Rival Panthers A Whole New Beast

Do you know what's weird about the Florida Panthers right now? The color scheme and crazy-eyed panther in their current ad campaign reminds me of Darth Maul. Creepy. If they could somehow get their whole uniform to remind me of Darth Maul (who was the only good thing about the prequels), I would probably buy a jersey and wear it all the time not laugh out loud at people wearing Panthers stuff.

So, there are only two things wrong with the title of this article. First, the Panthers are not a beast, at least not in the literal sense. They are a professional hockey franchise, and not a beast. Metaphorically they might be a beast... a confused Frankenstein's monster of a beast with a brand new head and a bunch of weird limbs that have just been stitched on.

They are also really not a serious rival of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sure, the teams share a state and that makes them logical rivals, but a rivalry based on nothing more than geography is a little sad.

Could this be the year that both teams ice strong, competitive squads? Well, I don't know about that, but I know this: a whole bunch of people are hoping for this lame-ass rivalry to heat up in a big way.

Okay, here's how to recycle material out of a previous blog post: on July 7th I hosted Raw Charge's Question of the Week, and asked what teams people want to see this coming season. With Brad Richardsjoining John Tortorella in New York, and the Flyerschanging everything except their DNA, I expected those teams would receive a lot of attention from the Bolt-o-sphere's faithful readership and dutiful scribes.

But being a Lightning blogger who doesn't actually have his feet on the ground in the Bay area, I was way off from reading local minds.

Four of the six responding Raw Charge staffers mentioned the Panthers, and fifty percent of the 84 poll respondents said they couldn't wait to see what the kitties have done.

"I would love to see an actual, honest-to-goodness rivalry FINALLY develop with the Panthers," said RC blogger Clark Brooks. "For whatever reason, Florida and Tampa Bay's teams always seem to be going in opposite directions."

With the Lightning's competitive squad, and the Panthers sweeping changes, Brooks is hopeful things will start to change. "Hopefully the Panthers have finally bottomed out and will start an upswing."

RC blogger Tina Robinson agreed. "One reason for a true rivalry to develop is both teams have to be good at the same time," she said. "With the Panthers' new additions, it is a very real possibility this coming season."

Cassie McClellan, one of RC's managing editors, is looking forward to the carnage that the season could bring if the Panthers manage to improve. "Injuries and intense competition fuel rivalries, and the teams just haven't been good at the same time to really brew any bad blood," she wrote, noting that a strengthened rivalry between the two teams would be good news for the NHL, as well as for amateur hockey in the state of Florida.

But what changes have the Panthers made? Have they done anything at all this off-season?

I'm glad you asked, friend.

The Panthers, led by GM Dale Tallon, have undergone such gruesome surgery that a team of forensic zoologists wouldn't be able to tell if the resultant beast (but not really a beast) were still technically a "panther." The 2011-2012 Florida team will be called the Duck-Billed Pantherypuses, that's how "rebuilt" they are.

But there's rebuilt, and rebuilt, isn't there? You know what I mean. Changing all the players doesn't mean you've got a good new team. You've just got a bunch of guys. The coach will have to bring these guys together. Well, Tallon replaced the coach, too. Pete Deboer is out (the Devils already hired him) and 1,000+ game NHL vet and successful AHL coach Kevin Dineen is in, for his first crack at an NHL head coaching job.

"I want to see if Kevin Dineen can make a salad out of the talent that has been tossed his way," RC's other managing editor John Fontana remarked.

And what kind of vegetables has Dineen been tossed? Well, there's the cool cucumber Brian Campbell, acquired in trade from Chicago. What did they give up for him? The Panthers were last in the Eastern Conference. Who cares what they gave up? He's a fast-skating offensive defenceman (have they ever really had that?), he has won the magical Cup recently, and he makes a ton of money, which the Panthers really want to pay.

What's that? Did someone mention how much the PANTHERS WANT TO SPEND MONEY?????

Okay, they traded everybody worth an NHL roster spot last year, except for Stephen Weiss. Now their payroll is only Weiss plus $85. What should they do? I know. SIGN EVERYBODY!

So Dale Tallon pulled himself up to the UFA table like Homer at a seafood buffet, and dug his face in. What did he come away with? More vegetables:

There's the wise old tomato Ed Jovanovski, who you guys might remember but you don't because you started cheering for the Lightning in 2004. He played for the Panthers way back in the Twentieth Century, before getting traded in a package to Vancouver for Pavel Bure. Since then, "Jovo-Cop," or "Fat Eddy," has become a tough old D-man. Slow. Physical. Leadershippy. He's put in his time playing in Vancouver and Phoenix. Now he's ready for a big-time, serious hockey market. Like in Sunrise.

Who else has come on board? There's Jose Theordore, who won the Hart and Vezina in 2001-2002. He's been little more than a journeyman since, though. He is an adequate replacement for departed workhorse Tomas Vokoun, who will be making frequent visits as a member of the Washington Capitals.

New winger Scottie Upshall is a big name with a single twenty goal season behind him. At 27, he may be ready to break out, and that's a common theme with a lot of the forwards the Panthers have brought in. They have a lot of upside, but for the cats to win, they'll need breakout seasons. Tomas Kopecky, also acquired in a trade from Chicago, is 29, with a career high of 42 points last year. How high can he go?

Likewise Tomas Fleischmann, who split last season between the Caps and Avs. He's 27 years old, with one twenty goal season behind him. Will he break out?

Kris Versteeg? He struggled with scoring line minutes in Toronto last year, and felt more comfortable when he was able to play a third line role in Philly. Where will he play in Sunrise? And can he handle the constant, intense media scrutiny? (giggle)

Another third liner that will likely be playing more minutes will be Lightning playoff clutch-scorer Sean Bergenheim. With Sean, like a lot of these other players, we'll be waiting to see what they'll be capable of doing with prime ice time and power play minutes. Because Tallon has added a group of excellent third line players and low-end second liners. Some of these guys will have to be on the top line.

Will they be able to come together, all find comfortable roles, and be a FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH?

That remains to be seen. My guess? A lot of carnage and hilarity. The Panthers should be better. But will they be good? Good enough to make Lightning fans shake their fists and shout family-friendly curses?

I hope so. Bring on the hate! Wow, that makes a great sign off.

For Raw Charge, I'm Nolan Whyte.

Bring on the hate!

(Nolan Whyte writes about the Lightning at Raw Charge and at Frozen Sheets Hockey. Follow his tweets @nolanwhyte.)

Will the new-look Panthers be the real deal this season?

YES. They are going to be AWESOME.25
Sure. They've added a lot of good pieces.46
Not really. Random bits don't make a contender.35
No, of course not. It's the Panthers. Are you kidding?9