MONTREAL - With Jay Bouwmeester gone, the Florida Panthers hope their new-look defence includes a fully healthy Bryan Allen.
The 29-year-old played only two games last season before he had to go for microfracture surgery on a knee, which caused him to miss the rest of the 2008-09 campaign.
The jury is still out on whether he can return to top form, but the big defenceman is confident he will pull through.
"I feel good," he said. "It's been a long year, but the patience feels like it's paying off."
Allen is all Florida has left of the June, 2006 trade that sent star goaltender Roberto Luongo and Lukas Krajicek to the Vancouver Canucks for Allen, Todd Bertuzzi and goalie Alex Auld.
The skilled and physical rearguard had two strong seasons in Florida, but toward the end of the second a nagging knee ailment developed that lingered through the summer and eventually forced him to have surgery.
The microfracture procedure involves making tiny fractures in the bone that release stem cells that form new cartilage. It has a high success rate among athletes, but not all get back to their top level.
Allen said he will need some NHL pre-season games, including Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, to see how the knee reacts. He did not play in the Panthers' first two pre-season encounters, a pair of wins over the Ottawa Senators.
"It's hard to say," he said. "It's been a long time.
"I've done everything possible to be back to where I was a year ago. It'll be a process. I have a couple of exhibition games to get back into form and I hope it keeps progressing."
The Panthers could use a restored Allen to help rebuild the defence after Bouwmeester, their No. 1 blue-liner, signed with the Calgary Flames.
Defencemen Karlis Skrastins, Nick Boynton and Jassen Cullimore also left and were replaced by Jordan Leopold from Calgary and Ville Koistinen from Nashville. They recently signed veteran Dennis Seidenberg from Carolina and have Martin Skoula in camp on a try-out.
They are also looking at some promising rookies, including first-round picks Keaton Ellerby and Dimitry Kulikov.
Allen said Bouwmeester's departure "is not really a thought for our team anymore.
"Players change every year. Some are better than others. Obviously, Jay was an exceptional payer here, but we've moved on. I think we've acquired some very skilled and capable people to fill those positions."
Coach Peter DeBoer said an emphasis on team play will make up for Bouwmeester, who is now part of a formidable big three in Calgary with Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf.
"We're not a one-person team," said DeBoer. "We don't have one or two stars and then a bunch of other guys.
"We had to win last year by creating an identity of team play - four lines and six defencemen. When you play that way, you can take out a good player and still survive and that's what we're hoping for. We tried to replace Jay by committee, signing some people like Seidenberg, Koistinen and Leopold. We'll replace those minutes that way."
DeBoer said Allen could be a key part of the defence, which also has returning veterans Keith Ballard and Bryan McCabe.
"We really missed him last year," the second-year coach said. "He played the first two games of the season and I think he was averaging about 27 or 28 minutes, but then he never came back."
Kulikov, drafted 14th overall in June, has a goal and an assist in two pre-season games after dominating as a rookie in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season with Drummondville, where he adapted to North American life and learned English. The Russian brings a booming shot as well as strong skating and puck-moving skills.
At 19, he cannot be sent to the AHL, so he will either make the Panthers or return to Drummondville.
"That's OK for me," Kulikov said. "I understand that the pros is a different level."
He emphatically ruled out playing a year in the KHL in Russia.
"As of right now, he isn't even signed, so there's a couple of steps to go, but he's definitely not out of place," DeBoer said of Kulikov. "That's a decision we'll make as we go forward.
"It is tough, but having worked in junior hockey for 15 years, I think there's always something more you can learn in junior. I know last year he went to the Memorial Cup, but I'm not one of those guys who feels 19-year-olds have to play pro. There are great junior coaches and great programs across the country now and Drummondville is one of them. If he ends up back there I'm comfortable he's not going to take a step back."
Of greater concern for the Panthers is the attack, where they will rely heavily on their top line of centre Steven Weiss with wingers Nathan Horton and 31-goal scorer David Booth. They signed centre Steven Reinprecht, likely to play with veteran Cory Stillman, and hope to get more from promising second-year winger Michael Frolik.
The Panthers also signed goalie Scott Clemmensen from New Jersey to back up Tomas Vokoun
Florida has gone eight straight years without making the playoffs, although last season they tied Montreal for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with 93 points. The Canadiens got in because they had won the season series between the two teams 3-1.
"The guys are hungrier and realize the situation," said Allen. "There are guys who have played six or seven years here who haven't played in the playoffs and they really want to, so it will be interesting."