Rebuilding Panthers Face Challenges

After the Canadiens play on Long Island tonight, they fly home to face Chris Higgins and the Florida Panthers in what hockey types like to call an “ambush game.” The Panthers played last night in Ottawa, losing 5-3 (a game in which they trailed 5-1 early in the third), and will be waiting in Montreal for the home team.

Things haven’t been peachy for the Panthers this season. Off the ice, some of their local fans who subscribe to the DISH Network satellite service can’t see their games on TV because of a dispute between DISH and the Fox Regional Sports Networks (“Just gives everyone yet another excuse to watch
the Heat, eh?” wrote George Richards, ruefully blogging for the Miami Herald).

Yes, they must share their market with the NBA Heat, the most hype-driven sports franchise in the known universe.

Their home attendance is still among the lowest in the league, the
product of last making the playoffs when Bill Clinton was president.

Even their AHL affilate Rochester is unhappy. They recently informed the Panthers they would not be renewing their working agreement.

On the ice, they got hosed by the refs in Toronto on Tuesday and, as coach Pete DeBoer told Richards, they didn’t show up ready to play last night in Ottawa until the third period. That’s not a the way they started the season, but since the first four games or so, they’ve been less consistent in the effort department.

Higgins did get his first goal of the year in their too-little-too-late comeback attempt, but Florida has now lost three of four, and is only avoiding the Eastern Conference basement because the Devils are playing even worse.

The good news is this team, in the early stages of a rebuild, starts with a direction — something it lacked in the last few years — in the person of Dale Tallon, who was hired as general manager last spring.

Tallon knows how to cobble together a shattered franchise. He assembled a big chunk of the Blackhawks team that won the Stanley Cup last year, and while he may have had some rough patches when it came to things like salary cap management there, he was wise enough to find good help in Florida when he hired Michael Santos away from Nashville to be his assistant GM.

The bad news is that the Florida fans are weary of rebuilds.

The team that will skate at the Bell Centre on Saturday lacks a proven big finisher. With David Booth out most of the year with post-concussion symptoms and Nathan Horton unhappy, they finished last season with only 208 goals, fewest in the league. With only 21 goals in their eight games, including six in one game against Tampa Bay, they’re not exactly burning up
the scoresheet this season either.

Horton has gone to Boston, Booth — a 30 goal scorer two years ago — is back and contributing, but this is still a team that has yet to display a dynamic offensive side.

“We’re a team that’s built around fundamentals,
some basic principles and, from a coaching perspective, sometimes
that’s easier with a room of workers,” DeBoer told James Gordon of the Ottawa Citizen this week. “There’s a lot of
nights — trust me — I wish we had one of those guys.… You know, 1-1
games and you can’t score a goal or create an offensive chance, so it’s
the old adage of live with them or live without them.”

So he often rolls four lines pretty equally and hopes the effort is there. It has been at times in the early going and that can make up for what they lack in talent.

He’s mixed his forwards up a bit this season so it’s tough to say what they’ll look like on Saturday, but Booth, Stephen Weiss and Michael Frolik were once DeBoer’s top line, although Weiss seems lost or disinterested (and on Ottawa radio this morning, Pierre McGuire said he thinks Weiss will be shipped out of town before season’s end).
Frolik, a two-time 20 goal scorer withe great potential who hasn’t exactly played inspired hockey so far, was a healthy scratch in Ottawa, having registered only two assists in the first seven games with a minus-2 rating. Rostislav Olesz could be in his spot, although his finishing skills are limited.
The Marty Reasoner-Radek Dvorak-Corey Stillman line has played with some good chemistry in the early going. Reasoner is tied for the team lead in scoring with Booth and defenceman Bryan McCabe, 7 points each.
After that, DeBoer has vets like Higgins, Steve Reinprecht and Steve Bernier and rookie playmaker Mike Santorelli to throw into the mix up front. All have good traits and can’t be taken lightly, but they haven’t overwhelmed anyone yet this season.
McCabe anchors the defence that includes Dennis Wideman, who came the other way in the Horton trade with Boston; Dmitri Kulikov, a second year NHLer who has PP QB skills; steady Byron Allen, who is good in a shutdown role; Jason Garrison, who has been slowed by a groin injury; and vet Mike Weaver, in his first year as a Panther after a couple of years with the Blues as a third-pair d-man.
Tomas Vokoun, drafted by the Habs way back in ’94, is still their top goalie and can be very good on the nights when he’s on. He remains acrobatic and can get Halak-like hot for stretches and damn near unbeatable. Consistency has always been his flaw. He brings a 2.57 GAA and .910 save percentage into the game.
Scott Clemmenson, who got bowled over in Toronto, has only played in two games in the back-up role.
The Panthers are 1-4 on the road this year and coming off a poor performance. They could rise to the occasion of a Bell Centre encounter or lapse into apathy. It’s tough to say which Panthers team will show up.

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