The past few days have taken quite a toll on this Panther fan. I've waited a couple days since the first day of the "free agent frenzy" came to close, hoping and praying that there would be some good news developments to get excited about. I'm still waiting, although I feel much better today than I did 24 hours ago.
First, the moves the Panthers did make were all solid. GM-for-now Randy Sexton has done everything that could be expected of him. Re-signed David Booth to a 6-year deal. Re-signed Radek Dvorak for 2 more years. Almost instant reaction by losing backup netminder Craig Anderson by signing Scott Clemmensen. Signing much needed defense in Ville Koistinen and Jordan Leopold, who Sexton claimed to have very little hope of signing just 24 hours before the deal was announced. In fact, Leopold's signing might have been one of the most impressive moves by any GM. Trading Bouwmeester's rights for a 3rd round pick and Leopold, after Bo and his agent publicly announced they were waiting until free agency regardless, is incredible. Everything he did needs to be commended. Imagine trying to convince a player to come to the Panthers, a team that has missed the playoffs for 8 straight seasons. A team that's ownership is in flux and has no full-time general manager. Dreams of signing a Gaborik or Hossa were just that, dreams. What Sexton was able to accomplish was superb. Kudos.
But then there's that painful nuisance... reality. The Washington Capitals, who have dominated the division in recent history, got better by adding perpetual 25 goal scorer Mike Knuble. Tampa Bay now has a vastly improved defense after drafting Victor Hedman, then adding Mattias Ohlund and Matt Walker. Even the Thrashers look better, after signing Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina. All this happening while Florida took a step back, losing Jay Bouwmeester, Karlis Skrastins, and Richard Zednik. As it stands now, the Panthers defence is made up of Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe, and Jordan Leopold. After that, you have Brian Allen, who missed virtually the entire '08-'09 season. Rounding out the top 6 could be rookies Keaton Ellerby or Jason Garrison. Or free agent signing Ville Koistinen, who despite an impressive Finnish Elite League resume, played only half a season in his first 2 NHL years, and some of those games were as a 4th line winger. For a team who's greatest depth just 3 months ago was defence, it now looks like it could be its greatest weakness. Throw in an offense who will be led by the still-waiting-to-breakout-line of Weiss, Booth, and Horton, and it could be a long year.
There are still free agents out there who could provide an instant boost to my morale. Randy Sexton claims to still be pulling some strings. Steve Reinprecht was a nice addition, and he could be just enough to show the kids-no-more what it means, exactly, to work and earn goals. Booth grew into that last season. Horton showed flashes late in the season he may still have another level. Michael Frolik had a nice rookie season and could be a 25-30 goal scorer. Keaton Ellerby could prove to be the monster on the blue line that the scouts think he will be. There is just so much uncertainty and so many unfilled expectations on this team that it is hard to feel optimistic. I'm praying I am wrong. I do believe there is a strong core. Pete DeBoer showed he might just be the guy that can get these guys to overachieve. I just have that sinking, stomach enveloping feeling that this team is still a couple pieces away from being competitive next season.
The best news of the last week is that we only turned the calendar to July. October's season opening trip to Finland is still a few months away. Months that could see the Panthers fit the puzzle together. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm not quite ready to exhale just yet...