Of all the teams that engaged in a chemistry experiment with their roster in the offseason, no club mixed more new ingredients than the Panthers, who provide the opposition for the Canadiens on Monday night. And they just keep adding new chemicals to their mix.
The Canadiens will skate for their first win at the Bell Centre against a team they are going to have to climb over to get into a playoff spot. The Panthers sit in sixth spot, 4-3, four points ahead of the last-place Canadiens. Florida has missed the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons and management’s many moves have been designed to bring them back to relevance in their market and the NHL. They no longer can be considered an easy two points on any team’s schedule.
Florida was remade during the offseason by GM Dale Tallon and Assistant GM Michael Santos, starting even before the July 1 free agency period when, flush with a huge amount of cap space, they traded for high-priced Blackhawks defencenman Brian Campbell. It was the first move that brought in a dozen veterans and a new coach in Kevin Dineen (who began his fine NHL career for Hartford at the Forum in a 1984 game in which Mats Naslund scored five goals).
And the roster tinkering has not stopped, as the Panthers acquired two more veterans over the weekend from the Canucks – Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm — in exchange for David Booth, a move that returns two potentially productive but frequently injured and much-traveled players whose contracts are up at the end of the season. Samuelsson played for the Panthers for half a season before the lockout and won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008.
Just how these guys will fit into Dineen’s lineup is uncertain, but they should both be dressed for tonight’s game.
The Panthers also brought in former Habs hero Jose Theodore to partner with Scott Clemmensen in goal. Clemmensen underwent minor knee surgery after a preseason injury and has not played since. That opened the door for Theo, and he’s played pretty well thus far (3-2, 2.62 GAA, .913 SV). But he, too, came up lame during the Panthers game against the Islanders on Saturday and was relieved by Jacob Markstrom, who got the win 4-2 win. That broke a two-game losing streak for the Panthers, in which they played poorly, getting shut out in back-to-back games, 3-0 losses to Buffalo and Washington last week.
Markstrom made his first NHL start in the loss to the Capitals and impressed his coaches despite the outcome. Theodore made the trip to Montreal, but his status tonight is uncertain. So, it’s possible Dineen will stick with Markstrom, who was drafted for Florida by then-GM Jacques Martin with the first pick of the second round in the 2008.
If the trade of Booth, a popular player in Florida, was timed to shake the Panthers out of their lethargy, it worked. They were clearly the better team against the Islanders on Saturday and they’ll try to keep it going against the Canadiens tonight.
The player moves seem to have paid off. Kris Versteeg leads their scoring parade with four goals and four assists in seven games. He’s been playing on a line with another newcomer, Tomas Fleischmann and the longest-serving Panther, Steven Weiss. Campbell has seven assists, tied for the second highest total in the league. Energy guys Scott Upshall and Matt Bradley lead the team in hits, which is no surprise. And defenceman Ed Jovanovski — who returned to the Panthers where he began his career after playing 12 seasons in Vancouver and Phoenix — has been mentoring rookie d-man Erik Gudbranson.
One new addition, Sean Bergenheim (who was an impressive figure for Tampa Bay in last season’s playoffs) isn’t on this trip. He suffered what has been described as a “core injury” — which, one supposes, is neither upper body, nor lower body — and has missed the last three games. He will likely miss a few more. The speedy Bergenheim had a shorthanded goal against the Lightning on Oct. 11 before being injured.
Among the homegrown talent, Weiss has three goals and four assists. Gudbranson doesn’t have a point yet, but he did fight Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie and then Ryan Malone the next game in Florida’s home-and-home sweep of the Lightning earlier this month.
They’ve also gotten some good performances from some lesser known players as well. Shawn Matthias, a 2006 Red Wings draftee who came to Florida in the 2007 trade that sent Todd Bertuzzi to Detroit, had a pair of terrific assists and scored an empty net goal in the win over the Islanders on Saturday, but he may be in a fight with Samuelsson for a spot in the lineup.
The Panthers power play has been very effective, clicking at 26.7 percent, fourth best in the league. Their penalty kill has not been strong: 76.2 percent, 24th in the league. They also average more shots against (31.9) than shots taken (29.9).
Weiss has been strong on faceoffs, winning almost 56 percent of his draws.
Here’s how the Panthers lined up against the Islanders, but that will change tonight with their new additions plugged in.
Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg
Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, Tomas Kopecky
Shawn Matthias, Tim Kennedy, Matt Bradley
Ryan Carter, Bracken Kearns, Jack Skille
Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson
Jason Garrison, Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver