Panthers have elite talent in Luongo, but goaltending depth lacking
Though signing top-name free agents will be a priority for Tallon this offseason, finding goaltending depth will also rank high on the GM's to-do list.
By Erin BrownFOX Sports Florida
During Roberto Luongo's introductory press conference in March, a reporter asked if the veteran looked forward to mentoring the Florida Panthers' younger netminders.
Luongo, not really up-to-date on the franchise's system, responded cautiously before looking to GM Dale Tallon for help.
"You're it, baby," Tallon said, pretty much summing up the Panthers' goaltending plans for the foreseeable future.
With Florida having a superstar anchoring the defense, the pressing question regarding its situation in net is how far can Luongo take the Cats?
When it comes to depth, though, Florida is severely lacking. The Panthers have only one goaltending prospect -- Michael Houser -- under contract, and he has not yet developed the chops for backup duties at the NHL level.
Though signing top-name free agents will be a priority for Tallon this offseason, finding goaltending will also rank high on the GM's to-do list. And re-stocking the system with a young prospect after parting ways with Jacob Markstrom should also figure highly into the team's plans.
Although Luongo has remained healthy during his 15-year career, he has not suited up in more than 60 games in his last three non-lockout seasons. Was that due to age? Or poor asset management by the Vancouver Canucks in trying to shop two goaltenders?
Likely the latter, which leads to the idea that a healthy, rejuvenated Luongo could start upward of 65-70 games as he used to in his late 20s. He won't have a compressed schedule to deal with for the first time in two seasons, making such a scenario entirely possible.
Florida should count on winning at least 25 games with Luongo in net. That's the absolute worst number he put up in his career as a full-time starter, and it was for a pretty awful 2002-03 Panthers squad that finished with 28 victories. He's reached the 35-win plateau five times in his career, and recorded 40 wins twice.
Luongo, who boasts a career .919 save percentage, brings a poised, yet acrobatic skill set which can change the dynamic of a game. It's a factor Florida has missed since, well, Luongo last suited up for the team. Even with a slightly porous defense, the two-time gold medalist can produce the necessary save in high-pressure scenarios and mental boosts for his teammates.
What will determine whether Luongo is a 25 or 40-win goalie, however, is out of his control. Luongo, whose career goals-against average hovers at 2.51, can be counted on to limit opponents to two or fewer goals. For him to be a true difference maker, though, the Panthers will need to provide more than the sub-2.50 goals-for average they've posted in each of the past two seasons.
By acquiring Ellis from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline for Tim Thomas, Florida guaranteed one thing: it would not have to scour the free agent market for a backup. With Luongo as the clear-cut No. 1, though, it is unlikely Ellis will see much playing time.
Questions remain as to whether Ellis is a suitable backup after struggling for several seasons in both primary and secondary roles. Ellis developed under top netminding systems in Dallas and Nashville. After joining the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent in 2010, his game started to decline. Florida is Ellis' fifth team in four seasons.
In six appearances with the Panthers last season, Ellis went 0-5 with a .836 save percentage and a whopping 4.81 goals-against average.
A fresh start with a clear role might be enough to help Ellis rediscover his game. Playing alongside one of the league's elite netminders may spark his competitiveness to pull him out of his rut. But until he proves otherwise, Florida may have reason to be concerned about its No. 2, not just for the nights Luongo needs a night off, rather the worst-case scenario if the star netminder goes down.
IN THE SYSTEM
Michael Houser, 21: The only goaltending prospect under contract with Florida, Houser split time with San Antonio (AHL) and Cincinnati (ECHL) in his second professional season. He put up average numbers in 28 appearances with the Rampage, going 12-13-1 with a 3.05 goals-against average and .818 save percentage. A former Red Tilson Trophy winner as the Ontario Hockey League's most outstanding player, Houser should see more playing time in the AHL this coming season. The Panthers are high on Houser's upside, but he may not be ready for backup duties at the NHL level.
Scott Clemmensen, 36 (UFA): The netminder's days with Florida are presumably over -- unless Clemmensen is willing to sign a minor-league deal with the Panthers. At the NHL level his numbers have declined significantly over the past two seasons, making him at best a low-end backup. But his experience could go a long way in San Antonio as Florida looks to groom younger talent. On the up side, Clemmensen is a known commodity, having spent five seasons with the franchise, is regarded as a consummate pro and can step in should an emergency situation arise.