The Florida Panthers still have a puncher’s chance at making the post-season, but the Cats will have to claw past several teams to get there. It’s been a decade since Florida played in the NHL’s second season – so long, in fact, that the marquee star on the team was none other than Pavel Bure, the greatest offensive talent in the franchise’s history.
Unfortunately, the Panthers haven’t seen anyone like the ‘Russian Rocket’ since. And that’s precisely what they need.
Even expansion teams that have made middling toe-dips into the post-season recently did so with at least one exciting big gun. Columbus had Rick Nash, Atlanta boasted Ilya Kovalchuk. When the Minnesota Wild made it to the Western Conference final in 2002-03, they did it with defense, but also courtesy nearly a point-per-game playoff performance from Marian Gaborik.
The closest Florida has come to a legitimate game-breaker was during the Olli Jokinen era. The big Finn crested at 91 points in 2006-07, but then the Cats were doomed, ironically, by a porous defense.
Now the team once again has the defense, but no offense. Tuesday night in Minnesota, the Panthers held the hometown Wild to a paltry 11 shots en route to a 3-2 shootout win for Florida. In January, the Panthers went 6-4-1 in games where they and their opponents combined for five goals or less. In February, they went 0-for-the-month and scored just six goals in six games. Live by the sword, die by the sword, right?
But hope may be on the horizon, albeit maybe a little late to salvage the season. In March, Florida has averaged better than four goals per game so far, including a seven-goal outburst in a win over Philadelphia.
Who were the main culprits of that win? Sophomore Michael Frolik (two goals) and young David Booth (four points), recent returnee from a long concussive absence. These are the players Florida must bank on to carry the offense and their ability to generate the occasional seven-goal onslaught will be key to Florida’s future success.
With Tomas Vokoun in net and Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings, goaltending will not be an issue with the franchise for many years to come. Defensively, the team has acquitted itself well lately, so it’s just goal scoring that remains an issue.
Assuming Booth, 25, is free and clear of head trauma from here on out, he and Frolik, 22, form a potent duo, one with more offensive upside than the current top combo of Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss (who, don’t get me wrong, do other things well). Neither youngster is there just yet, but the future looks bright on both accounts.
The Cats have had excellent success drafting and developing defensemen in recent years, from Jay Bouwmeester to Dmitry Kulikov; now it’s time to develop someone who can put up 90 points in a season once again.
SATAN’S DARK ARTS
Hockey players are awesome. At Tuesday’s morning skate in Toronto, I was filming a feature on Tuukka Rask with THN video producer Ted Cooper and intern Matthew Krebs while the Boston Bruins were going through their paces.
As Ted shot footage at ice level, parallel to the goal line, a puck was mysteriously launched in the air from the far side of the zone. The biscuit rolled perfectly around the top of the glass and the protective netting, dropped out of the rink and right in front of Ted, then rolled past Matt and I. We look up and see Miroslav Satan shooting us a great playful smirk. Respect due; it was a heckuva shot.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.