A new feature this year on Canes Country, as part of our pregame coverage before every Carolina Hurricanes game, is something we're calling "Three Questions." Before each game, I will ask the SBN blogger for the team the Canes are facing three questions, kind of like a scouting report for the opposition. Hopefully you'll find this feature worthwhile and will give you some storylines to look for before and during the game.
Have a question for an upcoming game that you'd like me to ask? Shoot me an email - bdleblanc at gmail dot com - and I will do my best to work it into a future Three Questions post.
Up first is Kevin Kraczkowski of Litter Box Cats, from whom I politely stole the idea behind Three Questions (with his permission, of course). This being the first game of the season, we expanded it to five questions, so consider the extra two our gift to you on the occasion of a new NHL season. :)
- With Jason Garrison parlaying his career year into a jackpot contract with Vancouver, who do the Panthers expect to pick up the slack on defense?
Physically speaking, Filip Kuba (late of the Minnesota Wild) will be taking over the role as our hard-shooting defenseman. Last season, Garrison had 33 points, and Kuba had 32 - not much dropoff in total offense. Realistically though, he's on the wrong side of 35 and putting all our eggs in that basket is hazardous to put it nicely. Erik Gudbranson may surprise a few people - his shot has been compared not unfavorably to Garrison's. However, with the status of erstwhile defenseman Dmitry Kulikov still up in the air [ed. note: after we spoke, Kulikov signed a new contract, though he is not expected to be in uniform against Carolina], it's unclear whether Gudbranson will spend the year in Florida or with the San Antonio Rampage. Of course, Brian Campbell will still play quarterback on the power play, but who's stepping in next to him?
- What is the Panthers' plan for handling their goaltending situation? Will the increasingly geriatric duo of Theodore and Clemmensen continue to keep Jacob Markstrom from seeing regular ice time, or will Markstrom elbow his way into the conversation at some point this year? And what to make of the rumblings about Roberto Luongo's availability and the Panthers' interest in him?
Theo and Clemmers both ably held down the fort last season, but clearly neither is the long-term answer for the Panthers between the pipes. We have seen the future, and his name is Markstrom. Still, our opening night goaltender will most likely be Jose Theodore. As for Roberto Luongo and his long-anointed return to the south...I'm not holding my breath. He's a better fit with Chicago, Philadelphia, or Toronto, plus Dale Tallon is probably not interested in his monstrosity of a contract. I expect at some point before the trade deadline to see the Panthers deal out Theodore for offense or maybe some prospects. Markstrom should finish the season with Clemmensen backing him up.
- Last year the Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann combination was one of the top lines in hockey. Flash in the pan, or the start of a trend? How will the Panthers spread the scoring around this season?
The VFW line was the hottest in the NHL through the first quarter of the season, but they cooled significantly after the honeymoon period. Still, there's no questioning the talent on the Panthers first line. Versteeg always goes hard, Fleischmann is one of the best stickhandlers in the game, and Weiss is the true bedrock of the Panthers. The sanctity of the Panther's first line is not set in stone, however. At long last, the team is joined by QMJHL wunderkind Jonathan Huberdeau. Great things were expected prior to last season, but he was held in juniors to "bulk up." One season and 15 pounds (?) later, he's ready to start his case for the NHL's rookie of the year. First liner? Probably not yet, but he's going to play at least 16 minutes per game and make significant contributions to the Panthers total offense.
- Coming off the first division title in team history and their first trip to the postseason since the Clinton administration, where are expectations for the Panthers in 2013? Was last year seen as a high-water mark or a benchmark for future success?
As fans, we were ecstatic to even earn a ticket to the big postseason dance, taking the eventual Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils to two overtimes in game seven was an added bonus. After that, a playoff berth is expected, as is a first round victory. Was last season a high-water mark? Definitely. Will there be another this season? The Southeast Division is much improved, but so are the Panthers. My prediction? A 58 point season and a five- or six-seed, and another seven game series. I'm not terribly confident to make any predictions past that, but a second round appearance is expected - anything past that is gravy.
- Which of the Panthers newcomers (anyone who wasn't on the roster last season, whether young or old) do you see having the biggest impact on the team this season?
Kuba will team up with fellow greybeard Ed Jovanovski to help provide veteran guidance to these young kids. I've already mentioned Huberdeau, but I'm also keeping my eyes on Peter Mueller. Slowed by injuries the last few seasons, he has a chance to give the Panthers a solid second or third line center. He has the talent to pitch in a 15 goal, 25 assist season (over 48 games) if he stays healthy. High recent draft picks Quinton Howden and Drew Shore will also be given the chance to make the club out of camp.