Panthers wait to reap benefits of blockbuster as Bertuzzi's back recovers

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The Panthers felt they had the power forward they needed when they acquired Bertuzzi, defenceman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld from the Canucks for star goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenceman Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round draft pick on June 23.

Bertuzzi had seven points in seven games for Florida before leaving a game on Oct. 18 with a sore back. He has since had surgery to repair a herniated disc.

His return date is unknown. The original estimate was six to eight weeks but it appears it may be longer.

"I don't have a timetable at this point," coach and general manager Jacques Martin said Tuesday before the Panthers played the Montreal Canadiens.

Luongo, considered among the best goaltenders in the world, has been solid on a low-scoring team in Vancouver while Krajicek has averaged more than 20 minutes per game on defence.

In Florida, both Auld and 41-year-old Ed Belfour, who share the goaltending duties, have been up and down. Auld has a 3.20 goals-against average and .897 save percentage while Belfour's numbers are 3.07 and .894.

Allen started the year on the top defence pair but lately has been on the third pair with former Calgary Flame Steve Montador.

The missing piece is Bertuzzi, whose scoring touch may have made a difference as the team dropped to the bottom of the Southeast Division after a 3-3-1 start.

"It's tough to say who wins the trade," said Panthers captain Olli Jokinen. "It's impossible to replace a goalie like Roberto because he's one of the best in this league, but Alex has done a good job and so has Eddie.

"The problem has been that we haven't been able to score enough goals. Our goaltenders have done the job most nights, but what's really hurting us is lack of scoring."

Jokinen called Bertuzzi the "key guy in that trade; a power forward and the kind of guy we miss in our lineup. It takes a lot out of our offence without him."

Bertuzzi, no doubt, wants to be back as soon as possible. Earning US$5.27 million this season, he can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

The deal was made by former Panthers GM Mike Keenan, who resigned on Sept. 3.

Luongo turned down a lucrative, long-term offer from Florida and, faced with the prospect of losing him as a free agent after this season, Keenan opted to move the goaltender for some help up front. Luongo signed a $27-million, four-year deal with Vancouver.

Bertuzzi had 71 points, including 25 goals, in 82 games for the Canucks last season. But a cloud hung over him from his suspension late in the 2003-04 season for an attack on Steve Moore that left the Colorado forward with a broken neck and Bertuzzi pleading guilty to criminal assault.

The deal was thought to be good for both star players - Luongo would go to a playoff contender for the first time in his career and Bertuzzi would get a fresh start in a new city.

It may still be a good trade for both sides, once Bertuzzi gets back.

"We have to make sure we're still in the playoff hunt, otherwise it's not going to be fun for him to come back either," added Jokinen.

Auld agreed.

"He was off to a great start," said Auld. "I can see the impact he can have on a game and in this (recent) stretch, a goal here or there could have made a big difference to us.

"He's such a presence. Even when he's not putting up points, the other team is focusing on him so much."

Auld went 33-26-6 in his first season as the starter in Vancouver in 2005-06, but the team missed the playoffs and change was in the air.

The 25-year-old said there has been little pressure replacing Luongo in Florida, especially when Belfour was added as a free agent in July.

"I had to deal with a whole different kind of pressure in Vancouver, probably like what goalies feel here in Montreal," he said. "Obviously, with a trade like that, there's pressure.

"(Luongo) was not only a great goalie, but in a lot of ways he was the face of the franchise. But in a way to ease that off me, they brought in Eddie and we've been splitting. So it's not like it's all on me."

Allen, who has averaged 22:21 of ice time with the Panthers, said he's happy to be in south Florida but that the media attention there is "nothing, not even close" to Vancouver.

"I went from one end of the spectrum to the other, media-wise, so you kind of forget you were part of that blockbuster trade because there's no attention on it," he added.

Allen, for one, liked the attention the Canucks receive in Vancouver.

"It makes guys accountable and it was fun playing in that atmosphere," he said. "I miss it, personally."