Owner Vinnie Viola and GM Dale Tallon have delivered a clear message: mediocrity will no longer be accepted in South Florida. Hours after the Florida Panthers missed the playoffs for the third straight season, they began a pricey and statement-making makeover.
On April 8, Florida inked three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to a five-year deal worth at least $26.5 million. The Panthers then committed more than $100 million in free-agent contracts on July 1 to improve upon weaknesses that resulted in a disappointing 86-point campaign in 2018-19.
Signings included two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky to succeed future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo (retired), veteran blueliner Anton Stralman to stabilize a turnover-prone defense corps, right winger Brett Connolly for middle-six depth and fourth-line center Noel Acciari.
Talk of making the playoffs and winning a round for the first time in 24 years is no longer cheap. It is time for the Panthers to deliver results.
Despite several players registering career offensive years, those point totals didn’t translate to points in the standings. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau became just the third and fourth players in franchise history to reach the 90-point plateau. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov added 70 points apiece. Frank Vatrano netted a career-high 24 goals.
Buoyed by a potent power play, the Panthers ranked ninth in the league in goals but 17th in 5-on-5 tallies. A healthy Vincent Trocheck and Connolly should help correct the imbalance. Dynamic pivot Henrik Borgstrom is poised to break out if he is used consistently on the third line.
With Quenneville expected to demand more accountability at both ends, don’t expect Florida’s top-six to match or exceed their career years. But the Panthers shouldn’t have problems scoring.
Florida’s high-risk, high-reward defensive style will be reined in by Quenneville in favor of a more stable puck-protection game. The Panthers had the most giveaways in the NHL the past two seasons, with Mike Matheson, Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle each ranking in the top five for giveaways among defensemen.
Stralman’s ability to win battles and block passes are the kind of abilities that don’t show in the game summary but will automatically upgrade the top four. The Panthers view Stralman as a complementary partner for the talented Matheson, who had a forgettable third campaign.
MacKenzie Weegar and Josh Brown had strong finishes last season and will compete for roster spots. Mark Pysyk rounds out the team’s blueline group.
Bobrovsky gives Florida a clear No. 1 for the first time in three years. His performance in Columbus’ stunning upset of Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2019 playoffs suggests the 30-year-old is still in his prime. Expect ‘Bob’ to play 65 to 70 games. Sam Montembeault, who impressed as a second-year pro, will be the backup as long as he doesn’t falter in camp.
New assistant coaches Andrew Brunette and Mike Kitchen have the challenge of at least matching a couple of the positives to come out of last year’s squad. The Panthers were one of three teams to rank among the top 10 on both the power play and penalty kill but were the only one to miss the playoffs. The personnel for the man advantage should remain intact. The additions of Stralman and Acciari give the Cats more options on the PK.
The presence of Quenneville and his championship resume will permeate the entire organization. The new coach, always one to emphasize the importance of netminding, has an all-world goalie in Bobrovsky, which should provide confidence to the burgeoning roster.
Owen Tippett will make a full transition to the pros following a junior campaign that had him fine-tuning his game away from the puck. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound natural goal-scorer could earn a third-line spot with a strong camp. Otherwise, he’ll begin the season in AHL Springfield.
Quenneville’s record in Chicago speaks to his ability to shepherd talented young players, turning many into winning veterans. The Panthers have never been deeper talent-wise. The 61-year-old coach is the difference-maker who will get his team pulling in the same direction.
Tallon’s contract expires this season, but re-signing the GM to a new deal is merely a formality. His reunion with Quenneville – after a Cup in Chicago – has been years in the making.
– Erin Brown
Stanley Cup Odds: 30/1
Projection: 4th in Atlantic
The Panthers pipeline is consistent, with Henrik Borgstrom in the NHL, Owen Tippett turning pro and Grigori Denisenko playing out his KHL contract in Russia. More options on defense would be nice for the future, but goaltending won’t be an issue thanks to 2019 first-rounder Spencer Knight. It’s difficult to predict goalie prospects, but Knight is as close to a sure thing as they get. With size, athleticism and poise, he has the package. Knight will suit up for Boston College.
1. Grigori Denisenko, LW
Age 19 Team Yaroslavl (KHL)
Dangerous shooter plays at a high level and pace. Physical despite not having a huge frame.
Acquired 15th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Owen Tippett, RW
Age 20 Team Saginaw (OHL)
Developed his defensive game on the PK to go along with natural offensive tools.
Acquired 10th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
3. Spencer Knight, G
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
Calm and poised. Reads the play well and is a strong puckhandler. Boston College bound.
Acquired 13th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
4. Aleksi Heponiemi, C
Age 20 Team Karpat (Fin.)
Gifted playmaker with a high hockey IQ. Adding muscle as well as refining play on defense.
Acquired 40th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
5. Serron Noel, RW
Age 19 Team Oshawa (OHL)
Has a big frame and now the production to back up his potential. Plays with a high work ethic.
Acquired 34th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
6. Sam Montembeault, G
Age 22 Team Springfield (AHL)
Athletic with a great glove hand. Handles the puck well. Ready to step into backup job.
Acquired 77th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
7. Vladislav Kolyachonok, D
Age 18 Team Flint (OHL)
High-character player who can do it all at both ends. Knows the game well but is still raw.
Acquired 52nd overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
8. Ryan Bednard, G
Age 22 Team Bowling Green (WCHA)
Big netminder was a late-bloomer. Had productive junior season before turning pro in April.
Acquired 206th overall, 2015 NHL ’21-22
9. Max Gildon, D
Age 20 Team New Hampshire (HE)
Junior collegian has a sizeable frame with a big shot. He’s still improving in his own end.
Acquired 66th overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
10. Riley Stillman, D
Age 21 Team Springfield (AHL)
Versatile defender who is responsible in his own end. Limited offensive upside.
Acquired 114th overall, 2016 NHL ’21