Monday, April 13, 2009

Florida Panthers: A Year In Review

The 2008-2009 Florida Panthers season ended 1 point short of a postseason berth. While missing the playoffs for an 8th straight season is clearly a disappointment, the overall picture is much cloudier. No one expected much heading into this season. A month in, and the Panthers were 30th in a 30 team league, meeting many expectations. December ended with a dismal 4 game losing streak. Then the calendar turned to 2009, and the Panthers made their run. Only 2 regulation losses in January, winners of 5 of the first 6 games in February. The Cats climbed as high as 5th in the eastern conference. Talk of the playoffs gained momentum and validity. The trade deadline passed and Jay Bouwmeester was still a Panther. This was the team that was going to finally break through. And then the post-trade deadline pressure came, and Florida slowly crumbled. The Cats lost 5 of the first 6 after the deadline. 3rd period leads, that once were so secure, evaporated. At one point, the Panthers were 24-1-1 when leading after two periods. In March, Florida lost four times after they took a lead to the final 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Montreal, New York, and Buffalo all made runs. Slowly, the Panthers slipped to 9th and out of the playoffs. Florida ended the year tied with Montreal for 8th, but the head to head tie breaker ensured that the Panthers would miss the playoffs for the 8th straight season.

Was this a disappointing season? Can you call a year in which you do not qualify for the postseason a success? It all depends on your point of view. There is no doubt that this team took giant strides this year. A rookie head coach, a core of players whose average age was around 24, no one on the roster you knew going into the year would be your top point getter. Expectations were justifiably low. But once we got to February and March, the expectations changed. David Booth emerged as a serious scoring threat. All four lines were contributing. The defense had solidified. This had become a team that could skate and did skate with any team in the league. In the end, youth and inexperience may have gotten the better of Florida. The majority of core players have been with the organization for their whole career, and never had the chance to play in high pressure, playoff style games. Down the stretch, the Panthers let the chance slip away. But there is no doubt, valuable experience was gained, and Panther fans can honestly, finally say the future looks brighter then the past.

So naturally, the next step is to look for reasons why the Panthers came up short, again. A slow start to the year, 7-11-1. A 3-8 record in shootouts. One more shootout goal, one more shootout stop, Florida gets that extra point it needed. That losing streak to close December, in which the Panthers lost twice to Tampa and once to the Islanders. Those blown 3rd period leads in March. There is no doubt, the Panthers were agonizingly close to the postseason this year. A bounce here, a shootout goal there, and we're talking about Florida fighting for home ice instead of next year. Unfortunately, we are left with this; the Panthers now own the longest playoff drought in the NHL, and the 2nd longest in league history.

Now, what does this team have to look forward to? The top season this offseason is clearly Jay Bouwmeester. He has yet to rule out a return to Florida next season, although it is hard to imagine a scenario in which he comes back. Other unrestricted free agents include backup goalie Craig Anderson, who filled in superbly this season. Also, Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen, Richard Zednik, Karlis Skrastins, Nick Boynton, and Jassen Cullimore. Nick Boynton has already stated that he expects to be playing elsewhere next year. Boynton and head coach Pete DeBoer butted heads late in the season, which resulted in Boynton being a healthy scratch for a number of games. Ville Peltonen and Radek Dvorak were vital cogs on what was Florida's most consistent line. But Peltonen will be 36 next season, Dvorak 32. How many more goals are left in their legs? The obvious, glaring issue that Florida had all year was consistent scoring. Whether or not the Cats can wait and see if Pelts and D-Vo are going to be able to produce next year is just one of many questions that general manager Jacques Martin will have to answer.

This season was fun, there is no doubt there. To see this team grow under a new coach all year was remarkable. Young players grew up. David Booth had a very nice breakout year, joining a very short list of Panthers to break the 30 goal mark (Booth finished 31). Stephen Weiss led the team in points with 61 (14 G, 47 A) and plus minus, at +19. Michael Frolik had a great rookie campaign, finishing the year with 21 goals and 24 assists. There is no question that there is now a solid foundation in south Florida. With a couple of smart moves this offseason, there is little doubt that these Panthers will soon be fighting for division titles, and not just to qualify for the playoffs.

And from a personal standpoint, thank you to everyone who has read or followed this blog. I started it out as a way to voice my thoughts on the Panthers with anyone who would listen, a channel to get my feelings out. Living in Orlando, with little to no one to talk hockey about (let alone Panthers hockey), I thought I'd give it a try. I didn't really think I'd stick with it through the whole season, yet here I am. Never, ever did I expect to get over 1,600 unique visitors, or to get invites to join other blogs. It has been a pleasure, and I'll be in and out with thoughts and updates on anything that happens through the summer, and hopefully we'll be back, better then ever, in just 6 short months. Until next time...

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