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By Matt Canamucio, NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Florida Panthers finished fourth in the Southeast Division last season, but the general feeling around the club was that progress was being made in its growth.

Well, the growth continued away from the ice this summer as the Cats opened the offseason with a bang. The night before the NHL Entry Draft the club pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Roberto Luongo and Lukas Krajicek to Vancouver for controversial winger Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld.

Luongo was moved because the Florida brass could not come to an agreement with him on a long-term deal.

In securing Bertuzzi, the Panthers legitimized an offensive attack whose core group is still relatively young. While he joins aging veterans like Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel and Joe Nieuwendyk, the Cats' future lies in the hands of captain Olli Jokinen, Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton.

The Panthers' other big acquisition was Luongo's replacement, 41-year-old Ed Belfour. Eddie the Eagle is already up there in years and has a bum back, but if he can somehow stay healthy his ability is worth the risk.

This season marks the Panthers second under head coach Jacques Martin, but the club will go on without former general manager Mike Keenan. Keenan, who made the key moves of this offseason, was forced to resign in early September, reportedly because he had become a disruption in the front office.

Martin was promoted to GM, and now has full control over which direction the Panthers' ship will go.

FORWARDS - Offense wasn't the biggest issue in Sunrise last season, as the club scored a respectable 240 goals. However, the addition of a pure power forward with 40-goal capabilities is something this team was missing. In 2005-06 Bertuzzi tallied 25 goals and 46 assists while playing on the Canucks' dangerous top line with Markus Naslund. Of course, the best thing for Bertuzzi might be a change of scenery, as he gets to somewhat escape the shadow of his vicious hit that paralyzed Colorado's Steve Moore in 2004.

It's obvious that Bertuzzi and Naslund developed tremendous chemistry in Vancouver, and now he'll have to get on the same page with Jokinen, who has turned into a premier centerman. Not only did Jokinen net a career-high 38 goals last season, but he tacked on 51 assists as well.

The Panthers now have a nice problem, and it's finding out a way to get both Jokinen and Bertuzzi their scoring chances. They'll gladly take a split, so long as the bulk of the opportunities go in.

Nieuwendyk and Roberts, friends since childhood, joined the Cats as a package before last season and proved to be contributors when healthy. Nieuwendyk still has his scoring touch, as he bagged 26 goals in only 65 games.

Horton, who plays a power game, logged his first full NHL season in 05-06 and showed worthy of the third-overall pick the Panthers used on him in 2003. Horton erupted with 28 goals, all but three of which were at even strength.

Weiss is another former first-rounder, as Florida selected him fourth overall in 2001. The nifty playmaker suffered a serious wrist injury last winter that ended his season, and he finished with nine goals and 12 assists in 41 games. If healthy, the Panthers have hopes that he'll be their No. 2 centerman now and in the future.

DEFENSE - This is where the Panthers must make the most strides, as they were a team that allowed far too many shots. Even an All-Star like Luongo couldn't have premium numbers because he was facing 30 shots or more on a regular basis.

The offseason brought some reinforcements with the additions of Allen and dependable veteran Ruslan Salei, but things will begin and end with 23-year- old Jay Bouwmeester. The blue-chipper got to the point where he can be depended on as an anchor-type, contributing at the offensive end while remaining responsible at the other.

Bouwmeester, Salei, Allen and Mike Van Ryn give the club four players that are all reliable, and who should assemble into two solid pairings. The likes of Branislav Mezei, Steve Montador and Joel Kwiatowski will compete for time at the bottom of the rotation.

GOALTENDING - While the loss of Luongo hurts, the hope is that the increase in firepower along with an improved defense will lessen the blow. Oh, and the guy who replaced him has a pretty impressive resume.

Belfour went 22-22-4 with a 3.29 goals-against average last season in 49 games for Toronto. If he is healthy and the defense is indeed better, he has a very good chance on helping the cause. If he's seeing 35 shots per night things could sour rather quickly.

Auld, meanwhile, saw regular action due to injuries last season and went 33-26-6 with a 2.94 GAA and .902 save percentage for the Canucks. It's doubtful that Martin will overwork Belfour, so don't be surprised if Auld receives a significant amount of starts -- maybe even a split workload between the two.

http://146.145.120.3/default.asp?c=hockeynews&page=nhl/news/adn4042361.htm
 
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