As bad as Atlanta will seem this year, there's another team in the Southeast Division that is going to make life easier a few times a year for them and for everyone else in the NHL. Behind every positive you might be able to find for the Florida Panthers, there's a large and ominous negative lurking behind it - even at its most basic level.
You'd have to think that playing in Miami, Florida in the middle of winter and making a home there wouldn't be all that bad and that it would serve to motivate players to want to go there. Instead, the Panthers have been irrelevant to the NHL since 2000 when Pavel Bure was single-handedly lifting the Panthers on his back.
The Panthers being in Miami (or Sunrise, FL to be totally exact) play in a market where fans root for the Dolphins 365 days out of the year. Everything takes a backseat to the Fins. Miami has been a blessed market for professional sports having had a normally successful NFL team each year, a recent NBA championship with the Heat and a two-time World Series winner in the Marlins.
The Panthers, however, are the Rodney Dangerfield's of Miami. No respect at all - not that they've done anything to deserve it of late. They got their Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1996 and got swept out by Colorado and then had only two more playoff appearances to show for it after that in 1997 and 2000.
Now? Hopeful youth has turned sour. Players like Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester have either not followed through fully on expectations or are just playing out the string until it's time to leave. For a stretch, the Panthers actually drafted decently with their top picks. Horton and Weiss are both useful players and Bouwmeester, despite what that THN column above says is a very good defenseman - it's just very difficult to gauge how good they are playing in a hockey vacuum.
For the longest time, or so it seemed, Olli Jokinen was the face of the Panthers, taking the job from John Vanbiesbrouck and Scott Mellanby before him. During the NHL Draft this off-season, he was shipped off to the desert to find more old folks in retirement homes in Phoenix.
While you'd never know nor ever heard it, word came out after the deal that Jokinen was dogging it in Florida and wasn't a leader nor did he have any guts. We shall see how this pans out for both teams as Florida was able to bolster their defense in the deal getting Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton from the Coyotes, but having seen Jokinen play in Olympic competition for a team that was very successful in Team Finland, I can't help but think that Florida is going to get shown up again here, especially with Phoenix being very close to becoming quite good in the Western Conference. If Jokinen is the clubhouse cancer that these gutsy, anonymous NHL executives claim to be, Phoenix is in a world of hurt and Florida's rebound from mediocrity starts now.
That ain't going to happen because the Panthers are awful.
Take a look at this roster and tell me who on this team is going to become an offensive force to carry this team.
Take a look at the team scoring statistics from last year and tell me who is going to step up.
All signs point to Nathan Horton, it appears, but who is going to work with him?
Stephen Weiss? David Booth? Rostislav Olesz?
These guys are all very young. Look at Horton who is the presumtive leader of this team. He's 22 years-old and is going into his fourth full year with the Panthers, fifth overall.
Stephen Weiss is two years older than Horton and has yet to really show if he's worth it. Weiss was the #4 overall selection in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft and his best point season came two years ago (20-28-48).
David Booth is a name to get acquainted with because he'll probably be suiting up in 2010 for Team USA. That said, him playing in Florida is a good way to keep him a secret. Booth is 23 years-old and finally broke out last year scoring 22 goals finishing with 40 points. I know that seems poor, but with the Panthers, he was certainly one of the guys the coach was telling you to keep an eye on.
They signed Cory Stillman away from Ottawa this offseason, but he's a guy that comes in on the backside of his career and, while solid, isn't much of a scorer anymore. That said, he will likely be Horton's left wing and go-to guy. Yup, welcome to Florida.
Yes, that's how bad it's going to be this year. If any team gets lit up by the Panthers this year, I'm demanding that that team's coach work them out immediately after the game Herb Brooks style. You know what I'm talking about...
Yes, the Panthers are that bad. They are the Team Norway of 1980. And yes, they will make someone feel really bad about themselves later on when they manage to steal a win or two.
These guys won't be 1974-1975 Washington Capitals bad, but they'll make you wish for a cyanide soda if you're stuck watching them too often.
The strength of this team is on the blueline and in goal. The two guys they got back for Olli Jokinen are decent and they'll be used to playing defense on a bad offensive team having already played in Phoenix. They added Toronto's headache and whipping boy Bryan McCabe which this year will look really good, but let's face facts, McCabe was brought in as Jay Bouwmeester insurance once he's traded away.
Bouwmeester will again be the best player back there but this is where the good gets wiped out by the bad. Bouwmeester is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and while he's said all the right things about waiting to see if the Panthers get it turned around as to whether or not he'll want to come back, don't get lost with it - dude wants to get out of town and get paid.
General Manager Jacques Martin is going to have to know when, exactly, will be the time to pull the trigger on a deal for their best player. If the Panthers want to get anything at all for Bouwmeester, the trading deadline should prove to be a great time to pinpoint when the Panthers actually get their stuff together to turn around the franchise or if they can start gathering their things to move to Las Vegas or Kansas City and call it a day in South Florida.
If the Panthers don't/can't get a premium package for Jay Bouwmeester, it will prove to be a devastating turn of events for this franchise. Martin and the rest of the front office cannot buy the lip service being served up from Bouwmeester. He's leaving Florida regardless of what magic you think you can pull. Trade him, get lots of fun pieces to add to the team and for God's sake, get your head screwed on straight for the draft - if you end up with the #1 pick, you're all set.
If not - start scouting.
Oddly enough, whether injur occurs in goal or not, the Panthers are very much set. Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson are both more than capable and with Anderson's success last year while Vokoun was injured, I'm shocked we didn't get any stories out of Florida about looking to deal Vokoun to get cheaper. Since that didn't occur, Vokoun and Anderson will provide some of the lone stability you'll find on the Panthers this year, problem is, will they get any support for their efforts. All signs point to ABSOLUTELY FREAKING NOT.
The Panthers might keep the Thrashers out of last place in the Southeast, but they should prove to be cozy roommates at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings (and they'll be joined by one other team down at the very bottom of the pile in the East) but Florida is shaping up to perhaps be the very worst of the bunch. They'll need Vokoun and Anderson to be Jennings Trophy winners to be in the race for the playoffs and they'll need all of their youth to have breakout years so they can at least trot out two solid scoring lines.
Every goal scored this year for new head coach Peter DeBoer, fresh off of a championship season with Kitchener in the OHL, is going to have to be worked for even harder than what you'd see from better teams in the NHL. It's clear why DeBoer was brought into this situation in Florida, he's got experience coaching the team enigma Stephen Weiss as well as a couple of other players. They're hoping that his new blood as well as experience with some of these guys will light a fire.
There won't be any fire here though. There won't even be any smoke, sparks, tinder, lighter fluid, gasoline... you get the point.
See you next season Panthers - thanks for not showing up.