Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Panthers Season Starts Saturday: Roster Updates

With only a handful of days before the Florida Panthers make the trip to Long Island, NY to start the 2011-2012 regular season, GM Dale Tallon and first year head coach Kevin Dineen made a few decisions to get one step closer to a finalized roster.

Tallon and Dineen both agreed that preseason's leading powerplay goal scorer, Jonathan Huberdeau, lacked the physical maturity to play a full NHL season and returned him to his junior team in the QMJHL, the St. John Sea Dogs. While expected (Tallon made it clear he was not going to rush any prospects) the decision to return him without giving him a 10 game cup of coffee in the NHL is puzzling.

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Under NHL rules, a junior eligible player may play up to 10 games in the NHL regular season before being returned to his junior team without counting against the salary cap or wasting a year of the contract. In other words, all it would cost the Panthers to play Huberdeau for 10 games would be his salary (meaning they would have to sign him as well, something that looks like it will have to wait until next year).

Top prospect Brayden Schenn played 1 game for the Kings in the '09-10 season and 8 for them last year. Nino Niederreiter played 9 games for the Isles last year. Jeff Skinner was told he would be given 10 regular season games to earn a spot with the Hurricanes and all he ended up doing was earning Rookie of the Year. The list goes on and on.

Whether or not going back to juniors is the right decision concerning Huberdeau will have to be answered next training camp but one thing is for sure: sending him back without giving him some NHL experience was a mistake.

The expectations for Huberdeau this year in the Q are to mature physically (adding as much weight as humanly possible) and to develop more leadership skills. He will most likely captain the Sea Dogs and be one of the leaders on the Canadian World Junior team. However, what he won't get in the Q is to see the real NHL game speed, the real NHL physicality and the real NHL atmosphere. These things are something the preseason game in the training facility against a half AHL, half rookie roster doesn't give you. Especially with Santorelli's injury, Huberdeau and the Panthers would have benefited from his hanging around Sunrise a little longer.

On the bright side, Erik Gudbranson was also not given the NHL experience last year (because of contract issues) and he ended up having a fantastic year in the OHL, coming to training camp this year bulky, fast, mature and ready to play top 4 minutes in the NHL.

Speaking of Gudbranson, it was also announced yesterday that he will be in the lineup to start the season. Not very shocking news, but it will finally kill some of the rumblings on Panther sites about Gudbranson not being ready to play NHL minutes. Gudbranson has looked every bit like the franchise blueliner he is this preseason. The tutoring of Jovanovski has already aided Gudbranson this year, and will continue to help him grow as a player. Gudbranson should have a great year, starting Saturday.

Finishing out the young, home grown, guys is Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom won the backup gig after Clemmer went down with an injury. He figures to be out a month or so. This gives the competitive Markstrom (who has repeatedly stated he wants the number one role) a chance to unseat Theodore. Theodore had a rough preseason and was outplayed by the Swede.

While Theodore will most likely get the nod on Saturday, Markstrom could see game action as early as game four. If I were a betting man, and maybe I am, I would put a strong bet on Markstrom winning that starting job by end of November. He is a goalie that plays as big as his 6'8'' frame suggests and has consistently improved upon his weaker aspects every year. What looks to be his only weakness is his lack of NHL experience (Markstrom has 40 minutes of it), and there is only one way to get that.

Sergei Bobrovsky had no experience going into the first game of the season last year, but played well enough to be the starter out of training camp. Though he slowed down during the year and fell victim to  poor team performance in the playoffs (and coaching), he excelled enough to be in the running for Rookie of the Year.

Will Markstrom have enough gas in the tank and maturity to handle the starter's role is the big question this year. I think Markstrom is good enough to give the Panthers a strong 40 games. Theodore and Clemmer need to pick up the rest.

With the goal tending spots falling into place, and Huberdeau returned to juniors, the roster is starting to take shape. But of course, it is not there yet.

With eight D and 13 forwards, the Panthers are a mere one cut away from starting night lineup. Defenseman Mike Kostka while surprisingly playing well, will most likely be sent down to San Antonio to get to the roster limit. When Santorelli returns from the IR, the Panthers will also be forced to make another move. Meaning, Santorelli's injury has given a few players a chance to continue their fight for a spot a few more games.

Here is an early guess as to what the lines may be:

Versteeg Weiss Dadonov
Booth Matthais (Santorelli's usual spot) Fleischmann
Kopecky Goc Upshall
Bergenheim Carter Skille

Kulikov Campbell
Jovo       Gudbranson
Ellerby   Weaver


When Santorelli is back in the lineup, Carter is the one likely to be waived. However, Dineen has been very persistent about his philosophy for roster decisions-- you have to earn your ice. Expect the forwards who play the best to keep their jobs when Santorelli comes back and someone needs to get cut.

The only thing missing now is who will wear the letters. The decision will most likely come before the team leaves for New York. I would guess that veterans Jovanovski or Campbell will get the "C" while the A's will go to whichever one did not get the "C" and Weiss.

The Panthers start their season Saturday against the Islanders in Long Island at 8 p.m. The game will be on MSG in the Northeast and FS-F down in the South.

Prediction time: Panthers finish 8th in the East with 92 points. Fleischmann leads points, Markstrom comes up big and Dadonov is surprise of the year.

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