Cats’ Good Start, Roster Upgrade Spark Playoff Hopes
By Bill Whitehead
“Playoffs?…You kidding me? Playoffs!” Those, of course, are the immortal words of an astounded Jim Mora during a legendary NFL press conference in 2001, but with a strong start to the season, many in Pantherland are thinking about the postseason. And the actions of Florida general manager Dale Tallon, like last Saturday afternoon when he made a major alteration to the team by trading fan favorite David Booth, hint that Tallon may believe this team is close to taking a major step that will lead to more hockey in April than just the four games on the schedule.
What do the Panthers have to do to make the postseason? They’ve already done a few things that help. They completely blew up a terrible roster from the end of last season and transformed it into one that, simply put, has more top-flight skill on it. The names Versteeg, Fleischmann, Campbell, Upshall, Bergenheim, Kopecky and Bradley are familiar ones around the NHL because of their accomplishments. Sure, Florida dealt the popular Booth, and the move was an unpopular one among much of the fan base. But the former No. 10 in the red sweater still has health questions after receiving big hits from Mike Richards and Jaroslav Spacek, and Booth’s production has been poor. Meanwhile, Tallon added two good veterans in Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson to make the Panthers better.
Another positive factor is the club’s fast start. Florida is 5-3-0 entering tonight’s game with an Ottawa team that beat Carolina Tuesday but has struggled at times early and is 4-5-0. Florida has been a notoriously slow out of the gate and had has to battle from down in the standings, but this team has continued to gel while backup goaltender Jacob Markstrom has been everything as advertised and was the talk of the NHL in his 40-save win Tuesday night in Montreal.
The key is Florida winning the games they are supposed to win. The club took care of business in the Bell Center against a Montreal team that was on life support until Philadelphia came to Quebec Wednesday. The Panthers should do the same in Ottawa with a good effort. Buffalo is a different story entirely, but Florida would call the trip a major success if they could grab a point and return to the BankAtlantic Center 6-3-1 through 10 games. I’ll go ahead and do the math: That’s nearly 107 points over an 82-game schedule.
I’m not sure this is a playoff team, though. I think Florida is likely one of those teams on the cusp of getting in — call them a “cuspy” team — maybe occupying anywhere from the ninth to eleventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings. While the start is refreshing, they are 3-3 against playoff teams from last season — two of the losses by shutouts in one-sided games — and Montreal this season is far inferior to last year’s club. Florida is 2-0 against the New York Islanders (3-4-0), who don’t appear to be too much different from last year.
I still say this team will be cuspy in the end and likely watching the playoffs rather than playing in them, but Tallon may have a deal or two left to make the Cats better. Essentially replacing Booth and Ryan Carter, who the team waived Monday, Sturm and Samuelsson add depth — quality depth at that — to a team that is much better at both ends of the ice than last season. And don’t forget that 21-year-old Swede in goal, who could steal a few more games and make the standings even tighter.
Regardless, while last year’s version of the Florida Panthers was truly painful to watch, especially when clinging desperately to a late lead, these Cats are refreshing, fun and make you anticipate, not dread, those leads. Now there is better talent to make it stand and perhaps even add an empty-netter to finish it off.
As for playoffs, well, there’s a lot of hockey left to play, but it’s much more exciting to play what’s left from the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings instead of fourteenth or fifteenth.
By Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent