A couple weeks ago, the Florida Panthers seemed to be a team of destiny. Richard Zednik was piling up dramatic goal after dramatic goal, all just a year after his horrific on-ice throat-slashing. Tomas Vokoun or Craig Anderson? Who cares! Not only have both looked reliable, but either looks capable of carrying Florida back to the postseason.
But like they say, not so fast.
Like the rest of the East's playoff scrum, the Panthers have a controversy. While details are sketchy, GM Jacques Martin and coach Peter DeBoer have apparently come to the decision that the team is better off without defenseman Nick Boynton, who was sent home by the Panthers and will miss at least the next three games. His future is unknown. Will he be waived? Traded? Welcomed back?
Boynton is in his first year with Florida, having been acquired with Keith Ballard from Phoenix for Olli Jokinen, and has been a nice addition to the Panthers' blueline. He's not a workhorse in South Florida — of the team's top six d-men, Boynton is last in average ice time — but he is a steady veteran on a team that hasn't sniffed the postseason in a long time. His replacement, Noah Welch, was once a highly touted prospect, but has played just 20 NHL games this season and 53 over a career slowed by injury.
Still, changing out a third-pairing defenseman, especially one that plays few minutes on special teams, isn't life or death. But the last thing the Panthers needed was a distraction, one that could derail a young team that is still learning what it means to win.
But Florida's not alone. Check out the middle of the Eastern Conference (through Friday's games):
- The No. 5 Canadiens (62 games played, 73 points) have role players complaining about ice time or flat-out begging out of Montreal (here's one of three examples), a preordained goaltending god riding the pine, and their superstar is coming off an exile of his own. Oh, and three of their players may have ties to organized crime.
- No. 6 Florida (61 GP, 70 points) has been relatively stable, but the Boynton situation could conceivably turn ugly.
- The current seventh seed, the Rangers (63 GP, 70 points), fired their coach this week, claimed a player off the dreadful Leafs' scrap heap, and now seem poised to bring back the NHL's version of a circus clown.
- The Sabres (62 GP, 69 points) are currently in the final spot in the East, and while turmoil hasn't engulfed them like the others, they are without their two best players: goalie Ryan Miller and sniper Thomas Vanek.
- In 10th, the Penguins (63 GP, 68 points) also fired their coach, plus traded Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for a good prospect and decent-but-not-the-answer Chris Kunitz (I guess Ray Shero didn't get the message about how coveted puck-moving defensemen are. Ask Ottawa's Bryan Murray what it's like to send them packing). On top of that, Sidney Crosby's groin is acting up, and he's getting fiesty because Washington's Alex Ovechkin has firmly taken control of the "NHL's best player" contest.
And then there's the Hurricanes, sitting at ninth (63 GP, 69 points) and lacking the disturbances of the teams they are competing with for a spot in the NHL's second season. Sure, Scott Walker and Justin Williams are out, but Carolina's biggest concern right now is scoring, and the combined 23 points in 66 games those two have generated this year doesn't look like a huge blow to the scoresheet.
On top of being relatively healthy, there seems to be no drama surrounding the Hurricanes. It's a locker room with a mix of responsible veterans and mature youngsters, not to mention some guys who are very hungry for their first taste of the postseason. Is there anyone who loves hockey who wouldn't want to see old-time hockey throwbacks Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Gleason notch up the intensity another peg for the playoffs?
So in the maelstrom that is the race for seeds five through eight, Carolina — while not docked in a playoff position — is at least in the harbor and away from the crashing waves. The others? It looks like it will be more a matter of who sinks first than who manages to stay afloat. And with only four spots for six teams, it's better to have a calm crew with an anchor at the ready than a mutiny aboard a ship that's barely afloat.