The Florida Panthers turned over half their roster but have they actually improved?
Unquestionably the team which made the most noise during this summer’s NHL unrestricted free agency period was the Florida Panthers.
With just over $18 million committed to payroll for next season, Panthers GM Dale Tallon had no choice but to spend big to put his club above the mandated salary cap minimum of $48.3 million.
And spend big he did, starting with his acquisition of defenseman Brian Campbell and his hefty contract (over $7 million per season) from Chicago during the entry draft weekend.
Tallon followed that by going whole-hog in the UFA market, signing goaltender Jose Theodore, defenseman Ed Jovanovski and forward Thomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley and Ryan Carter, plus acquiring winger Kris Versteeg in a trade with Philadelphia.
For salary cap purposes, Tallon achieved his goal, as the Panthers, according to CapGeek.com, now sit with over $49.8 million invested in 22 players for next season.
The real question, however, is whether or not these moves make the Panthers a better team.
Tallon believes they do, and for his sake and that of long-suffering Panthers fans (whose numbers, alas, are dwindling following a decade of mediocrity), they’d better be.
By making these additions, Tallon has turned over half the Panthers roster..It can be debated if the depth in talent has improved, but what’s undeniable is that this club is going to take time to establish good team chemistry, particularly under a new head coach in well-respected former NHL player Kevin Dineen, who spent the past six seasons doing a fine job as an AHL head coach in Portland.
That means those Panthers who remained from last season’s lineup – notably, Stephen Weiss, David Booth, Mike Santorelli and Dmitri Kulikov – will not only have to get used to a large number of new teammates, but also a new rookie NHL head coach.
Comparisons are likely to be made to the 2009 Montreal Canadiens, who hired a new head coach (Jacques Martin),traded for Scott Gomez and signed Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, Travis Moen and Paul Mara in the summer of ’09.
One difference, however, was the Canadiens had stability in several key areas, particularly in goal (Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price) and on defense (Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Roman Hamrlik), plus had a solid two-way star up front in Tomas Plekanec. Despite the numerous changes, many of those who remained had been part of the roster which, only the year prior, had finished first overall in the Eastern Conference.
Another was most of the players they brought in either had won championships (Gionta, Gill, Gomez, Moen), played on a Cup finalist (Spacek), or matured with their previous team (Cammalleri), plus all were used to playing for a coach like Martin, who favored a strong team defense.
And of course there was Martin, a former NHL coach of the year, who had years of experience at the big league level.
The Panthers, on the other hand, were a mess to begin with, having missed the playoffs every year since 2001.
They were unable to re-sign Tomas Vokoun, and brought in Theodore, whose best seasons are well behind him. Theodore has proven capable in recent years of playing well in a backup role (Washington, Minnesota), but at this point in his career he no longer seems capable of carrying a team in the starting goalie role.
On defense, the addition of Campbell is a sound one. He isn’t worth that bloated contract he’s carrying, but Campbell is a very good blueliner, who plays well at both ends of the rink.
The addition of Jovanovski, however, is another matter. If he were two or three years younger, his return to the club where he started his NHL career would be praiseworthy, but at 35, it’s become apparent over the last couple of years that age and injury are catching up with “Jovocop”.
Had they inked him to a two year deal, that could be considered a reasonable depth signing, as he could bring much-needed experience and leadership to younger blueliners like Kulikov, but inking him for four years at over $4 million per? Too much, for too long, and it could potentially handcuff this team cap-wise in three or four years.
Up front, the additions of Fleischmann ($4.5 million per season) and Upshall ($3.5 million per) could be good ones, provides their respective health issues (blood clots for Fleischmann, recovery from knee surgery two years ago for Upshall) can be put behind them.
Both at this point would have to be considered overpaid, but if they can stay healthy they could go on to justify those salaries.
Tallon was justified to bring in Kopecky and Bergenheim to bolster his third line depth, but he grossly overpaid for the privilege.
Kopecky had 42 points last season on a depleted Blackhawks team, but it remains to be seen if he can reach or exceed those numbers again. $3 million per at this point is about $700K per season too much.
Tallon is taking what could be an expensive gamble on Bergenheim, who’s never netted 30 points in a season in his NHL career, but won what FOHS co-host and pal Scotty Wazz called “the John Druce award” for potting nine goals in this spring’s post-season for Tampa Bay.
If Bergenheim actually is on the verge of becoming a late-blooming scorer, it’ll justify the $2.75 million per season Tallon’s paying him. Otherwise, he’ll become one of the most expensive fourth line forwards in the league.
The much-travelled Versteeg should hopefully boost their scoring on the wing, though last season split between Toronto and Philadelphia he netted only 46 points, just two higher than the year prior in his final season with Chicago.
Goc, Bradley and Carter meanwhile were sensible, affordable depth signings who should improve their overall defensive grit at forward.
Tallon is gambling that an overnight rebuild via free agency will finally put the Panthers back into playoff contention.
For that to happen, Theodore will have to rediscover the long-lost form that, once upon a time, made him a Hart and Vezina winner.
Campbell will have to prove his lofty plus-minus of +28 last season wasn’t just because he was playing on a defending Stanley Cup champion. Jovanovski will have to shake off the years, stay healthy and, if not play like the “Jovocop” of old, at least as a reasonable facsimile.
Fleischmann and Upshall will have to stay healthy and finally cash in on the golden opportunity laid before them, playing big line minutes in Florida.
Versteeg will have to have a career year.
Bergenheim will have to prove his playoff scoring feats this spring weren’t simply a one-off, while Kopecky must prove he’s a consistent 40-point man.
And they’ll all have to fit seamlessly with Weiss, Booth, Santorelli, Kulikov and the remaining carry-overs of last year’s lineup.
In many cases, spending more doesn’t necessarily mean a team will get be better, nor does changing half of a roster in the off-season. Looking at the 2011-12 Florida Panthers, there’s not a lot there to suggest they’ll be a better team than last year’s model.