The Florida Panthers were one of the pleasant first-half surprises.
Having failed to make the playoffs since 2000, second-year GM Dale Tallon engaged in a significant roster overhaul last summer, adding a slew of veterans such as goaltender Jose Theodore, defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski, right winger Kris Versteeg and left winger Tomas Fleischmann.
The result was a Panthers team that, for most of the first half, sat atop the Southeast Division, giving their long-suffering fans hope their lengthy playoff drought would finally come to an end.
At the half-season mark, however, the Panthers are struggling.
In mid-December they enjoyed an eight-point lead over the Washington Capitals in the Southeast, but after winning only three of their next 10 games the Panthers dropped to second in the division and from third overall in the Eastern Conference to seventh.
A shootout loss to the Boston Bruins Jan. 16 provided Florida with a single point, enough to put them one up on the Capitals in the division and back to third overall in the conference.
Still, the Panthers are only two points up on the ninth-place Toronto Maple Leafs, so they’re perilously close to sliding out of a playoff spot for the first time this season.
The main reason for the Panthers decline is their lack of depth in scoring forwards.
Only the New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets have scored fewer goals than the Panthers this season.
Versteeg, Fleischmann and center Stephen Weiss are the Panthers’ top three scorers and their combined 43 goals account for nearly 40 percent of the team's 110 goals this season.
The next three leading scorers are defensemen (Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison), and the next forward (right winger Tomas Kopecky) has only five goals and 18 points in 43 games.
They were able to get by earlier in the season with Versteeg, Fleischmann and Weiss accounting for the bulk of the offense, but now opponents are keying in on the top line. Shut them down and you shut down the Panthers attack.
As a result, the production of those three has been in decline.
Versteeg, among the league's leading scorers earlier this season, has only four points in his past 10 games and has scored only two goals since Dec. 16.
Fleischmann also has only four points in 10 games and has scored only four goals since Dec. 1.
Weiss has gone 15 games without a goal, though he might still be hampered by a rib injury he sustained several weeks ago.
In Florida’s 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last Friday, coach Kevin Dineen split the trio up and limited their playing time in the third period.
On Dec. 17, the Ottawa Sun reported Tallon was pursuing a top-six forward to bolster his offensive depth and keep his team in playoff contention. There wasn't as much urgency back then to add a scoring forward, but given the Panthers’ recent slide, it's now a pressing need.
It was thought Tallon would shop backup goalie Scott Clemmensen and bring up promising Jacob Markstrom full-time. However, with Markstrom and Theodore (expected back soon) out with knee injuries, Clemmensen is the starter for now and will be the obvious backup when Theodore returns.
Tallon will look toward the upcoming returns of injured left wingers Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim and right winger Jack Skille to provide additional depth, but those players won't sufficiently fill the need for a proven scoring forward.
The Panthers haven't reached the point of panic, but if they don’t pull out of their slide by the end of January, Tallon will have little choice but to shop picks and prospects to non-playoff teams in search of established scorers.
Tallon has been trying to change the culture of losing that hung over the Panthers for more than a decade. With his moves last summer, he made the bold statement that he wanted the team to be a playoff contender this season.
Don't expect Tallon to be idle as the trade deadline nears.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.