By Bill Whitehead
Compared to recent offseasons, especially two years ago when general manager Dale Tallon was involved in a spending spree, the Florida Panthers had a relatively quiet time of it when it came to transactions following a very disappointing and mostly unhealthy time of it last year.
The club acquired forward Bobby Butler on June 14 from Nashville, a frequent trading partner, for defenseman T.J. Brennan, who showed promise offensively last season in his brief time with Florida after being acquired from Buffalo. Butler, a University of New Hampshire alum, hasn’t matched the lofty numbers he posted in a short 2010-11 campaign when he scored 10 goals in 36 games for Ottawa.
During free agency, Florida broke out the wallet like a Lotto winner who had hit just four numbers. The team couldn’t reach terms and lost longtime center Stephen Weiss to Detroit but did re-sign Shawn Matthias, who started to live up to expectations last season. The Panthers also signed defensemen Mike Mottau and Matt Gilroy, plus forwards Joey Crabb, Jesse Winchester, Jon Matsumoto and Scott Gomez. The moves could be as much for depth at San Antonio as much as Panthers’ production, but Gomez and Crabb should see a good amount of ice time in Florida.
But while the summer has been fairly quiet and not as eventful as the past, the Panthers saw a familiar face on the ice last week, one who was instrumental in helping the team reach the playoffs two years ago — Sean Bergenheim. The Finnish winger had surgery in March but has resumed skating after a variety of hip, abdominal and groin injuries. At one point he was off the ice for nine months. While he may not be 100 percent ready when camp opens, his return to the Panthers sometime early in the season would be a boost for a club that could use some contributions from the third line.
Two years ago Tallon received his fair share of criticism for signing Bergenheim, a free agent who was coming off a sensational post-season for Tampa Bay, from Versus NHL analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. While writing for NHL Hot Stove, I offered this piece in October, 2011, basically saying that Bergenheim should take the criticism to heart and work the words to his advantage.
His work ethic and high-energy play put Milbury and Jones in their place.
The hard-working left winger posted 17 goals and six assists in 62 games in his first season with Florida. When the playoffs started against New Jersey, the Panthers, during pre-game introductions, displayed Milbury’s and Jones’ comments on the then-Bank Atlantic Center scoreboard — it’s no longer the BAC, and that scoreboard is history, too — and Bergenheim responded. He scored three goals and added three assists against the Devils, including Florida’s first goal.
That’s what he brings to the table — hard-nosed, intense play that often results in the 29-year-old crashing the net or hanging around it for a loose puck. He honed that style with the Lightning under former coach Guy Boucher, and it’s intensity that the Panthers could use.
Cats fans can hope for other unrestricted free agents the Panthers may sign late in the process. Brad Boyes tallied 35 points in 48 games for the Islanders last year and seemingly regained his scoring touch. Mason Raymond has the blazing speed Tallon really likes but, hey, so did Michael Grabner. Chad LaRose could add offense and some grit, both which would come in handy. Former Red Wings Daniel Cleary and Damien Brunner also remain unsigned and bring different assets to a club. And while Toronto and Nazem Kadri are having difficulties in meeting the 22-year-old’s contract demands, I don’t know that Tallon really wants to go there. Also, Florida decided not to re-sign Peter Mueller.
Truth is, I wouldn’t expect any of those to be suiting up for the Panthers. Instead, the focus should be on what’s here right now.
Technically, Bergenheim’s not one of Tallon’s recent acquisitions, but a healthy No. 20 back on the ice who can give the Panthers 15 to 20 goals in 65 games or so would likely do just fine.
Maybe even better than anything obtained during the offseason as part of Florida’s free agent non-frenzy.