After completely rebuilding the NHL club through a series of trades and a variety of free agent signings that complemented their existing core (Stephen Weiss, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov, etc.), the Florida Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. The future is bright too, as many of their top prospects are starting to come of age.
Top 10 prospects:
1. Jonathan Huberdeau, C
2. Jacob Markstrom, G
3. Nick Bjugstad, C
4. Quinton Howden, LW
5. Colby Robak, D
6. Alex Petrovic, D
7. Drew Shore, C
8. Vincent Trocheck, C
9. John McFarland, C
10. Rocco Grimaldi, C
The Panthers made the playoffs despite their inability to generate consistent offense. Just as they did in the 2010-11 season, Florida finished 27th overall in the NHL in goals scored, averaging just 2.40 goals per game. New additions to the team (Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell) contributed substantial offense and increased the team's ability to maintain puck possession, but as a whole the team still needs scoring. The powerplay finished at a respectable 18.5 percent success rate, good enough for eighth in the league, but the penalty kill ended up at the opposite end of the league list at 79.5 percent (25th).
Help is however on the way. Last year's third overall draft pick, Jonathan Huberdeau, will get every opportunity to make the NHL team this fall providing he can put on enough muscle and mass this summer to give him a chance to survive a full season of NHL-type punishment. Huberdeau can bring the kind of outstanding scoring ability and creativity to a squad desperately seeking a player of his skill set. Other potential contributors include Quinton Howden and Nick Bjugstad, though Howden is not a lock to make the team and Bjugstad has yet to decide whether or not he will forego his remaining NCAA eligibility.
The blue line held the key to the Panthers success last season. Holdovers Garrison, Kulikov, and Mike Weaver continued to perform well, as did All-Star player Brian Campbell. Eric Gudbranson had a rocky start to his rookie season, but steadily improved as the year wore on, and became a solid force in the back end during their first-round matchup against the Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils. Ed Jovanovksi's contribution to the team's success came more in the form of mentoring the younger defensemen, especially Gudbranson. In the system, defenders like Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic are developing and both look poised to have excellent AHL seasons next year, though it is conceivable that Robak could break camp with the Panthers.
Newcomers also played a significant role up front. Kris Versteeg pumped in 23 goals (replacing the departed David Booth's goals) and added 31 assists. Those totals would have made him the top scorer on the previous year's squad. This year, Tomas Fleischmann took that honor with 27 goals and 34 assists, and became the team's first player other than Stephen Weiss to exceed the 60-point mark since Olli Jokinen in 2007.
Goaltending provided the stability that the team desperately needed. Jose Theodore turned in a spectacular season, and Scott Clemmensen showed that he can still perform at a level necessary for a productive NHL backup. Jacob Markstrom will fight for a Florida roster spot this fall, though there is still a good chance he will start the season in the AHL for one last year of seasoning.
Other than the need for scoring, one of the organization's biggest problems this summer involves contractual arrangements and player retention. Although the prospect system contains a ton of talent, most of those players are not yet ready for big league action. If the Panthers are to maintain their current momentum, players like Garrison will need to be re-signed or replaced. Kulikov and Versteeg both stand to receive raises this summer, but both are also restricted free agents, so they should be signed and ready for the fall.
Right wing remains a weakness in the system. Both Joonas Donskoi and Zach Hyman have skill and ability, but Donksoi will remain in Finland for at least another year, and Hyman will be starting his sophomore season at Michigan.
Beyond Markstrom, the goaltending in the organization thins out quickly. Sam Brittain recovered nicely from knee surgery and saw some quality action at the end of Denver's season. Brian Foster continues to develop in the ECHL and AHL levels. However, the Russian project netminder Sergei Gayduchenko is the only other goaltender in the organization, a weakness that will likely be reinforced through this summer's draft.
Now that GM Dale Tallon has had two drafts at the helm for the Panthers, some vague trends are beginning to develop. First, Tallon is not the type of general manager who sits still on draft day. In the past two years he was shown a willingness to make draft-day deals, moving picks and players to work the draft board to his liking, especially in the middle rounds.
Another burgeoning trend takes the form of a seeming reluctance to go outside of North America for high-round picks. In his two drafts since taking over the Panthers in 2010, Tallon has had a total of 14 picks in the top three rounds. All but one of those picks (Rasmus Bengtsson, 59th overall in 2011) have been used on players from Canada or the United States. No evidence exists to show that Tallon skipped over better talent to avoid non-North American players, but there does seem to be a trend worth monitoring. In later rounds, Tallon has shown more of a willingness to expand his territorial search for talent. In nine late-round picks, two were from Finland and one from Russia.
No. 23: Derrick Pouliot, D, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
Pouliot is small, but that is not an issue on a fairly beefy Panthers blue line. He's not a great defender at this point in his career either but that is an issue which can worked around and developed. What Pouliot can do is skate, move the puck, run a powerplay, and provide some firepower from the back end. He could also develop into a nice complementary player to Erik Gudbranson or Alex Petrovic. The fact Pouliot is arguably the best player available also allows the Panthers to maybe not reach for a scoring winger or goaltending prospect who may not warrant being drafted so high.