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The New and Improved Panthers

For a decade, the Florida Panthers have been cellar-dwellers but now it’s an entirely new team – literally.

It’s no big mystery the Florida Panthers aren’t one of the National Hockey League’s pride and joy franchises and it doesn’t help that they have made the playoffs just three times in their 17 year history, which at 17.6% is third worst among active NHL franchises.  Their current dry spell is up to 10 consecutive seasons, attendance is low and they really haven’t had too much to cheer about since the rat-throwing days of 1996.

But is the Panthers luck about to change?

Only a few short weeks ago, the NHL increased its salary cap, bringing the ceiling to $64.3 million for the 2011-12 season.  Due to this increase, it raised each team’s minimum to $48.3 million, forcing many teams, including the Panthers, to spend some money this off season.  And spend they did.

The Panthers needed a major overhaul after finishing with the third fewest points in the league last season and in the last month, the Panthers have been one of the most active teams, signing or trading for 11 players.  Yes, you read that correctly, they added 11 players.  In a typically quiet market like Florida, that kind of hubbub gains not only fan excitement but national media attention. 

The flurry of acquisitions began on June 25, when the Panthers got defenseman Brian Campbell to waive his no-trade clause with Chicago in exchange for Rostislav Olesz.  The Panthers decided to move the injury prone left winger knowing the market would be full of replaceable talent come the beginning of free agency.  What Florida got in return is a 32-year-old defenseman who is set to make $7.1 million in each of the next five seasons.  Though that is a steep price, the Panthers dumped Olesz’s $3.1 million cap hit and now have a proven winner on the blue line.  Campbell won the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Blackhawks and can play big-time minutes, averaging almost 28 minutes a game last season.  He has the ability to skate with the puck and is an offensive minded defenseman, averaging 39 points the last three seasons.

The Panthers stayed quiet for the next week and then rattled off one move after another on the opening day of free agency.  The most notable of the acquisitions was a guy who began his career with the Panthers in 1995 – Ed Jovanovski.  The Panthers signed “Jovo Cop” to a four-year contract worth $16.5 million, which will make him 39 when it comes to an end.  Jovanovski adds even more veteran presence to the blue line; he’s a slower, physical defenseman who likes to throw the body around, which helps explain why he was limited to just 50 games last season. But still he will be much needed help in front of the Panthers’ new goaltender.

One question mark for the Panthers this offseason was goaltending.  Tomas Vokoun spent the last four seasons in net for Florida but it was almost a given that he would not return next season in the hope of playing for a winner.  He went to the Washington Capitals, a team that indeed has the ability to win a Cup but he took a major pay cut at $1.5 million.  To fill the position, Florida signed former Minnesota Wild goaltender Jose Theodore.

Theodore was a highly touted prospect when he came up with the Montreal Canadiens in 1996 but struggled to ever live up to what scouts had labeled him.  He has had seasons of brilliance but others that were the complete opposite.  The streaky netminder had a bit of a resurgence last season with the Wild, starting 29 games and finishing with a 15-11 record to accompany his 2.71 goals-against-average.  The Panthers hope that it he can continue his success on a full time basis.

After addressing two of its important issues, Florida focused on building offense.  Quickly, the Panthers signed Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, Thomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Matt Bradley.  Then Florida traded a second and third-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for right winger Kris Versteeg.  Versteeg spent time with Campbell in Chicago, before being traded to Toronto and again to Philadelphia.  He was a bit of a letdown in his short half-season with the Flyers but still finished the season with a quiet 21 goals and 25 assists. 

After trading for youngster Angelo Esposito from the Atlanta Thrashers for Kenndal McArdle, the Panthers made one last move, acquiring a former teammate of Campbell and Versteeg when they were in Chicago, Tomas Kopecky.  The Panthers can use Kopecky as either a center or right wing, though he shoots left, and he has only seemed to get better over the last two years.  Last season he finished with 42 points in 81 games and will be a good set up man for guys like Versteeg and Panthers veteran David Booth.

Chemistry in the NHL is not something that just happens overnight.  It could take awhile for these guys to mesh in a new system under first year head coach Kevin Dineen.  The talent is there for the struggling franchise and if the new players can live up to their potential, it might just be a matter of time before the Bank Atlantic Center fills up.  Because let’s face it, everyone loves a winner.

It might take a few years for that to happen but on paper right now they are definitely good enough to sneak into the playoffs.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.