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September 20, 2009
2009-10 VUKOTA Projections
Florida Panthers, 13th Overall

by Richard Pollock

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(Note: This series will cover all 30 NHL teams in 30 days, from worst to first, as according to VUKOTA. This is the same material that would have been available in a 2009-10 Puck Prospectus Annual had we published one.)

Offense:

2008-09 Goals For: 234 (T-17th on Offense)

2009-2010 Goals For: 236 (20th on Offense)*

Defense:

2008-09 Goals Against: 231 (10th on Defense)

2009-10 Goals Against: 245 (16th on Defense)*

Points:

2008-09 Point Total: 93 (T-13th in Points)

2009-10 Point Total: 91 (T-12th in Points)*

Team GVT:

2008-09 Team GVT: + 3 (15th Overall)

2009-10 Team GVT: + 1 (T-12th Overall)*

Bayesian Ratings:

2009-10 Offense: 2.93 (17th on Offense)*

2009-10 Defense: 2.93 (13th on Defense)*

2009-10 Total: 0.00 (T-12th Overall)*

Team Contention Status:

Eastern Conference Playoff Contenders (1st Round +)*: 55.0 %
Eastern Conference Noisemakers (2nd Round +)*:        24.7 %
Eastern Conference Contenders: (3rd Round +)*:        10.8 %
Stanley Cup Contenders (Stanley Cup Finals)*:          4.5 %
Stanley Cup Champions*:                                1.9 %

*2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections (Bayesian Ratings derived from VUKOTA)

It was not exactly a storybook summer for the Florida Panthers. There was the pending sale of the team for fans to deal with and the team’s best defenseman, Jay Bouwmeester, was traded to Calgary on draft day because GM Randy Sexton knew he would not be able to sign the Alberta native to a long-term deal once free agency hit. Losing a player of Bouwmeester’s caliber would be a vital loss to any team, but will it be especially crippling for a Panthers team that did not spend up to the salary cap?

For the Panthers to make up for the loss of Bouwmeester and make the playoffs in 2009-10, the team is going to need continued growth from its core of young players--both on offense and defense.

Forwards:

Legend:

OGVT: Offensive GVT

DGVT: Defensive GVT

SGVT: Shootout GVT

GVT: Total GVT

                             2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections
Name	         P   Age  GP     G       A     Pts    OGVT  DGVT  SGVT   GVT
David Booth	 F   25   71.2   26.4   28.5   54.8   8.2   2.3  -0.1   10.4
Michael Frolik	 F   21	  73.9	 23.1   26.7   49.8   6.7   2.1	 -0.2	 8.7
Stephen Weiss	 F   26	  73.2	 16.5   35.8   52.3   5.8   2.7	 -0.1	 8.4
Nathan Horton	 F   24	  70.8	 23.7   28.7   52.4   6.3   1.8	  0.0	 8.1
Cory Stillman	 F   36	  60.5	 16.1	28.3   44.4   5.5   1.2	  0.0	 6.8
Steve Reinprecht F   33	  68.6	 13.2	23.6   36.8   2.8   2.1	  0.0	 4.9
Radek Dvorak	 F   32	  64.7	 11.2	15.9   27.1   2.0   1.5	  0.0	 3.5
Gregory Campbell F   26	  67.1	 10.4	15.7   26.1   0.9   1.6	  0.0	 2.5
Kamil Kreps	 F   25	  60.3	  6.8	14.1   20.9   1.0   1.5	  0.0	 2.5
Michal Repik	 F   21	  30.6	  6.9	 7.1   14.0   1.3   0.7	  0.0	 2.0
Rostislav Olesz	 F   24	  48.5	  9.1	10.5   19.6   1.0   0.8	  0.0	 1.8
Kenndal McArdle	 F   22	  28.8	  5.2	 6.4   11.6   0.7   0.5	  0.0	 1.2
Jeff Taffe	 F   28	  34.5	  5.0	 7.4   12.4   0.6   0.5	  0.0	 1.2
Shawn Matthias	 F   21	  34.3	  4.9	 7.0   11.9   0.2   0.5	  0.0	 0.7
Nick Tarnasky	 F   25	  50.2	  4.0	 6.2   10.2  -0.7   0.6	  0.0	-0.2

The Panthers may lack a superstar up front, but the team does not lack young, offensively gifted players.

You cannot talk about young offensively talented players and Florida in the same sentence without first bringing up the name David Booth. The former Michigan State Spartan is lightning fast, is a tremendous stick handler and is not afraid to go to the net to score a goal. His 31 goals last season is a sign of things to come, as VUKOTA projects Booth will tally 26 goals this season; however, I believe that projection to be too low and think Booth has the capability of becoming a perennial 40 goal scorer—possibly starting this season.

Joining Booth up front is center Stephen Weiss. Weiss was expected to become a top number one center when he came out of the draft, but has never really lived up to that billing. Even so, he brings a lot of useful qualities to the table—mainly his terrific passing skills. Sure the team may want a little bit more from Weiss, considering he is in the prime of his career, but last season’s 61 points in 78 games is probably right around where Weiss will peak. If he gets more ice-time, he may be able to crack 70 points (although VUKOTA projects that he will post only 52 points), but he just is not an 80 point player.

Speaking of top picks that have turned into productive NHL players (although maybe not the superstar player Florida had hoped), we next examine Nathan Horton. Horton is a physical specimen, can skate really well and has a bullet of a shot; hence the reason he was drafted third overall in the 2003 Entry Draft. Last season, Horton posted a disappointing GVT of 3.8 and totaled a poor 45 points in 67 games. Considering his $4 million per season salary cap hit, the Panthers are hoping Horton can rebound from his poor 2008-09 season. A switch back to the wing should help Horton in that regard. Luckily, VUKOTA projects a more productive 2009-10, as it has Horton finishing with a 6.3 GVT and 52 points. However, even with these predicted increases, some wonder if Horton will ever become the dominating power forward many envisioned.

After the top three (who are all expected to play together by the way) the Panthers still boast more young talent. Youngster Michael Frolik may not garner much press but he did finish fifth on the team in points last season with 45 points. What’s most impressive about his 21 goal output is that only one of those goals was scored on the power play. Even more, the 21 year old scored 21 goals while playing under 15:00 minutes per contest. With Frolik’s puck-awareness and overwhelming skill, he should take another step forward this season with increased responsibility. VUKOTA projects a 50 point season and an 8.7 GVT in 2009-10.

Florida clearly does not lack young talent, but the team also possesses some respectable veterans that can still produce offensively and bring strong leadership skills on and off the ice.

The main veterans up front that the team will rely on for the above mentioned traits are two-time Stanley Cup winner Cory Stillman, recently acquired center Stephen Reinprecht and two-time Panther Radek Dvorak.

What Stillman lacks in speed, he makes up for in smarts. There is a reason that Stillman is a two-time Cup winner, as he is fully capable of lining up beside the most talented of NHL players and never looks out of place. At 35, he is not the player he once was, but that does not mean he lacks usefulness. In fact, on this Panthers teams—with so many young players—he is almost a perfect fit. VUKOTA projects 44 points in 60 games this season for Stillman.

After experimenting with Nathan Horton at center, the Panthers decided he fit best on the wing. As a result, Panthers GM Randy Sexton acquired oft-moved Stephen Reinprecht from the Phoenix Coyotes. Reinprecht is not an ideal second-line center (he has never posted more than 51 points in an NHL season) but with the roster as it is currently constructed (very young), Reinprecht should help bring a calming veteran influence to the club. Unfortunately for Cats fans, he wasn’t proficient in the face-off circle last season (46%) but was over 50% (50.6%) two seasons ago. Management is probably hoping Reinprecht returns to his 2007-08 face-off levels because the team struggled mightily at that skill in 2008-09.

Radek Dvorak is currently enjoying his second stint with the Panthers. The veteran winger brings a great speed element to the club’s right side and has really turned into a hard working checker. He plays significant penalty killing time (2:19 per game last season) and actually tallied a more than respectable 15 goals. Do not expect Dvorak to replicate last year’s goal totals, as he had not scored that many times since 2003-04; however, VUKOTA still has him providing the Panthers with 11 goals next season and a GVT of 3.5. Let’s now return to our evaluation of the team’s young players—yes there are more and yes there are really no other veteran forwards to discuss.

Bringing up the name Rostislav Olesz probably causes some Panthers fans to cringe. First off, the big Czech center is signed for the next five seasons at a cap hit of $3.1 million per year. Secondly, and probably more importantly, the 23 year old has not shown any statistical improvement since he entered the NHL. Olesz has a career high of 30 points and is getting paid at a far higher level. Will he start to realize his potential this season? VUKOTA does not seem convinced, as he is projected to score 9 goals and 19 points in 48 games. The number 48 may be key because Olesz just cannot seem to stay healthy (he only played 37 games last season).

Another potential filled player is Kamil Kreps. The 24 year old Czech forward has been brought along slowly but seems to be coming into his own. He is not overly aggressive; instead, his biggest skill is his stick-handling ability and very good release on his shot. Kreps is one of those players that may seem invisible for long stretches but will make that one play that makes you think, “Wow, this guy has serious talent.” Whether he is able to put that together or not remains to be seen, but Florida could be a good spot for him to try to carve out a nice NHL career.

Aside from Radek Dvorak, we have focused almost entirely on skilled players. Now, this is no slight of Gregory Campbell but the Panthers do not count on the son of Colin Campbell to be an offensive force. Rather, Campbell was the forward most counted on by the Cats on the penalty kill last season and provide a much-needed physical element up front. Campbell was second on the Panthers (only to the departed Ville Peltonen) in terms of short-handed ice-time per game. Additionally, he led the entire team in hits (202) and led the team’s forwards in blocked shots (82). So, for all the offensive talent and potential on the Panthers, Campbell still plays a very important role.

While Campbell provides a much needed grit element to the club, Nick Tarnasky will be the resident tough guy. He is huge (6’2, 228 pounds) and is not afraid to toss the knuckles. If he is in the lineup, which he generally has been throughout his NHL career, do not expect him to play over 10:00 minutes.

Before rounding up the forward analysis, we must mention that the Panthers have two other talented young players, in Shawn Matthias and Michal Repik, that could end up being positive forces in 2009-10.

Matthias is a 21 year old center that was acquired from Detroit in the Todd Bertuzzi trade. He is big (6’2, 213 pounds), and has strong offensive instincts. That said, his numbers in the AHL were not overly impressive last season (20 points in 61 games and a -34 +/- rating). VUKOTA has Matthias finishing with a 12 point season; so, taking all of this into account, it may take some time for Matthias to mature into the player many believe he can be (probably a second line center).

As for Repik, the diminutive forward makes up for his lack of size (5’10, 180 pounds) with his tremendous speed. He is only 20 years old, yet he posted a more than respectable line in the AHL last season (49 points in 75 games) and scored twice in his five games with Florida last season. He is a wild card for the Cats this season and should certainly not be forgotten about.

Defensemen:

Legend:

OGVT: Offensive GVT

DGVT: Defensive GVT

SGVT: Shootout GVT

GVT: Total GVT

                             2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections
Name	        P   Age  GP     G      A     Pts    OGVT  DGVT  SGVT  GVT
Bryan McCabe	D   34   62.0   8.5   24.3   32.8   4.3	  2.9   0.0   7.2
Keith Ballard	D   27	 73.7	5.9   21.4   27.3   3.0	  4.1	0.0   7.1
Jordan Leopold	D   29	 62.1	4.4   14.6   19.0   1.4	  3.1	0.1   4.6
Ville Koistinen	D   27	 41.0	2.3    8.2   10.5   0.5	  1.8	0.2   2.5
Bryan Allen	D   29	 38.0	1.8    7.5    9.4   0.5	  1.6	0.0   2.0
Clay Wilson	D   26	 30.3	1.7    5.8    7.5   0.4	  1.1	0.0   1.5 
Jason Garrison	D   25	 27.4	1.6    5.3    7.0   0.4	  1.0	0.0   1.4

With the loss of Bouwmeester, Karlis Skrastins and Nick Boynton in the rear-view mirror, Randy Sexton has done a very good job of filling the need at defense.

The Panthers defense is led by Keith Ballard. Ballard is a terrific skater, moves the puck well in all zones and is underrated when it comes to his physical game; simply, he is an all-around defenseman. Last season, Ballard logged over 22:00 minutes per game, with almost equal time on the power play and penalty kill. Additionally, he led the team’s defense in +/- with a +14 rating and added in 34 points (an amazing 28 were at even strength) for good measure. VUKOTA projects Ballard to have 27 points and a GVT of 7.1, however, I think he will most likely surpass those estimations.

After Ballard, the Panthers will be counting on Bryan McCabe to contribute offensively and add a veteran influence to the back-end. The 34 year old logged 23:08 minutes per game last season; however, a closer look at those minutes reveals the key to why Peter DeBoer is such an exceptional coach. McCabe played a total of 0:40 minutes per game on the penalty kill—as his work defensively is questionable. On the other hand, the former Maple Leaf logged 4:43 minutes per game on the power play. This is where McCabe’s strength lies, as he has a tremendous slap shot and has very good offensive awareness. VUKOTA has McCabe projected to post 33 points and a 7.2 GVT in 2009-10.

While offense from the back-end will be heavily generated from the aforementioned defensemen, the recent signing of Dennis Seidenberg should make Panthers fans quite happy. A player that skates like Seidenberg and can play in all situations, (be it the power play, penalty kill or at even strength) is a very useful player. Combine that with his 30 points in 70 games last season and his willingness to play a physical game and you have a very nice early fall signing that has the ability to play in your top four. VUKOTA projects a 25 point season and a 6.1 GVT for Seidenberg in 2009-10.

Last season was a disaster for Bryan Allen, as the hulking defenseman missed 80 games with a major knee injury. Being sidelined for the season is a setback for anyone, but especially for Allen who had just seemed to come into his own in 2007-08. Nevertheless, Allen is locked up for three more years in Southern Florida and is looking to rebound from a lost season. With a number of puck movers listed above, Allen’s role is that of any other stay-at-home defenseman. He played over 20:00 minutes per game two seasons ago and saw plenty of time on the penalty killing unit. Moreover, he was third on the team in hits in 2007-08 and first in blocked shots. Allen is a nice complement to the team’s other defensemen and should provide a very sturdy defender to a group that likes to roam around the ice every once in a while.

Rounding out the bottom two spots on defense should be Jordan Leopold and Ville Koistinen. In Leopold, the Panthers get a player who knows the game well and has great wheels. Unfortunately for Cats fans, Leopold is injury-prone, lacks the strength to consistently win battles along the boards and is not the offensive player many thought he’d be when he was drafted out of Minnesota. VUKOTA sees a 20 point season and a 4.6 GVT for Leopold this season, which seems dead on.

In Koistinen, the Panthers signed a player right around his prime (27 years old) that could not crack the loaded Predators’ defense in a significant way; considering the depth in Nashville, that is understandable. Koistinen relies more on his positioning than strength when it comes to playing defense, as he is not the biggest defender (6’0, 190 pounds). Overall, he is a serviceable sixth defenseman that can add some solid puck-moving skills to the team’s bottom pair.

Before moving onto the goaltending position, we should note that both Martin Skoula and Christian Backman have been brought into Panthers training camp on tryout deals. This seems like a move to protect against any injury and create some internal competition for the final spots on defense. Although the biggest reason for these moves may be to alleviate any pressure the team’s defensemen prospects might be feeling to make the team. With a solid group of defensemen, the Panthers can afford to develop these defensive prospects at a slow and more reasonable pace.

Goaltending:

Legend:

GGVT: Goaltending GVT

SGVT: Shootout GVT

GVT: Total GVT

                     2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections
Name             P   Age  GP     GGVT   SGVT   GVT
Tomas Vokoun	 G   33	  52.9   15.7   0.3   16.0
Scott Clemmensen G   32	  36.9    7.6   0.3    7.9

The Panthers had a tremendous netminding duo in 2008-09. Both Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson posted strong numbers between the pipes and the Panthers are hoping Scott Clemmensen can replace Anderson in the net in 2009-10.

Last season, Vokoun played in 59 games and posted a better than solid save percentage of .926. As well, he posted a low 2.49 G.A.A. and six shutouts. If you are worried that Vokoun’s numbers were a fluke, they were not. The Czech netminder posted a .919 save percentage in 2007-08 in almost 70 games on a poor Panthers team. The southpaw does not get much national press, but if the Cats make the playoffs he will be one of the main reasons for that success.

As for Clemmensen, the Panthers are hoping he can adequately replace Craig Anderson as the team’s number two goaltender. Personally, I have my doubts. Prior to last season, Clemmensen had not posted a save percentage of at least .900 since 2003-04 and benefitted from playing on a very strong defensive team in New Jersey. Now, he certainly improved last season but this signing was not without risk.

Special Teams:

In 2008-09, the Panthers finished 24th in the entire NHL in terms of power play efficiency. With another season under Pete DeBoer, as well as some maturation by the team’s younger offensive players, the Panthers should show some signs of improvement in this department. If you are wondering what the effect of the loss of Jay Bouwmeester will do to the power play unit, the answer is probably not that much. After all, Bouwmeester’s power play skills are not amongst the top in the NHL.

On the penalty kill, however, the Panthers excelled by finishing ninth overall in the NHL. Here, the loss of Bouwmeester and Skrastins may be felt. So, another top ten finish, while possible, may not be expected on South Beach.

Conclusion:

Overall, the Panthers are one of those teams many fans write off without looking more closely at the personnel. The Cats have a terrific young bench boss, a sturdy and reliable netminder, a solid defense corps and countless up-and-coming young forwards. Taking into account the fact that the Eastern Conference is top heavy, and a bottom four playoff berth for the Panthers could indeed be in the cards.

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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