Fansided Off-Season Q&A : Florida Panthers

Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Middletown, N. J – EyesOnIsles continues our off-season Q&A series as we tour the Fansided network and bring you the best sites far away from the Lighthouse.

Today, we take a look at the Florida Panthers, who finished in last place in the Southwest division this season at 15-27-6 for 36 points, well below the expectations that not only the organization had but the fan-base as well.

Coming off back to back seasons of 77 and 72 points the Cats rose to 38 wins and 94 points in 2011-2012 and many expected Florida to continue to rise among the ranks from pretender to contender in the National Hockey League. Playing in what some would consider to be the weakest division in the Eastern conference had many thinking this notion was not at all far fetched.

But then the dreaded injury bug not only set in, but dug a huge trench and took up permanent residence in southern Florida. 338 man games lost to injury to some of their best players, namely Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Jose Theodore is something that every team would struggle to battle through and maintain a high place in the standings.

Those were clear reasons for the Panthers having, statistically, the worst penalty kill in the entire National Hockey League since 1997-98, allowing the opponent to score almost 26% of the time. And playing an even larger role in them getting shut out seven times and being next-to-last in 5 on 5 goal scoring.

It’s not all dark clouds and thunderstorms however in the Sunshine state, as super rookie Jonathan Huberdeau ended up winning the Calder trophy as the league’s top first year player and deservedly so. At just 20 years of age and with all the aforementioned problems, the young star finished with 14 goals and 17 assists playing every game and averaging 17 minutes a night. Jacob Markstrom picked up for Theodore and played admirably enough where he is sure to get a longer look come training camp in September.

With the rumors growing stronger that the Colorado Avalanche will use the first overall pick in this Sunday’s entry draft on a forward, it looks as if Florida will get the opportunity to draft franchise worthy defenseman Seth Jones which would be a huge acquisition going forward for a young, inexperienced blue line.

I had the chance to catch up with Patrick McGrath, editor of ‘The Rat Trick’ here on the Fansided network, which is your source for all Panthers news and notes. Here is what he had to say in response to our 3 off-season questions….

1. With seemingly tons of holes to fill, what is the greatest need for the Panthers and how do you see them filling it?

Well keeping in mind that the Florida Panthers have serious needs just about everywhere, I will say Florida’s greatest weakness is their defense/goaltending. Half of hockey is keeping the puck out of your own net and when you allow a league worst 3.54 goals per game, it is probably safe to conclude that there is room for improvement. While the Panthers gave up the most goals in the league, they did not allow the most shots (they ranked 24th), which seems to position most of the blame for the goals scored on the goaltenders. Florida’s goalie situation will be discussed in the next question so here we will look at the defense.The Panthers’ strategy for rebuilding has been to stock up on young talent and draft picks, in order build from within. With that in mind, the Panthers hope their defensive problems will be solved internally. While banking on young players’ development is always risky, Florida feels they have enough players to throw against the wall in hopes that at least a few of them will stick.The Panthers’ young defensive core starts with 2010 first round pick Erik Gudbranson who will be entering his third NHL season this year. Gudbranson and fellow youngster Dmitry Kulikov have already established themselves on the Florida blue line. Even if only a couple of Florida’s prospects pan out, the team should have a solid defensive group that they can augment by making short term free-agent signings.

2. Who do you see as the future in goal for the Panthers? Jacob Markstrom showed some flashes but can he be the long term answer?

There is no denying that the Panthers struggled mightily in net last season. For Florida to improve on their abysmal goaltending they will have to do so internally. Fortunately, the Panthers have their hopeful goalie of the future in Markstrom, the 23-year-old 6’6” Swede who finished last season as Florida’s starting goaltender.Questions still remain regarding what kind of player Markstrom will eventually become but for now he is at the very least better than Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, the veterans he replaced. The Panthers have an insanely deep prospect pool and those players will be given the chance to grow together with Markstrom.  The development of these position players however, will be all for naught if Markstrom fails to take the next step.

3. With 4 years left on Bryan Campbell’s deal for 7.142mm do you think the Panthers use their amnesty buyout on him, especially since they have a real shot at drafting Seth Jones?

Hmm that’s a very interesting question. I think amnestying Brian Campbell is a definite possibility but if they do it, I think they will wait until next summer. The Panthers have plenty of cap space to play around with this off-season so currently Campbell’s 7.1 million dollar cap hit is not a huge issue. Campbell is 34 years old and as age takes its toll, it can be expected that his play will come nowhere close to justifying his massive contract. While this decline has not really manifested itself yet, Campbell’s style of play i.e. playing huge minutes, quarterbacking an offense, spending a lot of time with the puck, does not project to age gracefully and when the decline comes, it could be steep.Right now, the Panthers’ have a ton of cheap contracts on the payroll but as their young players develop, they will eventually have to get paid. The Panthers will be faced with the decision of either continuing to sink their money into an ageing Campbell or using that money to lock up some of their youngsters to long-term contracts. Brian Campbell’s contract will at some point become an issue but I think the Panthers will wait until next off-season to address that issue.

I would like to thank Patrick for taking the time to answer my questions and wish his website, The Rat Trick here on Fansided, as well as the Panthers organization the best of luck in the future.