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THN.com Blog: Are the Panthers ready to purr?

Nathan Horton will have to play a bigger role in the absence of Olli Jokinen if the Panthers are to succeed this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Nathan Horton will have to play a bigger role in the absence of Olli Jokinen if the Panthers are to succeed this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Don’t look now, but here come the Florida Panthers.

Maybe.

The Panthers launched an ambitious Western Canadian road trip with back-to-back wins in Calgary and Edmonton, two difficult environments for visitors, before losing their third match to the Oilers in a shootout and their fourth to the Flames Friday night.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s the pre-season, first-date time when all appearances are superficial. You don’t really know what you’re getting until many weeks into the relationship when the make-up is washed off, the hair is tied back and they’re wearing that ratty grey t-shirt and yoga pants. (Note to reader: this is a metaphor; we’re not suggesting Panthers players wear ratty t-shirts).

Agreed. Success in September means little-to-nothing. But for me, the Panthers remain an interesting team – perhaps this year’s Cinderella. (Note to reader: we’re not suggesting the Panthers players wear glass slippers).

Officially, The Hockey News, in our 2008-09 Yearbook, picked the Panthers to finish 12th in the East. And there’s good basis for that prognostication. The club was among the worst teams offensively last season and traded away their top gun, Olli Jokinen.

The hope is youngsters such as Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and David Booth fill the vacuum created by Jokinen’s departure, with a little help from free agent veteran, and proven consistent scorer, Cory Stillman. There’s also some optimism prized prospect Shawn Matthias may be ready to have an impact and perhaps Michael Frolik, too. All of this may be a stretch, at least this season, but not out of the realm of possibility.

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The power play, on the other hand, could be lethal. The aforementioned forwards will have all kinds of support from an array of point men – Jay Bouwmeester, Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and maybe Cory Murphy.

The Panthers’ PP finished sixth overall last year. If they can maintain that potency – and maybe even add to it – the vastly improved defense could make the difference. With the additions of Ballard, McCabe and Boynton to a corps that already featured Bouwmeester, Bryan Allen, Karlis Skrastins and youngster Noah Welch, Florida has a deep backline.

Goaltender Tomas Vokoun has proven he’s among the best in the business and this season he figures to face far less rubber. In 2007-08, he and reliable backup Craig Anderson saw more shots than any other set of netminders outside Atlanta.

New coach Peter DeBoer, meantime, has a strong history of developing/working with young players and has promised to employ a more aggressive, up-tempo style.

Granted, a lot of what-ifs remain and the Panthers could be destined for more pains before they realize any gains. But don’t be surprised if they’re sitting pretty a couple months from now, even after they’ve removed the mascara and eyeliner.

Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.

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