The 2010 National Hockey League Entry draft will argubaly be regarded as one of the best in NHL history. Good news if you are a Florida Panthers fan, because with three solid first round picks the Panthers for the first time in a long while seem to be taking great strides in a positive direction.
But, the question is, "How much can a team which finished 14th overall in the Eastern Conference and 28th over all in the NHL improve?"
Ask any Panthers fan and they will tell you that there is a bigger chance that the team will take a step back because they traded away arguably the face of the franchise for the past decade in Nathan Horton. Also, with losing forward Gregory Campbell, and their top blueliner Keith Ballard, how is it possible this team could possibly improve. Is it possible? Or, is this a write off year, for just rebuilding?
Well, to answer the question, the Panthers will surely improve, but to an extent unknown. Due to great contract signings by the rest the team, we have not lost any key players to Free Agency this off-season. We have both our goaltenders returning, 9 returning forwards, and but only 3 defencemen returning from last year, due to only having 6 defenders last season, and we ended up trading away Keith Ballard. So, if the Panthers want to win, defense will be our key issue.
We look at this years draft selections by the Panthers. With the third overall pick we selected the best defencemen in the draft by picking Erik Gudbranson. A smart move by Panthers GM Dale Talon, as this off-season getting a strong defender to patch up the enormous gap left by Jay Bouwmeester created in our lineup when he left last year was the main issue.
Gudbranson is big defender standing at 6 ft. 3, and weighing in at 201 lbs. He has played the last two seasons in the OHL playing with the Kingston Frontenacs where in 104 games he has added 5 goals and 40 assists in 104 games. He misses 27 games last season due to mononucleosis. He is known for his smart game play, and his bone crushing hits. At the end of the season he was awarded the Bobby Smith Trophy. An award that is named to the OHL Scholastic Player of the Year.
With the 19th overall pick Tallon selected Nick Bjugstad. Nick stands at 6 ft 5 and weighs 190 lbs. Nick will provide the power up front for the Panthers. He is a good young centerman who is willing to work, and very loyal.
Finally, with our 25th pick overall Tallon picked Left Winger Quinton Howden. Quinton is 6 ft. 3, 183 lbs. He has played in 127 WHL games for the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he has recorded 41 goals, and 95 points. He was selected first overall by the Warriors back in 2006.
We also have to consider the great additions that Dale Tallon has brought to Florida this off-season. Up front he has added Steve Bernier from the Keith Ballard trade. Bernier, a former first round pick in 2003 by the San Jose Sharks added 11 goals and 11 assists in 59 games playing on the Right wing for the Vancouver Canucks. We also acquired winger Mark Cullen from the Chicago Blackhawks AHL minor team Rockford IceHogs. Cullen added 21 goals and 53 points in 62 games last season for the IceHogs. Our biggest addition up front has come in Christopher Higgins. Higgins is known for his great stint with the Montreal Canadiens from 2005-2009 where he played in 280 games scoring 82 goals and adding 67 assists. He spent last season between the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames where he took a step back. But, the Panthers hope the new outlook will be the kick in the butt Higgings needs. Also, the addition of Marty Reasoner will provide some leadership for the young Panther team. Last season, Reasoner had 4 goals and 13 assists in 80 games with the Atlanta Thrashers.
On defense the Panthers added Nathan Paetsch. Paetsch is a smart blueline player. Known for his stint with the Buffalo Sabres. His best season, was in 2006 where he added 2 goals and 22 helpers from the blueline in 63 games with the Sabres. Also, on defense the Panthers have added Dennis Wideman. The 27-year old Kitchener, Ontario native has spend the last 4 seasons with the Boston Bruins. Last season he played in 76 games, where he scored 6 goals and added 24 assists.
Clearly, this Panthers team will play with a lot more depth that last years team despite the loss of Horton, Campbell and Ballard. When asked about this years team GM Dale Tallon said, "We have more depth, we have more positional players than we've had before bases on what happened in this off season, so we'll have a little more competition for jobs and that's how you get success.
The Panthers are also relying on Stephen Weiss to come back with another great season. Last year he had a career-high 28 goals last season. Also expected to preform well is young phenom Micheal Frolik, who scored 21 goals last season for the Panthers in a breakout season. But, the biggest player the Panthers are relying on is forward David Booth. Booth had his own breakout season in 2008-09. He was suppose to play a major role last season with the Panthers, but a very dirty hit by Philadelphia Flyers Mike Richards resulted in Booth having to recover from a concussion. He was suppose to miss the rest of the season, but trained extremely hard and was back before the Olympic break. He managed to record 8 goals and 8 assists in 28 games.
As for goaltending they are all set with Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen returning. Vokoun took a step back last season going 23-28-11, but kept a very respectable .925 sv% in 63 games. Clemmensen went 9-8-2 with a .912 sv% in 23 games.
Keep in mind. This Panthers club is no where near a finished product. Dale Tallon is award of this, but he knows that they are off to a good start. Don't forget, Tallon did say this Panthers team is much better than the Blackhawks squad he acquired a few years ago, that he quickly turned into a Stanley Cup Champion team.
Either way, rebuilding, or not. The one thing that is clear, is that this Panthers team is headed in the right direction. Trying to eliminate this decade long playoff-drought. They will be a very exciting team to watch, and it is guarantee, in the very near futur, this will be a very successful team to beat.