Panthers welcome 'Canes to Sunrise

11:11 AM, Jan 19, 2013   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - For the first time in team history, the Florida Panthers will begin a season as defending division champions.

The Panthers will unveil their first Southeast Division title banner on Saturday night before hosting the new-look Carolina Hurricanes.

One of the biggest surprises of the 2011-12 season, Florida edged out the Washington Capitals by two points to finish first in the division standings, snapping a 10-season playoff drought. That came after a huge offseason overhaul that added 10 players who were mainstays to the roster.

The Panthers did fail to win their first playoff series since 1996, falling in seven games to the New Jersey Devils despite holding a 3-2 series advantage. They lost Game 6 in overtime before a heart-breaking double-overtime defeat at home in Game 7.

Florida was much quieter this offseason and saw high-scoring defenseman Jason Garrison depart for the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent. The Panthers replaced him by signing 36-year-old Filip Kuba, a former draft pick of Florida in 1995 who enters his 14th NHL season. Kuba had six goals in his fourth season with the Ottawa Senators in 2011-12.

"I think Filip Kuba is a guy you may not notice a heck of a lot on the ice, but gives us a large presence and is a very stable player," noted Florida coach Kevin Dineen.

Kuba joins a blue line that includes point-producer Brian Campbell and veteran Ed Jovanovski, who was named the club's seventh captain on Friday morning.

The bulk of offensive production for the Panthers last season came from the top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, who all combined for 70 goals and 172 points. Florida hopes it added depth in the form of acquisitions Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev as well as rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick of the 2011 draft.

Though the Panthers were rumored to be interested in acquiring Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, they for now are sticking with the returning tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen for his shortened 48-game season.

Theodore went 22-16-11 in 53 games last season with a 2.46 goals against average and .917 save percentage, while Clemmensen was 14-6-6 in 30 appearances with a 2.57 GAA and .913 save percentage.

The duo open the campaign with a chip on their shoulder thanks to the Luongo talks.

"I would. If someone keeps talking about somebody else who's a world-class player, I'd say you know what, bring it on," said Dineen. "You're talking about professional athletes. They understand what the situation is and I think they can't wait to get the season started and just get in the net and show what they can do."

It is unknown who will start on Saturday.

While the Panthers did not tinker with their roster a whole lot, the Hurricanes made some big splashes in trading for center Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins and signing winger and former Capital Alexander Semin to boost a club that missed the playoffs for a third straight season and for the fifth time in six years since winning its first ever Stanley Cup.

Kirk Muller, who took over last season for the fired Paul Maurice after an 8-13-4 start, is likely to pair Semin, a former 40-goal scorer who slipped to 21 last season, on the top line with Jordan's older brother Eric Staal, while rising young star Jeff Skinner should team with the younger Staal to give Carolina a needed 1-2 punch on its second line.

Muller is hoping that Semin can kick start Eric Staal, whose 24 goals a season ago were his lowest since his 2003-04 rookie campaign.

"He's excited, excited to be involved here with our hockey club," Muller said of Semin. "He's going to get a great opportunity to play his game. I think our system, hopefully, suits him well, the skating style, getting him involved. We're a better team with him in the lineup."

Muller will also be hoping for a bit of a bounce-back campaign from netminder Cam Ward, whose 2.74 GAA last season was his highest in four campaigns.

To replace free agent losses Bryan Allen and Derek Joslin on the blue line, the Hurricanes signed the steady Joe Corvo and also added Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Most important for Muller, he wants to raise expectations for a Hurricanes club coming off a last-place finish.

"I think we have a strong enough group right now that every night we should battle to try and win," he said. "If we win because we play well, that's great. If we lose, it's going to be because the opponent outplayed us in other areas, but we have the capability of matching up with anybody right now, but we have to go and earn it. That's going to be the biggest thing."

Another key factor will be beating the Panthers. The Hurricanes dropped five of six to the division winner last season, including all three trips to Sunrise by a 9-3 margin.

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