Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Florida Panthers
Last season: There were no real expectations to begin with. The Panthers had just hired GM Bill Zito to oversee a franchise that didn’t have any direction – captain Aleksander Barkov’s contract was expiring in 2022 but they committed seven years and $70 million to Sergei Bobrovsky anyway – and within a month-and-half on the job, he had signed Alex Wennberg, Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe, and made the most pivotal trade of the season, dumping Mike Matheson and convincing Patric Hornqvist to leave Pittsburgh. Hornqvist ended up scoring a goal in each of the first three games, and the Panthers did not suffer their first regulation loss until their ninth game.
Zito rewarded the Panthers’ big leap forward trading for Brandon Montour and Sam Bennett – again positive additions – the latter of which earned a four-year extension worth $17.7 million. They were ousted in the first round by their in-state rival and Bobrovsky’s play remained troublesome, but Zito remained aggressive and paid the Coyotes a second-round pick to take Anton Stralman so they could add a legit top-six forward in Sam Reinhart. There has never been more optimism in sunny Miami.
Best option: Aleksander Barkov, C
The reigning Selke winner was an absolute menace at both ends of the ice, and it was a great sign that both Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau could excel even if they didn’t play together. Barkov finished 13th in scoring, ranked eighth in 5v5 SAT% (min. 50 GP) and was one of just 19 forwards to average over 20 minutes per game. A deeper roster will allow Joel Quenneville to be more selective with his matchups, but Barkov is an all-situations player and will remain their top cat. The addition of Reinhart – even if they only play together on the power play – should also help improve his offensive production. Huberdeau is also an excellent fantasy option, though Barkov has the clear edge if your league counts faceoffs. At a deep position, Barkov is a no-brainer and arguably the fifth-best option behind McDavid, Draisaitl, MacKinnon and Matthews.
Hidden gem: Sam Reinhart, C/RW
Scoring at a 37-goal pace was pretty absurd, especially for a forward who doesn’t shoot very often. (Since Reinhart’s rookie season, among the 103 forwards who have scored at least 100 goals, he ranks 36th with a 13.6 S% but 85th with only 2.21 shots per game). Reinhart made sure to put in a good performance in his final season with the Sabres, though things continued to trend downward. The Sabres were the league’s worst team and Reinhart set a new career-low minus-28 rating. Now, he’s going to the rink in flip-flops with a $19.5-million contract in his pocket and playing with some of the best players in the league. Figuring out where he plays is the tougher job but it’s a good problem to have, and the Panthers have enough good wingers they will probably have multiple top-six configurations that work. With a change in scenery and a realistic chance of winning a lot of games, Reinhart could have a career season.
Goalies: The key question is whether Spencer Knight will take over the starting job this season, because that should determine if managers should draft him before Bobrovsky. For now, it’s still Bobrovsky’s net, if only because he’s getting paid more, and that gives him superior fantasy value. The Panthers are a little thin on defense but they’re definitely a good team, so there are at least 45-50 wins to be had between Bobrovsky and Knight. The best option would be to roster both goalies, otherwise Bobrovsky is the better short-term option since he gets the first crack at the starting job. There is some risk with Knight; the Panthers haven’t committed to him as their No. 1 just yet, and as was the case with Carter Hart, the development and career trajectory for young goalies is rarely a straight line. Knight will have very good games, but there were a few short stretches last season where he struggled and looked as inexperienced as any young goalie.
Outlook: Led by Barkov and Huberdeau, who are both projected to score over 90 points according to the Pool Guide, the Panthers could be poised to take another step. They’ve had elite players in the past, but not a pair like this, and there’s more young talent coming in with Grigori Denisenko, Anton Lundell and Aleksi Heponiemi, all of whom should play at least a few games with the Panthers. They were fourth in goals per game last season even with the 15th-best power play, and there’s a good chance they can improve on both this coming season.
Asides from inconsistent goaltending, lack of defensive depth will be their biggest weakness as they try to advance past the first round for just the second time in franchise history after a surprising Finals berth in 1996.