There?s a new Big Three in Miami.
The Panthers dominated the headlines in Florida this summer with the acquisitions of Dennis Wideman, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner.
Wait, those weren?t the biggest names taking their talents to South Beach this summer? OK, that trio didn?t exactly rate their own ESPN special and didn?t suddenly create championship expectations like LeBron and Co. But the moves do show that new general manager Dale Tallon, who helped build last year?s Cup winner in Chicago, is going to be very proactive in trying to rebuild a Panthers team that hasn?t been in the playoffs since 2000, won a series since its unlikely run to the finals in 1996 and has qualified for the postseason just three times in the first 16 seasons of the franchise. Tallon swung four separate trades this season to begin a roster overhaul, but it may take a while for those moves to bear fruit as he had to give up talented forward Nathan Horton and defenseman Keith Ballard in the process.
2009-10 Record: 32-37-13, 77 points (5th Southeast Division; 14th Eastern Conference; did not qualify for the playoffs)
Bruins record vs. Panthers: Boston holds a slim 27-26-6-4 lead in the all-time series, and last year?s series was even closer with all four games decided by one goal and two going to a shootout. The Bruins lost the opener 1-0 in a shootout at the Garden on Nov. 12 as Tomas Vokoun made 40 saves, but won both games in Florida, 2-1 on Dec. 27 and 3-2 in a shootout on Feb. 13 as Mark Recchi scored the tying goal in the third, then the deciding goal in the eighth round of a marathon shootout. The Panthers posted their second 1-0 win in Boston on April 1, this time with Scott Clemmensen making 38 saves.
When to watch: Boston hosts the Panthers on Thursday, Nov 18 and Wednesday, Jan. 26, while heading down to Florida on Wednesday, Nov. 24 and Monday, Dec. 27.
Familiar faces: Ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman became a popular target for disgruntled Garden fans as he struggled through a frustrating season last year, but could return to form facing less pressure in Florida. He?ll see one friendly face in Florida when he?s reunited with forward Byron Bitz, who was traded to the Panthers in March in the Dennis Seidenberg deal. Florida also added one-time Bruin and former Boston College star Marty Reasoner this summer, who joins fellow Eagle Scott Clemmensen. The Panthers also signed defenseman Joe Callahan (Brockton, Mass./Yale) and forward Chris Higgins (Yale) and drafted Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.), whose father is the cousin of former Bruin and current NESN analyst Andy Brickley, in the second round this June.
Key additions: D Dennis Wideman (trade with Boston); F Steve Bernier (trade with Vancouver); F Michael Grabner (trade with Vancouver); F Chris Higgins (free agent); F Marty Reasoner (trade with Chicago); F Mike Santorelli (trade with Nashville); D Mike Weaver (free agent); D Nathan Paetsch (free agent); F Triston Grant (free agent); F Bill Thomas (free agent); D Joe Callahan (free agent); D Carl Hudson (free agent); D Erik Gudbranson (draft)
Key losses: F Nathan Horton (traded to Boston); F Gregory Campbell (traded to Boston); D Keith Ballard (traded to Vancouver); F Victor Oreskovich (traded to Vancouver); F Steve MacIntyre (signed with Edmonton); F Kamil Kreps (signed with Karpat Oulu, Finland); D Ville Koistinen (bought out); F Jeff Taffe (traded to Chicago); D Mathieu Roy (signed with Tampa Bay)
Burning question: Can David Booth bounce back this season?
After a breakout campaign in 2008-09 established him as an emerging star and put him on the radar for a potential spot on the U.S. Olympic team, last year was a lost season for Panthers forward David Booth. He was freight-trained by Philadelphia?s Mike Richards on a hit that helped bring about the new ban on blind-side shots to the head and missed 45 games with a severe concussion, then was knocked out of the final nine games of the season when caught with his head down on a clean but viscous hit by Jaroslav Spacek in Montreal. Booth managed 8-8-16 totals in 28 games, a far cry from the 31-29-60 line he put up when healthy in 2008-09. At 25, he?s just entering his prime and has been reportedly symptom free this summer, but as Bruins fans can attest after witnessing Patrice Bergeron?s long road to recovery, it may take some time for him to regain his confidence and scoring touch, and the Panthers don?t have a lot of other weapons to cover for any struggles he might have.
2010-11 outlook: In addition to Booth, Florida will rely heavily on Stephen Weiss (28-32-60) and Michael Frolik (21-22-43) up front, while hoping that Wideman can regain his 2008-09 form on the blue line alongside veterans Bryan McCabe and Bryan Allen. The Panthers added a potential true No. 1 defenseman in the draft with the selection of Erik Gudbranson with the third overall pick. He could make an immediate impact, but it often takes defensemen longer to make the leap into the NHL and Florida has eight veteran defensemen on one-way contracts already, so barring an eye-opening camp he is likely to get another year in junior to develop.
Did you know? Florida isn?t exactly the scariest of opponents, but goalie Tomas Vokoun is one Panther who can cause opposing forwards some sleepless nights. He posted solid stats last year with a 2.55 GAA and a .925 save percentage, right in line with his career numbers of 2.56 and .916. But he seems to save his best for the Bruins. In his last three starts against Boston, he?s allowed just two goals with 118 saves. That includes a pair of shutouts, most recently a 40-save effort in November when he also stopped all four shooters for a 1-0 shootout win at the Garden that culminated a stretch of three shutouts in four starts for Vokoun.
Next: We?ll stay in the Sunshine State for a look at the rebuilding project new general manager Steve Yzerman has under way in Tampa Bay on Friday.