Q & A with Panthers Writer Steve Gorten/Sun-Sentinel
Can Alex Auld and/or Eddie Belfour replace Luongo?
For the first time since 2000, there are questions about the Panthers' goalie. The 25-year-old Auld is still unproven as a No. 1 and the 41-year-old Belfour is coming off lower back surgery and a disappointing season. Even if the dynamic works out well with Auld and Belfour splitting time, neither will steal games like Luongo did. Expect some drop-off. To what extent will largely determine whether this is a playoff team.
What will they get from their veterans?
Forwards Joe Nieuwendyk, Jozef Stumpel, Gary Roberts, Martin Gelinas and Chris Gratton were five of the team's top eight scorers last season. Stumpel was the biggest surprise after a slow start. With Roberts and Nieuwendyk, the primary concern is always health. Roberts missed 24 games while Nieuwendyk sat out 17 last season. It'll be interesting to see how Gratton responds to being rewarded with a two-year extension for a strong season.
Can Todd Bertuzzi put his personal ghosts behind him and recapture his glory?
Though unlikely he'll ever shed the Steve Moore incident, leaving Vancouver should help Bertuzzi's focus. So will the fact he'll be an unrestricted free agent after this season. While his point totals the past two seasons -- 71 and 60 -- aren't bad, they're not on par with the previous two -- 97 and 85. He'll be motivated to make a good impression.
What will be the line combinations?
Coach/General Manager Jacques Martin says nothing's set. They'll tinker with various combinations but won't take a serious look at possibilities until the second half of training camp. The Panthers probably will start camp with the same first line (Roberts-Jokinen-Stumpel) as last year, Ville Peltonen-Nieuwendyk-Bertuzzi as their second line, Gelinas-Stephen Weiss-Nathan Horton as their third line and Rostislav Olesz-Gratton-Juraj Kolnik as their fourth.
Can Olli Jokinen continue his ascent into the upper echelon?
Jokinen established career highs in goals (38), assists (51) and points last season, and tallied nine game-winning goals. Now with a new four-year contract, the 27-year-old team captain says he has even more to prove to validate the deal. With the addition of Todd Bertuzzi, Jokinen has a good shot to surpass Pavel Bure's single-season franchise scoring record (94 points).
How much will adding Ruslan Salei and Bryan Allen and having a healthy Branislav Mezei improve the defense?
Salei is undoubtedly a stronger free-agent acquisition than Sean Hill, Eric Cairns and Alexander Karpovtsev -- none of whom are still here -- were during the previous offseason. Salei and Jay Bouwmeester will probably be the top pairing, with Allen, who came in the Luongo trade, and Mike Van Ryn as the No. 2. After missing most of last season with a knee injury, the defensive-minded Mezei should bolster their No. 3.
What will Nathan Horton do as a follow-up to last year?
In his first full NHL season, Horton tallied 28 goals and 19 assists despite some lingering shoulder issues that arose in the second half. After Horton re-signed this summer, Keenan said the Panthers expect him to start producing like Carolina's Eric Staal (45 goals, 100 points). If Horton can eliminate the stretches of inconsistency that plagued him last season, a 40-goal season is attainable.
Have the Panthers completely adjusted to the crackdown on obstruction?
They say they have, but the jury remains out. They were their own worst enemy last season, repeatedly taking bad obstruction penalties -- often late in games -- even as they stressed being more disciplined. Having to kill one power play after another kept some of their top players off the ice and wore down those forced to play heavy minutes short-handed.
Can the Panthers be a better road team and avoid another miserable November?
You have to assume the Panthers' unfathomable 1-9-3 record last November can't possibly be duplicated. It knocked them back to the point of no return in the playoff chase. But even if they avoid such a stretch, they must improve their road record (12-23-6). They lost a club-record 13 in a row on the road at one point, and their play was drastically different at BankAtlantic Center than away. If they can be slightly better on the road, they might not be sitting at home come April.
What can we expect from Stephen Weiss?
Great things if you ask Nieuwendyk, who has often compared Weiss to the Devils' Scott Gomez. Weiss was creating with the puck, quarterbacking the power play and serving as one of the Panthers' top penalty killers when a wrist injury forced him to miss the season's final 41 games. This could be the breakout season for Weiss that 2005-06 had started to be.