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26 Florida Panthers This talent-poor team is hurting even when it's healthy--which isn't often

One day after talking about trying to avoid the sophomore jinx,
left wing Kristian Huselius, who led the Panthers with 23 goals
and finished third in the Calder Trophy voting last year,
collided with a teammate in training camp. Huselius sprained a
ligament in his left knee and will miss the first week or two of
the season. Such is the luck of the Panthers.

After injuries caused their players to miss a total of 374 games
in 2000-01, Florida led the NHL with 363 man-games lost last
season. The most devastating injuries were to two members of the
top forward line: right wing Valeri Bure (51 games because of
various knee ailments) and center Viktor Kozlov (32 games after
season-ending hernia surgery in March). "Bure and Kozlov are the
most talented players I've ever had, as a G.M. or as a coach,"
says general manager Rick Dudley, who replaced the fired Chuck
Fletcher in May. "Valeri can stickhandle in a phone booth and
make a play doing it."

If Bure and Kozlov stay healthy--and both were injury-free when
the season opened--Florida should improve its meager 2.20
goals-per-game average. That would relieve some of the pressure
on 22-year-old rising star goalie Roberto Luongo. His athleticism
and quick reflexes led to some highlight-reel stops, and Dudley
says Luongo has worked hard on his one noticeable flaw: poor
puckhandling skills. But the G.M. realizes that when a goalie
keeps making spectacular saves, it often means the defensemen
aren't doing their jobs.

To put some backbone into that position, Dudley acquired the
physical Dmitry Yushkevich in a trade with the Maple Leafs.
However, other than Yushkevich and Sandis Ozolinsh, an offensive
whiz, the Panthers will rely on a group of unproven defensemen.
Teenagers Jay Bouwmeester, the third selection in the 2002 draft,
and Lukas Krajicek have the most promise, but there's no quick
fix in sight.

"The difficult thing is that the young assets have to mature, and
that doesn't come to fruition as soon as you'd like," says
Dudley. "I'd like to think that some of our kids have the
maturity to take their games to the next level sooner rather than
later." --Mark Bechtel



Peter Worrell and Brad Ference ranked first and second in the
league in penalty minutes last season, the first teammates to do
so since Philadelphia's Dave Schultz and Andre Dupont in '74-75.



OFFENSE 30 Top center is underachieving Kozlov,
which says it all
DEFENSE 26 Speedy Bouwmeester entertaining, but
unit doesn't play smart
GOALTENDING 8 Luongo has developed into one of the
NHL's best
SPECIAL TEAMS 29 Second-worst penalty-killing unit in
league wasn't upgraded
MANAGEMENT 24 G.M. Dudley, Keenan stepped into mess;
patience is key