Part 28 in my "State of the Franchise" series. Top 3!
Feel free to leave comments; I'm always willing to take feedback and I readily accept that I'm not the next Charles Dickens, so any constructive criticism would be great.
Current Rankings List:
4. NY Islanders
7. NY Rangers
20. Tampa Bay
22. Los Angeles
25. New Jersey
30. San Jose
#3: Florida Panthers
Top Fws: Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg
Top Ds: Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov
Top G: Jose Theodore
Top 3 Under-23s:
1. D Dmitry Kulikov (21)
2. D Erik Gudbranson (20)
3. D Keaton Ellerby (23)
Top 5 Prospects
1. F Jonathan Huberdeau (19)
2. F Nick Bjugstad (20)
3. G Jacob Markstrom (22)
4. D Alexander Petrovic (20)
5. F Quinton Howden (20)
Prospect Pool Rating:
Bluechip Talent: A
The Panthers have built a strong group of defensemen. Brian Campbell bounced back in a big way, Kulikov emerged as a top-3 defender, and veterans Filip Kuba and Ed Jovanovski will be around to help mentor young guys Erik Gudbranson and Keaton Ellerby, as well as provide some offense from the backend. The defense is aggressive, mobile and solid defensively in front of Theodore and Co.
The team's top line is solid, but there isn't any proven scoring depth behind them. Tomas Kopecky, Mike Santorelli and Scottie Upshall were all inconsistent last season, and will need to have bounce-back years for the Panthers. New acquisition Peter Mueller and rookie Huberdeau are potential scoring threats, but Huberdeau hasn't played an NHL game yet and Mueller is coming off two consecutive major injuries.
There's a lot of high-end skill in the Panther's system. Up the middle the Panthers have accumulated a lot of skilled players such as Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad, Vince Trocheck, John McFarland and Rocco Grimaldi. While the Panthers lack a true high-caliber defensive prospect, the group is deep and skilled with Colby Robak, Alex Petrovic, Rasmus Bengtsson and newly-drafted Michael Matheson. Jacob Markstrom is one of the top goalie prospects in the world.
The team's development system is heavy on centers and defenders, but weak everywhere else. Quinton Howden and Huberdeau are two highly skilled wingers, but the team lacks any skill or depth behind them. The goalie pool is relatively shallow behind Markstrom. There's a lot of boom-or-bust prospects in the organization at every skating position. A large portion of their skilled prospects are in the NCAA and are at least a few years away.
Dale Tallon did a masterful job (and got a lot of luck) in hsi first season as Panthers GM. The team rode a hot start and managed to fend off charges from the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets en route to its first-ever division title. A group of what amounted to mostly misfits and scrubs managed to push the Cup finalist New Jersey Devils to a 7th game (the hardest series faced by the Devils in their postseason run) before losing in heartbreaking fashion in double overtime.
A lot of credit goes to the Panthers for their most successful season in 12 years. However, the team itself is far from perfect and still has some big holes to fill. Luckily for the Panthers, all their years of suck gave them one of the best prospect pools in the NHL and thus Dale Tallon has some great assets with which to work. There are young burgeoning superstars at all levels of their organization, and Florida hopes that the combination of these young centerpieces and a bunch of castoffs from other teams can bring about a return to prominence not seen in Florida since 1996.
The Panthers are going to be in the playoff bubble once again, and with the group of core players they have built, could be a playoff team for the foreseeable future.