The Opossum-Palooza

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NHL Preview: Florida Panthers

We're halfway through September and you know what that means: Part thirteen of our thirty part series previewing the new hockey year. Today? The Florida Panthers.

When history looks back at the summer of 2006, what it will remember best is Evgeni Malkin's Midnight Ride and the Disaster of Long Island. What will get lost in all the haze is the truly entertaining teams of the NHL offseason, the Florida Panthers. The Panthers entered the offseason with a slew of needs to be filled. The only position on the ice that they could be truly confident in was goaltending. Robert Luongo was one of the elite goaltenders in the league, if not the outright best. While his numbers weren't especially gaudy when compared to other elite goaltenders in places like Calgary or New York, after adjusting for the fact that the defense allowed shot totals well above the thirty per game mark his numbers probably ranked with some of the best to ever play the game. He was the type of player that a GM can build a franchise around. Or, in the case of Mike Keenan, the type of player that can be traded for a sociopathic power forward.

In a deal that shocked the world (or at least some parts of Western Canada) Keenan traded his premier goalie to Vancouver for much maligned winger Todd "Batshit Crazy" Bertuzzi. The end result of the deal is that the Panthers now have more question marks than they did at the end of the season back in April. Yet somehow people were still surprised when Keenan got the boot resigned earlier this month.

It's a shame too. Keenan actually did a decent job of bolstering the defense, which would have given Luongo a chance to really flourish. Instead, the defense is now responsible for protecting former Maple Leaf Ed Belfour, who signed with the Panthers because they were the closest team to his new retirement home. It's a tough task for the Florida defense, given the fact that Belfour may very well break into tiny little pieces if a puck should actually hit him. If Belfour goes down, his backup is Bertuzzi trade afterthought Alex Auld, who brings to the table one year of experience as a starter on an otherwise playoff-worthy Canucks team.

Of course, Belfour could stay healthy and perform with some of his former skill in net, and the change of scenery might help Bertuzzi break out of the season-long funk he found himself in after being reinstated to the league. Combined with the newly bolstered defensive corps and the return of Olli Jokinen and his big new contract, such an occurance could result in the Panthers' first playoff berth in seven years.

To follow all the excitement in South Florida, check out Panthers Den for all your blogging needs.

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