Key additions: Jacques Martin, Head Coach; Mike Keenan, General Manager; Joe Nieuwendyk, C (FA - TOR); Jozef Stumpel, C (FA - LA); Gary Roberts, LW (FA - TOR); Chris Gratton, C/LW (FA - COL); Sean Hill, D (FA - CRL); Eric Cairns, D (FA - NYI); Martin Gelinas, LW (FA - CGY); Joel Kwiatkowski, D (FA - WSH); Jean-Marc Pelletier, G (FA - PHX); Jamie McLennan, G (FA - NYR); Dan Focht, D (FA - PIT)
Key losses: Mathieu Biron, D (FA - WSH); Matt Cullen, C (FA - CRL); Darcy Hordichuk, LW (T - NSH); Donald Audette, RW (FA); Lyle Odelein, D (FA - PIT); Andreas Lilja, D (FA - DET); Patrick DesRochers, G (FA - Europe); Paul Healey, RW (FA - COL); Kristian Kudroc, D (FA - Europe); Travis Scott, G (FA - Europe); Christian Berglund, RW/LW (FA - Europe)
Key players unsigned: Vaclav Nedorost, C/LW;
Forwards: The Panthers were the first team out of the gate when the free agency period started, signing 35 seasons and more than 900 goals worth of experience in Nieuwendyk and Roberts. Florida didn't stop there, however, as they added the injury-prone Stumpel, underacheiving Gratton and over-the-hill Gelinas to a group of forwards that had only one 15 goal scorer (Olli Jokinen) and only one player with more than 31 points (Jokinen, again) in 2003-04. Curiously, Jokinen still remains unsigned. Assuming that Jokinen does sign, Florida at least has depth down the middle, with Jokinen, Nieuwendyk, Stumpel, Gratton and youngsters Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton. On the wings, however, the Panthers are below average, and as a result they will struggle mightily to score goals. It is also a relatively soft group of forwards on the whole, and not one that will instill much fear in opposing teams.
Defensemen: While the rest of the hockey world waits for Jay Bouwmeester to live up to his advanced billing (so far the third overall pick in 2002 is minus 44 in 143 career games), the Panthers have added blueliners Hill, Kwiatkowski and Cairns. Hill may help the powerplay some, but he will not get prime time with specialist Mike Van Ryn bombing shots from the point. Kwiatkowski is big and fast but doesn't use his size or his brain often enough. Cairns is a tough but slow blueliner who takes far too many bad penalties. This group may be better than 2003-04's, but still is a below average defense.
Goaltenders: Roberto Luongo is the franchise. He is one of the best goalies in the world and is as important to his team as any other player in hockey. So why did Keenan and the Panthers treat him the way they did this past offseason and take the superstar backstop to arbitration? It is mind-boggling. Sure, the Panthers "won," as Luongo will make closer to what the team thought he was worth than what he had thought of his own value. But in the long-run, the team will likely be the loser. Luongo is now harboring ill feelings towards the team and its management, and can walk away as a free agent after two seasons. For a team with a good deal of space under the cap, not making "their guy" happy in order to save a few bucks in the short-term will turn out to be a very short-sighted decision. On the ice, Luongo is entering his prime and is already putting up big numbers behind a fairly terrible team. There is no question that there is a Vezina in the near future for Luongo; the question is, will he win it with the Panthers? On the rare occasion that Luongo gets a night off, he'll be spelled by the unspectacular McLennan or the untalented Pelletier.
Bottom line: The 2003-04 Panthers were in the bottom eight in the NHL in goals for and in goals against. Something had to be done, and Mike Keenan was that something. The result, however, was a lot of turnover but the same old Panthers. There's not enough up front and the blueline is too thin which means that Florida will rely on Luongo to win games, and he won't be able to win enough of them to get this team to the playoffs. If the team somehow fails to sign its best forward and two best defensemen, things could get much worse much quicker. You could say - and it would be accurate - that the Panthers got Focht in the offseason.
Update (9/12): The Panthers have re-signed two key RFAs, Olli Jokinen and Mike Van Ryn, to one-year deals.