Welcome to the Dwork On Sports blog. This is a place where I’ll cover all things related to South Florida sports, with a steady combination of facts and opinions while ultimately keeping a close eye on anything and everything related to our local teams.
Excitement is always rampant when football season rolls around as all fans have had to focus on for the past several months is baseball. Here in South Florida baseball season rarely goes well for the Miami Marlins, giving local fans more of a reason to get pumped when the Miami Dolphins open training camp.
This year the enthusiasm surrounding the Dolphins was exponentially higher due to the team having the most talented collection of players it’s seen in several years. Unfortunately, through the first four weeks of the NFL season it appears that the Dolphins will be a massive failure.
Granted, interim head coach Dan Campbell can certainly turn things around for Miami with 12 games still remaining on the schedule, but the last time an interim coach led a team to the playoffs after taking over during the season was in 1961. Back then, Mike Holovak took over the 2-3 Boston Patriots and led them to the playoffs after going 7-1-1 in the nine games he coached.
At the moment though, South Florida sports fans are suffering. Between the Marlins, Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to cheer for. Mercifully, that could be about to change thanks to the local ‘arena’ teams.
We’re just days away from opening night for the Florida Panthers and a few short weeks later the Miami Heat will kick off their latest campaign. Both teams are primed for a run at the postseason after falling short of their respective playoff runs last year.
A big reason for the Heat’s late-season collapse and ultimate struggles last season was that players kept getting hurt. Chris Bosh missed the final 30 games of the season due to a potentially life threatening blood clot. Josh McRoberts, thought of as a key free agent signing last summer, missed most of training camp with a toe injury and after playing just 17 games was shut down for the remainder of the season due to knee surgery.
Dwyane Wade was constantly being shuffled in and out of the lineup due to a maintenance program for his knees, ultimately missing 20 games. Luol Deng sat out 10 games due to various minor ailments.
Overall the Heat started a league leading 20 different players last season and set a team record by using 30 different starting lineup combinations. Miami’s projected starting five for the upcoming season, Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside, didn’t play a single minute together.
Barring any unforeseen injuries during the preseason, the Heat will enter the season with that starting group intact. It could be one of the best starting lineups in the NBA.
Miami also has a healthy bench that is revitalized with the additions of Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire, John Lucas III and rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, both of whom have impressed since being drafted by the Heat earlier this year.
They join returning cast members Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, James Ennis, Tyler Johnson and McRoberts.
As long as they can stay healthy, this is by far the best Heat team since the departure of he who will not be named (LeWho?).
Moving on to the Panthers, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the team heading into the new season. Since general manager Dale Tallon took control of the team in 2010 he’s been steadily implementing his ‘blueprint’ to make Florida a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
Considering the awful shape that the franchise was in when he took over, nobody expected the fix to happen overnight. Tallon quickly began trading aging assets for draft picks and prospects, gradually turning the Panthers farm system into one of the best in the NHL.
Over the past few years we began to see a lot of those young players taking on important roles with the Panthers, and if not for some untimely injuries during the final months of last season Florida may have made the playoffs instead of falling just a few points short.
Now Tallon is showing his confidence in the Panthers young core, essentially handing the keys to the kingdom over to them instead of signing veteran free agents during the offseason.
Tallon believes that players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, Dmitry Kulikov, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson and Rocco Grimaldi are ready to take Florida to the next level. None of those players are over the age of 24.
As if those youngsters aren’t enough, also making the Panthers opening night roster are 2010 draft picks Quinton Howden (1st round) and Connor Brickley (2nd round). Both are 23 years old.
Howden has battled injures over the past couple seasons which have kept him from a main role in the NHL, playing spurts of games with the Panthers here and there.
A rare combination of size and speed is what Howden brings to the table and it will be very interesting to see how he performs with the Panthers when playing with the team on a daily basis.
Brickley had a great summer and came into Florida’s rookie camp ready to impress, and he’s done just that. From the rookie camp to training camp to the preseason, Brickley continued to play at such a high level that Tallon had no choice but to give him a well-earned roster spot.
While much of the team is comprised of young players with extremely high upsides, there are still some important veteran players on the roster that will play integral roles in both the success of the team and the development of the youngsters.
The first name that comes to mind is Jaromir Jagr, one of the best scorers and all-around players in NHL history. He came to the Panthers at last season’s trade deadline and instantly gelled on a line with Huberdeau and Barkov.
The trio became one of the most potent lines in the league over the final 20 games of the season and they have been putting in a lot of work to ensure that they have the same kind of success this time around.
Jagr often keeps his linemates on the ice after practices end so they can work on a bevy of different things that will help them during games. His work ethic is legendary and there could be no better role model for the young Panthers to have on the team than Jagr.
Other veterans who are important to the makeup of the team are Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Derek MacKenzie and Scott Thornton.
Bolland is a great locker room guy and two-way player whose importance is often overlooked due to the large contract that Tallon signed him to and the lack of offensive production. He isn’t going to be a high scoring guy but ask any player on the team and they’ll tell you how much Bolland’s presence is needed.
As for the most important role on the team, the Panthers are in great shape with veteran All-Star Roberto Luongo in goal.
Luongo has been one of the top goaltenders in the NHL since coming into the league and provides the team priceless confidence knowing that if they make a mistake, their goalie will bail them out more times than not.
Luongo, 36, is getting up there in years but similar to Jagr, he’s an extremely hard worker that takes care of his body year round.
Running the Panthers bench is second year head coach Gerard Gallant, who led the team to an NHL best 25 point improvement last season.
Gallant is a great fit for the mostly-young Panthers, providing the right combination of knowledge, leadership and motivation that players of any age can get behind.
As opposed to the Dolphins who came into the season with big question marks surrounding its coaching staff, Gallant is the reason that I’m much less concerned about the Panthers following suit.
So yeah, I know right now its tough being a South Florida sports fan but don’t worry, good times are right around the corner.
Between the Panthers and the Heat, local fans should have a pair of fun and exciting 82-game seasons to look forward to, not to mention a couple of playoff runs.
As I said, the Heat should be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference if they can stay healthy. The Panthers are relying on another year of progress from its extremely talented young core and early indications point to just that.
By the time Christmas and Hanukkah roll around, fans in South Florida will be so wrapped up in the fun and success of the ‘arena’ teams that the sting of football season won’t hurt nearly as bad as it usually does.
The Panthers will face the Philadelphia Flyers in their season opener at the BB&T Center on Saturday, October 10th at 7 p.m. You can hear every game on Sports Radio 560 WQAM, the radio home of the Florida Panthers.
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