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January 13, 2013 | 5:04pm ET
Season Preview: Florida
By Patrick Kearns, TheFourthPeriod.com

Last season, the Florida Panthers shocked everyone by capturing the Southeast Division crown. The team was scrapped together by GM Dale Tallon, who in his first year as GM brought along guys with hefty contracts like Brian Campbell, who played extremely well. Panthers fans can take solace in the face that they gave the New Jersey Devils, the eventual Eastern Conference Champions, the stiffest competition in the entire East.

This year, coach Kevin Dineen will need to get the best out of his players if he wants another repeat performance in a division that saw the Carolina Hurricanes get much better.

Forwards

The key for the Panthers offensively last year was their depth. Other than Stephen Weiss, there is not a huge amount of talent on the club. Guys like Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, in conjunction with Weiss, carried much of the offensive load upfront, and will need to do so again for the team to be successful. The Panthers only had three forwards break the 50 point mark last season.

The big unknown at this point is team's top prospect, Jonathan Huberdeau. In the QMJHL, he has put up excellent numbers and added a Memorial Cup victory to his resume while playing for the St. John's Sea Dogs. Huberdeau can be an impact player, but it might not be this year.

Defense

Losing Jason Garrison, who proved to be deadly from the point last year, will hurt the team mightily. Garrison signed a rich contract in Vancouver in the off-season. Campbell will need to live up to his contract if the team wants to get offense from the back end.

Dmitry Kulikov, who is slowly becoming a household name, will need to take the next step in his development and prove that he can be a No. 1 defenseman in the league. But he needs a new contract, first.

Goalies

The dark horse here is Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom, the 22-year-old Swedish netminder, has been the top goaltending prospect in Florida's system for quite some time and the main reason why Roberto Luongo isn't back in the Sunshine State. He may not be ready to see full time duty as the No. 1, but if he does get called up, there is a chance he never gets sent back down to the AHL is he impresses with his play.

Jose Theodore will handle most of the team's goaltending duties for now, at least to start the season. The veteran continued to impress last year despite heading towards the twilight of his career.

Projected Outcome

Last year, the Panthers captured lightning in a bottle and everything worked. They won a very weak southeast division with only 94 points. This year, they will not be dealt as favorable a hand. If they make the playoffs -- that is a big if -- they very likely won't be anything higher than a seven or eight seed. More likely, the Panthers will miss the playoffs.

3 Players to Watch
 
Brian Campbell
Campbell saw his career revitalized when he was shipped to Florida for the 2011-12 season. He has a hefty contract, but last year put up excellent numbers to match his cap hit. If he regresses, the team is in big trouble.
Stephen Weiss
Weiss is a supremely talented anchor of the Florida offensive system, but without a ton of talent around him, he has never put up elite numbers. If he doesn't really breakout this season, it might be time for Florida to start looking for a new top-line center.
Jonathan Huberdeau
Is the former third-overall pick going to come in and turn the franchise into a dynasty? No. But his development and how he handles the pro-game will be interesting to see this year if he makes the team out of training camp.

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