be more mobile and more offensive minded. Combine that with what potentially could be a lack of scoring threats in the forward ranks, the potential for the Panthers to generate offense from it’s defensive group looks to be a key factor in improving on last years woeful standings in the Southeast conference.

“I think the game itself and that the coaching has become so disciplined, that you almost have to count on your defense for some of your offense. They do such a good job of shutting down the forwards, and the most dangerous player now a lot of times on the ice is that 4th player coming in which is a defenseman.” Dudley said, “If you have people like Bouwmeester, Krajicek, Novak, and Ozolinsh, these kind of guys who can get up the ice and actually do something with it when they get the puck, then that is a huge advantage and a lot of teams take advantage of that now.”

Earlier in the month, the Panthers took part in the Hull Rookie Camp and Tournament and the coaching staff was able to see a few of the young prospects that will potentially play a big part in the transformation of the Panthers defense.

By winning the Tournament championship, the duo of Krajicek and Bouwmeester showed that they were arguably two of the best defenseman during the weeklong competition. The strong skating, great speed, and offensive capabilities of these two prospects gives them an advantage, and any mistakes they make can be covered up by their ability to quickly recover.

While it is one thing to play against rookies, it is another thing to play against NHL caliber competition, and Dudley and Keenan came away impressed after a series of up-tempo scrimmages during training camp this week.

“The encouraging thing that Keenan and I were talking about, is that you keep waiting for them to drop off. They don’t.” Dudley commented, “They keep elevating themselves to the level they are that, and today most of those guys are NHL players, and most of them are pretty good NHL players at that. It was incredibly high tempo and they certainly didn’t look out of place.”

But where does this leave Coach Keenan? While Keenan isn’t one to shy away from playing rookies, he also tends to give most of the ice time to established veterans, playing them upwards of 30 minutes a game. Previous Panther management tended to send down young players if they weren’t receiving substantial ice-time, but Rick Dudley isn’t too concerned.

“Mike has an affection for these two kids, and he knows what he has got here. You look out there and see Ozolinsh and Yushkevich, they are going to get a lot of ice time. I don’t believe quite the same as a lot of people, that kids performing in the NHL and not playing a lot is necessarily a bad thing. Every day they practice with players like Kozlov. You are practicing against an elite talent and learning what you can get away with. Even in practice, you learn what you can get away with, and what you can’t.”

The Panther’s first pre-season game is tonight against Montreal, and making the trip alongside Branislav Mezei, are Lukas Krajicek and Jay Bouwmeester. These two players games will be closely watched in this first step to determine if they can actually make the Panthers squad this year.

So it appears that as long as they don’t struggle severely, that Panthers management won’t shy away from placing up to 3 rookies on a Panther defense that is undergoing a major change in less than one season. As a whole, the defense might not improve considerably this year, or it might not improve at all. But with the upside of prospects like Jay Bouwmeester, Filip Novak, Lukas Krajicek, Kyle Rossiter, and Branislav Mezei, this defense shouldn’t be much maligned for too long.

Sometimes, change will do you good.

The Panthers should find out soon.

Panthers Reassign 12 Players to San Antonio

SUNRISE, FL – Florida Panthers General Manager Rick Dudley announced today that 12 players have been reassigned to the San Antonio Rampage training camp in Sunrise, Florida, in preparation for the upcoming 2002-03 American Hockey League season. Players joining the Rampage’s inaugural camp include five forwards: RW David Morisset, C Mike Green, RW Sean O’Connor, C Andy Lundbohm and C Dan Riva. The Panthers also reassigned defensemen Vladimir Sapozhnikov, Matt Smith, T.J. Reynolds, Michel Periard and Paul Elliott, as well as goaltenders Tyrone Garner and Billy Thompson.