Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Return of the Rubber Rats

By Jonathan Lungo

The cats of South Florida are finally awakening and are ready to jump back into the playoff scene. Last year revealed that the Panthers have a lot to look forward to. For example. an excellent blend of youth and experience is found from top to bottom on this Panthers roster up front. Coming off last year's nail biting race for the last playoff spot, the Panthers will be back ready to prove that last year's jump was not just a fluke. The Panthers finished the season with 93 points, tied with Montreal for eighth, but lost the tiebreaker and so were sent packing to the beaches of South Florida.

This season will be a trial of consistency for the Panthers forwards. The Panthers will only go as far as their forwards can take them making the forward corps their Achilles Heel. If there are too many injuries or shortcoming among the forwards it will be a long season in Sunrise. Veterans Radek Dvorak and Steven Reinprecht will be leading the young forwards who are hopefully the future of this respectful franchise. Among the youth is 24-year-old American David Booth who scored 31 goals and 29 assists in 72 games played last season. Expect this youngster to get more playing time and to lead the team in scoring. Booth is shaping up to become a team captain some day, possibly as soon as sometime during this season.

Last year’s rookie sensation in Sunrise was Michael Frolik. Another promising ray of light to the Panthers success and future in South Florida, Frolik is an extremely fast and agile center who totaled 45 points in 79 games played. Being that it was only his rookie season he did not play on the top line but his +/- was a plus 10 so expect Frolik to keep himself on the top two lines of the Panthers. The Panthers now have the energy back in the building, which will help energize this squad and help other young forwards like Stephen Weiss (14G, 47A), Gregory Campbell (13G, 19A). But not to worry, Head coach Peter DeBoer knows how to sculpt these players into winning shape...hopefully just not when my Flyers are in town because I have already purchased the tickets.

If I were Randy Sexton, the Panthers Assistant General Manager, all I would be worried about would be the depth on defense. The loss of Jay Bouwmeester was no doubt a huge loss of talent but the distraction brought by the Bouwmeester trade rumors was too big a distraction. Perhaps the best addition to this defensive corps is Jordon Leopold who came over during the offseason in a trade with Calgary. Leopold is looking for a place to settle down after his second stint with the Flames and what a better place to do it than here in Sunrise. The team around him is still young and blossoming and he has an opportunity to become a leader in the locker room and his postseason experience will play a crucial role in getting the Panthers into the playoffs. The other top defenseman positions for the Panthers this year will probably be Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard, and newly acquired Dennis Seidenberg, who also has postseason experience with both the Flyers and Hurricanes. If one of these guys goes down the next guy up is not going to be as experienced and can prove to be a thorn in the paw for these Panthers.

Goaltending should be of little worry, since two excellent net minders are between the pipes. I say enough of Tomas Vokoun as the starter and put in Scott Clemmensen. Sexton brought in Clemmensen from the Devils this offseason and why not use what you acquired?The 32 year old Clemmensen showed amazing skill last year in New Jersey after Martin Brodeur went down with an injury. When Clemmensen stepped in the Devils were down in third place in the highly competitive Atlantic Division and led the Devils to an Atlantic Division title going 25-13 with two shutouts in 40 games and holding opponents to under three goals a game. Of course Brodeur came back at the end of the season to record his record breaking win and Scotty was tossed aside like chopped liver and the backup job was given back to a cheaper Kevin Weekes. Scotty is looking for revenge and this will only add to the Panthers fury this season.

My prediction: the Rubber Rats will be back and they will be numerous.

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