Over the course of the off-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have added superstar center John Tavares to an already formidable stable of young talent, the Tampa Bay Lightning have locked in their key players in a star-studded lineup, the Boston Bruins have added some extra puck-moving punch to the blueline, while even the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens have attempted to add some offense via trades. So, if we were to judge it by the off-season alone, chances are the prevailing belief would be that the Florida Panthers are falling a bit behind it the Atlantic Division.
While movement for the sake of movement isn’t all the wisest decision, Florida has made just five additions to their roster. That puts them one up on the Ottawa Senators and two ahead of the Lightning, though Tampa Bay’s big splashes came in the re-signings of Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh. Plus, there’s that whole thing with Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators. You know the one where the Lightning are seen as one of the few frontrunners to land arguably the most offensively gifted defensemen of this generation?
The thing is there may not be much cause for concern despite the fact Florida’s off-season movement has seen them break even, adding five players but losing five since the campaign closed. Because while the Panthers haven’t been all that aggressive this summer, there was no apparent need to do so. In fact, even in standing pat, Florida looks primed to have one of the division’s best attacks.
Let’s start with the acquisition of former Senators winger and tongue-in-cheek San Jose Sharks legend Mike Hoffman, which was the one notable move the Panthers did make. Bringing Hoffman to town was a clever bit of dealing from Florida, too. Knowing full well that Ottawa wasn’t about to send Hoffman, who was dealt due to alleged off-ice troubles with Karlsson, to a division rival, the Panthers allowed the high-scoring winger to be shipped off to the Sharks only to ring up San Jose and swing a deal that brought him to Florida. All it cost the Panthers was three draft choices, too, the highest of which was a 2019 second-round selection. Not giving up a single roster player or decent prospect to get a player of Hoffman’s calibre borders on incredible.
In bringing Hoffman aboard, the Panthers’ offense improved overnight. Across his career, he has averaged a 25-goal, 55-point pace, and a slightly higher rate of 27 goals and 59 points if it’s limited to his past four full campaigns. But the brilliant thing about landing Hoffman isn’t just that he’s a high scorer, it’s that he still has potential to break out even further. Over the past two seasons, Hoffman has had the governor on as part of the Senators’ low-tempo, wait-in-the-weeds play-style. Allowed to freewheel with the Panthers, Hoffman has definite 30-plus goal potential. And even if you add a modest 20 goals to Florida’s production from last season, it would be enough for the Panthers to flirt with a top-five goal total.
But as much as it is the addition of Hoffman, it’s the depth across the top two lines that has the Panthers offense looking like one to watch. Last season’s top unit consisted of Aleksander Barkov between Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad, while the line of Vincent Trocheck with Jonathan Huberdeau and Jamie McGinn was the next-most utilized. Chances are Hoffman swings into McGinn’s spot in the top six — quite the improvement, wouldn’t you say? — to give Florida a top six that doesn’t have a single glaring hole.
In Barkov and Trocheck, Florida has an underrated one-two punch down the middle that should be able to go head-to-head with about any in the league. Offensively, the duo of Barkov and Trocheck led the charge for the Panthers last season with 27-goal, 78-point and 31-goal, 75-point seasons, respectively, while both averaging upwards of 21 minutes. The only other teams in the post-lockout era to have twin 25-goal, 70-point centers with 21-minute ice time averages are the 2006-07 Lightning and 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the Panthers find themselves among that group.
With Huberdeau, Dadonov and Bjugstad rounding out the wings, there’s more than enough additional offense, too. Healthy all of last season, Huberdeau had a monster 27-goal, 69-point campaign, while Dadonov had a more-than-successful return to the NHL by posting 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Even Bjugstad, who has been maligned at times and injured often, returned to form with a 19-goal, 49-point output, the latter a career-best mark.
Lest you go assuming the Panthers are top-heavy, though, we assure you that’s not the case. McGinn will move down to a third-line role and offer some extra punch in the bottom half of the roster, while each of Jared McCann, Denis Malgin and Colton Sceviour made it more than clear they can contribute last season. Each scored somewhere between nine goals and 29 points. The depth of the offense only stands to improve, as well, if youngster Henrik Borgstrom cracks the opening-night roster. Ranked in THN’s Future Watch 2018 as the 10th-best non-NHL prospect, Borgstrom could be another 20-goal, 40-point scorer added to Florida’s already impressive arsenal next season. If that were the case, even a conservative estimate would see the Panthers trot out five or six 20-goal men.
Add to all of this that the Panthers had the league’s highest shots per game total last season, tied with the Penguins at 34.4 shots per game, and boasted the 14th-most potent attack despite boasting a team shooting percentage below the league average, there’s reason to expect Florida to challenge for a top spot in league-wide goal scoring. And if the defense can hold and the goaltending continues to be consistent, the Panthers’ offense could be a big reason why, despite a relatively quiet summer, Florida becomes a sneaky contender to push the Atlantic’s projected top three for one of the coveted divisional playoff spots this season.
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