Every Friday I answer mail in my weekly "Ask The Hockey History Blogger" segment.
Who will be the surprise team of 2008-09?
Believe it or not, I like the Florida Panthers.
I have two reasons why I think the Panthers will do better than virtually everyone else does.
1. Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has the ability to be a top 5 goalie if he has a career year. Even with a normal season he's top ten.
2. The Defense. In addition to having one of the top goaltenders in the world, Florida has significantly beefed up their defense. Jay Bouwmeester will be looking for a big year, with unrestricted free agency coming up. They've brought in Keith Ballard, a top young rearguard. I've never been a Bryan McCabe fan, but he can help the Panthers, especially on the power play. Bryan Allen is a nice #4, as is another newcomer in Nick Boynton. That leaves one more spot for either Karlis Skrastins, Cory Murphy, or Noah Welch.
The Panthers have quietly stockpiled some nice depth on their blue line to compliment their goalie.
The forward ranks remain thin. They'll need some luck on the health front, and break out years from Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and David Booth are badly needed. Nathan Horton is a good young player but needs to round out to a complete player and a leader. If he can, he'll be considered for Team Canada 2010. Cory Stillman and Ville Peltonen are nice support players.
Rookie coach Peter Deboer has the team playing a heavy puck pursuit system early, which will get his young forwards to buy in early and eagerly. If they can find some early season success I think Deboer will do fine this season.
I don't know if I like the Panthers well enough to make the playoffs. Washington is likely to emerge from the Southeast Division with the divisional crown, which means all other teams will have to battle it out for the 8th spot with all Eastern Conference teams.
With some luck on the injury front and rapid progression by some young forwards, I think the Florida Panthers could be the surprise team of 2008-09.
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