NHL Offseason: Florida Panthers Notebook
By Brian Fogarty (@Brian_Fogarty)
Free Agency Season: Panthers Add Toughness and High-Risk Scoring
So far in the 2012 offseason of free agency spending sprees and drama, the Florida Panthers and GM Dale Tallon have been quietly adding pieces to last season’s Southeast Division championship roster. The Panthers may not have made many headlines, but they have made some moves and have seen a couple key players from last year head off to other NHL cities.
On the opening day of free agency, the Panthers took a quick step to get the goaltending arrangements for the upcoming season stabilized by re-signing Scott Clemmensen for two more years at the same cap hit as his expiring contract. Last year was another typical Clemmensen year for the 34-year-old netminder. He saved 91.3 percent of the shots he faced in 30 games for the Panthers while backing up starter Jose Theodore. Clemmesen is a steady backup netminder, and should provide another year or two for Jacob Markstrom to continue his development in the AHL. More importantly, by re-signing their backup, Florida was able to tamp down some of the Roberto Luongo trade talk that had been bubbling up through the sands of South Beach.
The departure of defenseman Jason Garrison (who signed a lucrative deal with Vancouver) was softened by the addition of long-time NHL powerplay defenseman and former Panther draft pick Filip Kuba. The Panthers signed Kuba to a two-year, $4 million cap-hit deal. With 792 games and 323 points of NHL experience, Kuba still has some firepower in his aging body. He benefited from being paired in Ottawa with rising star Erik Karlsson last season, and as a result enjoyed a solid bounce-back season from his disappointing 2010-11 campaign. Kuba will turn 36 in December, his effectiveness is on the decline, and expectations for a repeat of last season’s 32-point performance are likely inflated. Still, given proper protection by Coach Kevin Dineen and concentrated usage as a second-pair, powerplay defenseman, Kuba could be a serviceable blueliner while the Panthers wait for the arrival of some of their promising prospects.
Florida also lost forward Mikael Samuelsson on the first day of free agency. Samuelsson appeared in only 48 games for the Panthers last year, but managed 28 points on 13 goals and 15 assists. Used against tough competition, Samuelsson displayed solid possession skills, and more often than not managed to tilt the ice toward the offensive zone.
Tough guy George Parros signed a two-year contract and will be taking his flying hands and suspect play to Sunrise this fall. Parros may be known more for his mustache than he is for his production, but he will bring toughness to the Panther lineup. Last season, he averaged just above six minutes of ice time per game, while spending nearly two minutes per game in the penalty box. The signing of Parros signals an old-school approach, and although some fans are excited by his arrival (and his fights will surely bring the home crowds to their feet), his offensive and defensive contributions to the team will be minimal.
Role players and minor leaguers have made up the remainder of the Panthers free agency moves, both in and out of the lineup (J-F Jacques and Andre Deveaux in, Wojtek Wolski, Krys Barch, Jon Matsumoto and Bracken Kearns out), except for the recent signing of former Avalanche forward Peter Mueller.
Mueller comes to the Panthers after suffering a difficult string of concussions that left his hockey future somewhat in doubt. Mueller was drafted eighth overall in 2006 by the Phoenix Coyotes, and made his NHL debut in 2007-08 with 54 points in 81 games, including 22 goals scored and decent, albeit protected, possession play. Following a similar season in 2008-09 (72 games played, 36 points), things began to unravel for the promising center. After 54 games for Phoenix in 2009-10, Mueller was traded to Colorado at the trade deadline for Wojtek Wolski. Mueller apparently enjoyed the thin air in Denver, because he finished that season by scoring 20 points in just 15 games for the Avalanche. The next fall, Mueller suffered a concussion in training camp and missed the entire season. He managed just 32 games last season while dealing with further concussion complications and other injuries, but after his return to the ice in January, Mueller put up 16 points and 26 games, and appears to be back on track. His signing looks like the quintessential high-risk, high-reward move that paid off well for Tallon last year with Tomas Fleischman. If Mueller stays healthy, he could be a compelling story for the Panthers.
Bjugstad Still a Golden Gopher
After months of speculation, Florida forward prospect Nick Bjugstad finally announced his decision about the upcoming season, and he will be returning to the University of Minnesota for another crack at a national championship. The Gophers first line center and top offensive threat will once again join longtime friend (and fellow Panthers prospect) Kyle Rau on Minnesota’s top line. Whether his decision to return to college play will benefit Bjugstad’s development in the long run will never be known, but playing at one of the top programs in the US should not hurt him much if at all. He could probably have used the experience playing a longer, more grueling schedule against older and more experienced players, but an opportunity to return to campus and try again for the Frozen Four can be quite compelling.