A tumultuous season on and off the ice saw the Panthers fall back out of the playoff picture. Changes have been made in the front office, behind the bench and on the ice, and it could mean a trip back to the post-season.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Florida Panthers.
Stanley Cup odds: 45-1
Key additions: Evgeny Davydov, RW; Henrik Haapala, LW; Owen Tippet, RW; Radim Vrbata, RW
Key departures: Jaromir Jagr, RW; Jonathan Marchessault, RW; Reilly Smith, RW; Jussi Jokinen, LW; Michael Sgarbossa, C
Will a new coach and the young talent the Panthers have assembled be enough to overcome an exodus of goals or will it be more of the same old thing in south Florida?
Nobody seems to really know what the identity of this team is, including those who run it. The front-office chaos that has reigned there since last season appears to have been quelled, but there has been a fair bit of collateral damage done in the process. As a result, it could be argued that there isn’t a team in the NHL that has regressed as much of the Panthers, nor was there one that disappointed more spectacularly in 2016-17. From that group, the Panthers have lost Jaromir Jagr, Shawn Thornton and Jussi Jokinen, which will leave a void in the leadership department but on the ice, could actually be a case of addition by subtraction. Those exits will give the younger players more of a chance to show what they can do and that is a group that could include 2017 10th overall selection Owen Tippett, a player who has elite offensive skills. With Bob Boughner behind the bench and Dale Tallon back where be belongs at the tiller of the hockey operations department, there should be a lot more off-ice stability and a clearer chain of command than there was last season. A full season of a healthy Jonathan Huberdeau, if he can indeed deliver that, will help immensely, as will the continued ascension of Aleksander Barkov. The defense corps struggled last season and there is uncertainty with Aaron Ekblad’s health. The goaltending, with a 38-year-old Roberto Luongo and career backup James Reimer leading the way, is also a concern.
A hiccup. An aberration. Growing pains. The Panthers have to believe that’s all last season was. There’s reason to believe that was the case, too. A pre-season injury cost Huberdeau more than half the year, and although his near point-per-game pace upon his return wasn’t enough to get Florida back into the playoff hunt, he did inject some life into a stagnant offense and should continue to do so this season. It shouldn’t be all that difficult for Huberdeau, either, as he can work alongside Barkov, who has established himself as one of the best young centers in the game. Pair that with the emergence of Vincent Trocheck and the addition of Evgeny Dadonov and Florida could have some true threats on its attack.
It will be the blueline that really drives the Panthers, though. In Ekblad, Mike Matheson and Ian McCoshen, Florida has a fine young foundation upon which to build, and the veteran presence of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers gives the Panthers back-end stability. A collective step forward after last season’s small step back could put the Panthers back in the playoff hunt.
Goals, going, gone. Jonathan Marchessault, Jagr, Reilly Smith and Jokinen combined to score 72 of Florida’s 205 goals in 2016-17, but all four will be playing elsewhere this season. The replacements are Dadonov, a 30-goal scorer in the KHL, and Radim Vrbata, who netted 20 with Arizona. Even if Dadonov’s KHL production translates to the NHL and Vrbata replicates last season’s total, it still leaves the Panthers 20-plus goals shy of matching what was lost.
And that’s not to mention what the exodus does to the depth chart. If Huberdeau’s injury last season hindered Florida’s attack, imagine what a similar ailment to any of the top-six forwards would do to the offense this time around. The Panthers don’t have the firepower to replace any major losses. Marchessault scored most of his 30 goals filling in for Huberdeau, while Jagr, Smith and Jokinen were reliable. Now, Florida has to rely on rookies and bottom-six talent to punch above their weight if injuries occur. Florida wants back in the playoffs, but any bad break will flush those hopes in a hurry.
THN’s PREDICTION: 6th in the Atlantic. We like how the Panthers are getting back on course after a disastrous season, but it likely won’t be enough to seriously challenge for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.