Florida Panthers Training Camp Preview

By Mark Fischel

Florida Panthers Training Camp Preview

For the first time in several years, the Florida Panthers are holding their training camp in their own home town. Looking to put last season’s miserable campaign behind them, a campaign that saw the departures of veterans Scott Mellanby, Ray Whitney, Todd Simpson, Rob Neidermayer, Mike Sillinger and Igor Larionov. With a turnover of nearly a quarter of their roster, the Panthers are giving new and hungry players a chance to turn the Panthers around. Coming to South Florida this year are Jason Weimer, Valeri Bure, Jeff Norton, Bernie Kosar, and the promise of several rookies who are anticipated to make the team. As Tool’s Maynard Keenan sings in the line “I know the pieces fit”, it will be up to the Panther coaching staff to make sure all the pieces fit.

Each position will be analyzed for the current mix of veterans and rookies that will be competing for the spots. Some positions will not have an opening available for some rookie to make the team and will rely on whatever veterans are available to fill in the roster. After each position is analyzed, I will make my “fearless prediction” on what rookies will make the team. My only disclaimer is that I reserve the right to be very wrong in these predictions and will ignore all mocking derisive comments that I probably will earn and deserve. So with that being said, onto the rosters!

Training Camp Rosters

Center: Olli Jokinen, Kevyn Adams, Ryan Johnson, Viktor Kozlov, Serge Payer, Nick Smith, Janis Sprukts, Matt Herr, Stephen Weiss

The center situation for the Panthers will be one of the more intriguing battles. At the top line Kozlov is already slotted in as Pavel’s set-up man, but the 2nd line spot is the position to watch. What the Panthers have in abundance are 3rd and 4th line centers in Ryan Johnson, Kevyn Adams, Olli Jokinen, Matt Herr, and Serge Payer.

Olli Jokinen was a dissapointment in his first year as a Panther, and the clock is slowly ticking for Olli to not be considered a draft-day bust. He has the skills, size, and hustle but his commitment and desire might be in question. Ryan Johnson was brought back from Tampa to energize the team with his speed and all-out hustle, but his lack of finishing skills will prevent him from being the 2nd line center. Kevyn Adams is an intriguing possibility to grab the center duties for Val Bure. Always cast in a 3rd and 4th line role, Adams might get the chance he is looking for to step his game up. After being acquired for Ray Whitney, Adams was one of the most consistent and productive Panthers with his strong face-offs, physical play, and non-stop motor.

Panther coach Duane Sutter has stated that the position can realistically be taken by rookie Weiss straight out of juniors, but if that happens, than one of the veteran centers will have to play wing and bump out one of the rookies or veterans in contention for those spots. For this to happen, Stephen Weiss is going to have be one of the best rookies, let alone, players in camp to cause a veteran center to have to play out of position and bump another promising rookie to the minors. Weiss has the top notch skills, but does he have the strength, stamina, and experience needed to be rushed into the NHL straight out of juniors?

Mark’s fearless prediction: The second line center position will be given to Olli Jokinen, much like it was last year. But shortly into the season, the energetic Kevyn Adams will play himself into this role. Kevyn has the speed to match up with Valeri Bure and Huselius, and his penchant for physical play and attention to the defensive side of the ice makes him the ideal player. Stephen Weiss will be sent down to Plymouth in order to continue his development, but will make the team in several years.

Right Wing: Pavel Bure, Valeri Bure, Denis Shvidki, Rocky Thompson, Joey Tetarenko, Ivan Novoseltsev, Paul Harvey. David Morisset, Sean O’Connor

The top two right wing situation are perhaps the easiest calls to make. The Bure Brothers will man the first two right-wing positions and fetch the majority of the ice time. That leaves open the remaining spots to 3 players with some NHL experience under their belts, Shvidki, Novoseltsev, and Joey “Lil Bag o’ Hortons” Tetarenko.

Shvidki came on strong at the end of the season and doesn’t need time to develop in the AHL anymore. Ivan Novoseltsev has all the tools but hasn’t put them altogether yet in the AHL, let alone the NHL. He will become a regular NHL’er one day, but Novo will need the right situation in order to make that happen. Joey Tetarenko was one of those rookies that got his chance due to the massive injuries, and he fit in well on the lower lines with his toughness and nose for the puck.

Coming off a very strong rookie camp where he had 2 points, 18 Hits and 5 shots in 4 games, David might have been the Panther rookie in Hull. With his blazing speed and defensive awareness, Morisset has been drawing comparisons in that regard to former Panther Radek Dvorak. If he continues with the strong play in juniors, it is only a matter of time before he starts to push a veteran for a 4th line spot.

Mark’s fearless prediction: Pencil Denis Shvidki in for the 3rd line spot. He plays well enough on the defensive side of the ice and brings an offensive dimension that will make Sutter comfortable enough to give him the limited ice time behind the Bure’s. The 4th line spot will be contested between Tetarenko and Novoseltsev, with the nod going to Tetarenko for his solid team play. Another possibility will be one of the extra left-winger veterans taking this spot, but it isn’t apparent who can or will make that shift. Novoseltsev will be one of those guys who gets called up immediately as injuries occur, but he really needs to keep developing his game in the minor’s before he can be considered ready for the NHL.

Left Wing: Bill Lindsay, Pete Worrell, Marcus Nilson, Kristian Huselius, Jason Weimer, Eric Beaudion, Ryan Jardine, Niklas Hagman, Josh Olson

The one position where it looked like several rookies were going to be given the chance to contribute was at the Left Wing. But with the recent signing of former Panther veteran, Bill Lindsay, that chance appears to have been given away. Marcus Nilson is probably going to be reprising his role as the top left winger, where his defense-first mentality and willingness to do the dirty work makes him an ideal partner to Pavel Bure and Victor Kozlov. Lindsay, Weimer and Worrell will probably platoon to make up the 3rd and 4th line positions, with Weimer probably getting the 3rd line spot on a regular basis.

Also coming into camp with a reasonable shot of unseating some veterans, are the duo of emerging European wingers Kristian Huselius and Niklas Hagman. Huselius has been considered the best prospect in Europe and his domination of six offensive categories in SEL this past season also makes him a Calder candidate. Hagman also emerged this year as a scorer after being thought of as a checking-line winger. His strong play in rookie camp will also make for some tough decisions when he starts to push some of the vets for a full-time job.

Mark’s fearless prediction: If Huselius somehow forgets how to skate at training camp, you can all but place him as the 2nd line left-winger to work some magic with Valeri Bure. If he doesn’t fully shrink away from the physical play, he will provide the Panthers with a skillful second-line that will be a scoring threat. Look for Huselius to thrive in Power Play situations, where his elite-level puck handling skills will take advantage of the extra space. Weimer is penciled in on the 3rd line, while Worrell and Lindsay will see time on the 4th line. Due to the three veterans for the last 2 spots, Hagman will probably go back to Finland for another year.

Defense: Lance Pitlick, Paul Laus, Bret Hedican, Jeff Norton, John Jakopin, Robert Svehla, Dan Boyle, Ivan Majesky, Lance Ward, Brad Ference, Brad Norton, Kyle Rossiter, Paul Elliot, Grant McNeill, Lukas Krajicek, Doug Schueller

With a defense that ranked near last in several categories, including 27th in Goals allowed and 28th in shots allowed, and no notable additions besides Panther retread Jeff Norton, the Panthers look to have their work cut out for them. Naming a full-time defensive coach for the first time since Lindy Ruff left for Buffalo, the Panthers will be relying on Paul Baxter to make immediate improvements like he did with the San Jose Sharks defense.

What the Panthers have is 1 bona-fide top line defenseman in Svehla, a solid #2 line defenseman in Bret Hedican, and a bunch of 3rd unit defenseman. Paul Laus makes his return to the defensive corp after spending three years at the right wing spot, and he is also the favorite to become the 3rd Panther captain. In all, there are 5 legitimate NHL defenseman on the roster, and 2 spots open for players like Ward, Ference, Jakopin, Boyle.

Ward looked very solid and poised when he played with Robert Svehla last year on the top unit. The under-appreciated Svehla no doubt covered any of Ward’s mistakes and helped Ward progress. Can Ward handle a full season on the top line? Dan Boyle always flirts with showing promise with his puck-movement skills and offensive minded game, but his defensive deficiencies and small stature tends to get him overpowered by larger forwards.

John Jakopin has the huge size and physical game to make his presence felt, but his slow skating and inability to stay healthy make him a big question mark year after year. Brad Ference has never been able to recapture the momentum from his promising debut 2 years ago, and the Panthers would like to see him develop more of a two-way game in order to help out in the NHL. The wild-card in the mix is the European veteran Ivan Majesky, whom the Panthers think can step in sooner than later and provide an upgrade much like Jaro Spacek did three years ago. Majesky has a booming shot from the point and solid poise in all ends, but where will he play this year?

Coming off a solid rookie camp, free-agent signee Paul Elliot had 3 points (1G, 2A), 6 shots, 2 PIM’s in 3 games and earned himself a ticket to the main-camp. 1st round draft pick Lukas Krajicek will probably be a main-stay in a few years as well and provide the much needed offensive PP QB the Panthers have been lacking since they entered the league. Rossiter is another strong candidate to look at in a few years to push a veteran for a spot as well.

Mark’s fearless prediction: With 5 spots already being decided, the competion will be between Jakopin, Ward, and Boyle. In all likelihood, expect to see all three make the team, with Boyle and Jakopin competing nightly for the press-box seats. Further analyzing the roster, something has to eventually give by way of a trade. Either several young players will be used to grab a veteran defenseman, or contracts will not be renewed next year. Lance Pitlick and Jeff Norton only have one year left as a Panther, while Bret Hedican is nearing UFA status at the end of the season.

What is apparent is that defensive roster deficiencies concievably not be answered this year, but Panther brass will simply let the contracts run out of at least two of the veterans like Pitlick and Norton. This will allow the younger players like Ference, Ward and Rossiter to get a better opportunity next year to earn a full time spot. If the Panthers defense improves slightly this year and the Panthers make the playoffs, the defensive MVP in all likelihood will be their coach, Paul Baxter.

Goalies: Trevor Kidd, Roberto Luongo, Wade Flaherty, Andrew Allen, Billy Thompson

Luongo’s play last year was only a glimpse into what surely will be his fast track to the level of upper-echelon goalies such as Roy and Brodeur. At this time last year, Luongo was outplaying Kidd in training camp, but humbly let Kidd earn the starting nod for the season. That will change this year as Luongo will enter the season as the bona-fide starter after a great rookie campaign.

If Kidd can deal with playing in about 30 games and being Luongo’s backup, and elevate his poor game last year ( 893 S%). Than the Panthers might have one of the more solid, yet under-rated tandems in the NHL this season. Kidd is earning to much to be the back-up, and his play while getting the start isn’t enough to earn him the #1 position, but the Panthers will probably keep Kidd on the roster this year as an expensive insurance policy. Unless he agrees to a massive pay-cut when his contract is up, Kidd won’t be a Panther for long.

Serving time on the farm will be career back-up Wade Flaherty and rookie FA signing Andrew Allen, who played college hockey at Vermont and will both attend training camp. 2001 draft pick Billy Thompson earned a chance to come to training camp with an excellent showing at Rookie Camp, where he went 1-1-0 with a .930 Sv% and a 2.00 GAA. Thompson beat out WHL stand-out Davis Parley who had a uncharacteristic rough time at rookie camp.

Mark’s fearless prediction: Not much to predict here. Luongo and Kidd will be the two NHL goalies, and the only thing preventing Luongo from assuming that spot will be if he doesn’t sign his new contract soon to make it to the start of camp.

Entering this last off-season the Panthers had new ownership, a solid draft in which they were able to get two first round picks and acquire Valeri Bure and Jason Weimer in exchange for their former 5th overall pick 7 years earlier. It seemed like the direction the team was going to take was to rely a little too much on several rookies, particulary on the Left Wing and Defense. But with the signings of former Panther veterans Jeff Norton and Bill Lindsay to budget deals, the chance for several rookies to contribute all at once was severely diminished.

The only pure rookie with the sure-fire chance of earning the team this year will be wunderkid Kristian Huselius, who is likely to make an immediate impact and contend for the Calder. Having an outside chance as well, is Stephen Weiss for the 2nd line center position, but he will have to perform well above several veterans to grab that spot and that makes him the dark horse to watch in training camp.

With the recent signings of Linday and Norton, there will not be a repeat of the 98-99 season when the Panthers had 4 rookies contribute that year. Mark Parrish, Jaro Spacek, Oleg Kvasha, and Peter Worrell all were given the ice-time to contribute and all played well. The current crop of new Panther players is going to be more of the bargain veterans and possibly only one true rookie, Kristian Huselius. But with several upper-echelon prospects coming on strong to compete for jobs, the roster in a few years will be dramatically different, and that might be a good thing.

Coming soon: Panther training camp reports and analysis of the battles as they progress for the open roster spots. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail them to me and I will do my best to answer them for you.