1) The Panthers recently set a franchise record for points in a season. Did it surprise you that the Cats had never broken the 100-point barrier? Do you think this is the best team the Panthers have ever iced?
The Panthers may be, historically speaking, the worst franchise in NHL history. Decades of incompetence on and off the ice destroyed the excitement this team built with its first several seasons. If Edmonton did not have their glory years, they may give that a run for the money....but I digress. With that in mind, it does not surprise me in the least that this is the first 100-point- plus season. This franchise was just non-competitive for a very long time. There is no question that this is the best team the franchise has ever had. Even the historic Stanley Cup runner's up were a scrappy crew who relied more on effort and love for one another than true talent. This team has future hall-of-famers Jagr and Luongo, and perhaps even Brian Campbell deserves to be in that conversation. They are also full of the next generation of stars with the kids holding important roster spots. Major, major compliments to Dale Tallon and the scouting staff for what we see on the ice. Yes- without question, new ownership is doing all the right things and has made Tallon's job easier with bags of money- but Dale put much of this group together prior to the new owners arriving, and that speaks volumes about his ability as a GM.
2) The Panthers have a few players hitting unrestricted free agency this summer. Ignoring Jaromir Jagr, who will be welcomed back as long as he wants to return, there are Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, and deadline acquisitions Teddy Purcell and Jiri Hudler. Do you expect to see any of these players back with the team next year?
I was thinking about this exact issue recently. Dale Tallon has already stated that they want Brian Campbell back, so he will be offered a new deal and he seems to like the franchise and his teammates, so I expect him to be back. Unfortunately, this will be it for Willie Mitchell on the ice. It has recently come to light that the injury that has kept him from the ice appears to be the history of concussions he has suffered and some neurological damage that remains. The Doctors have told him he should not play again, and he is still deciding whether to give it a go or not, but this will certainly be it for him. I am sure the team would love to keep him on in an alternate capacity, he has been great for the locker room. As for Purcell and Hudler, their play in the playoffs will dictate who, if any, get another offer to stay. They have performed well, but have not set the world on fire. That said, they have both been solid, and are not hurting the team. Vincent Trocheck's injury moved Nick Bjugstad to the 2nd line, but he and Purcell and Hudler were starting to develop some chemistry, so the move could hurt their chances to stick around. The franchise is weak at wing in the development pipeline, so I think one of the two can play their way into a deal, it just remains to be seen which it is.
3) This team took huge strides this year to win the Atlantic Division. Where do you imagine the Panthers finishing in the division next year? How much of a disappointment would it be to miss the playoffs after a strong season (kind of like the Sens did this year)?
That would be a major, major disappointment if the Panthers missed the playoffs next season. I think this team is here to stay, near the top of the Atlantic. I actually predicted the team to finish in the top 3 in the Atlantic this season, I liked what I saw in the roster moves and player development leading into the season. I like our chances moving forward because the ownership is willing to pony up money, Tallon has a good eye for talent, free agents suddenly want to play here, and the kids are coming along nicely. We get to stop paying Kris Versteeg at the end of this season, Dave Bolland will likely be bought out, and we already touched upon some UFA departures, so there will be money. But the roster is facing little turnover next season. Gudbranson will be re-signed, Campbell is likely to be re-signed, and Steve Kampfer and Jakub Kindl have played very well replacing Willie Mitchell. Alex Petrovic and Aaron Ekblad will both have another year's worth of experience under their belts- so all in all, the defense looks solid and virtually unchanged. It remains to be seen what will happen on the wings- but the centers are all signed for next year, and Jagr is likely to re-sign, meaning the top 6 is unchanged. We have plenty of 4th line capable players in the pipeline, so its really just 3rd line wings that have yet to be established. If there is one concern- its goaltending. Roberto Luongo will be another year older, and that is scary. We will just have to wait and see, but his numbers this year are similar to last years, so he seems to be rolling along. Finally, the system Coach Gerard Gallant is running is highly effective, and the players seem to love him. All in all- I see no reason to believe the team will not remain in the top-3 in the Atlantic next season.