NHL Season Preview: Florida Panthers

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Welcome to the NHL FanHouse 2008-09 season preview. While other sites are previewing "30 teams in 30 days," we decided to take advantage of the extra time off before the start of the season to bring you all 30 previews over the next three weeks. We're counting down in reverse order of finish from last season in each conference every weekday from now until October 3. Look for an Eastern Conference preview every morning and a Western Conference preview every afternoon. Click here to read them all.

Who's In

Who's Out: Jassen Cullimore, D (UFA); Magnus Johansson, D (FA-Europe); Olli Jokinen, C (Trade-PHX); Branislav Mezei, D (FA-Europe); Steve Montador, D (FA-ANA); Jozef Stumpel, C (FA-Europe); Mike Van Ryn, D (Trade-TOR)

What's Changed: More than you might think.

Gone is the captain and

somewhat frightening

face of the franchise over the past seven playoff-less seasons, Olli Jokinen, a player who has become synonymous with losing in the NHL as he is the current holder of the League's longest personal playoff drought. Ready to debut behind the Panther bench is a head coach who has compiled a 539-248-60-31 record in the Ontario Hockey League over the past 13 seasons, winning two OHL and one CHL Coach of the Year awards along the way. Out with the losing, in with the winning... on paper, at least. But Peter DeBoer will have his work cut out for him, as he inherits a Florida squad that allowed the second-most shots on goal in the League last season and finished 20th in goals scored (and traded away its leading scorer).

So where will the goals come from? Nathan Horton has averaged just under thirty goals per season over the past three campaigns, but more is expected of the former third overall pick, now 23-years-old. Stephen Weiss (who DeBoer coached in Plymouth of the OHL) had a 20-goal campaign in 2006-07 and has averaged 45 points over his last two seasons, but more is expected of the former fourth overall pick, now 25-years-old. The fragile Rostislav Olesz has improved in each of his three NHL seasons, but more is expected of the former seventh overall pick, who turns 23 on Opening Night.

Have you picked up on the trend yet? DeBoer will be tasked with, if nothing else, getting these youngsters (and others in the near future, including Shawn Matthias and Michael Frolik) to live up to their respective potentials. Throw in a fairly predictable contribution from the ageless Cory Stillman and some numbers from the emerging David Booth, and the Kitties' forwards have the potential to be decent... but we've seen how some of them have dealt with their potential so far.

Whether or not the offense clicks, the defense should be better, as Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton and Bryan McCabe are upgrades over the trio of blueliners whose minutes they'll absorb (for the time being, at least). They'll be joined by Bryan Allen, the disappointing Cory Murphy (hey, weren't you supposed to be the next Brian Rafalski?), Karlis Skrastins and breakout candidate Noah Welch. Oh, and that other guy -- the elephant in the room that is pending unrestricted free agent Jay Bouwmeester, who led the League in ice time per game in 2007-08. Some people swear by the former third overall pick. Others? Not so much. But until he's traded (hint: they didn't lock up Ballard long term because they're so certain that he's going to have great chemistry with Jay-Bo), his situation will be something of a distraction -- and another challenge facing DeBoer.

Just about the only thing the Panthers' new bench boss won't have to worry about is goaltending, where Tomas Vokoun is as good as any netminder in the League. But don't take my word for it -- here's Hockey Analytics' Alan Ryder (.pdf) on Vokoun:

Tomas Vokoun was the NHL's most valuable goalie [according to Ryder's fantastic Player Contribution formula], yet he was not named on a single Vezina or Hart ballot. Here is how he went unnoticed - although he started (and completed) 69 games and played 4031 minutes (both very impressive numbers), he played for a crummy team and his 'record' was 30-29-10. Vezina voters (the GMs) love wins so this record did not cut it. His goals against average was an unimpressive 2.68. Did I mention that he played for a crummy team? Florida allowed more shots on goal than any team not based in Georgia. And the Panthers shot quality was such that I ranked them as the NHL's worst defensive team.

Vokoun saw more rubber than any goalie in the League and posted the 12th-best save percentage in the NHL under this onslaught (by comparison, the guys who faced the second- and third- most shots last season finished 29th and 30th in save percentage). That's impressive. Heck, Vokoun even tied for the League lead in goalie assists. Bottom line: there isn't a more under-rated netminder in the NHL today.

Who's On The Hook: Horton. With Olli Jokinen gone and Bouwmeester on his way out the door, Horton will be expected to lead the team, on the score sheet at the very least. As Vokoun said recently, "'[Horton's] potential is far beyond what he has ever done." There's that word again.

Where They'll Finish: The Panthers are a mediocre team with a great goalie and a head coach who has never been behind even an AHL bench. In some divisions, that combination won't get you far, but in the Southeast, it'll be enough for third place and a second consecutive Jeb Bush Cup for Sunshine State supremacy. I made that last part up... I think.

Blogs To Watch: On Frozen Pond, Florida Panthers (Sun-Sentinel), Panthers Daily Puck and The Litter Box.

Gratuitous YouTube Embed: It just wouldn't be Miami without hot girls, would it?

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