The Florida Panthers won the 2021-22 President's Trophy by a considerable margin, setting the new standard for offensive dominance in the modern NHL by becoming the first team in over two decades to score over four goals per game.
Three months and one extremely disappointing playoff performance later, and the Panthers look quite different, having undergone a significant roster overhaul that swapped one franchise face out for another and surrendered one of their two best defenders in the process.
The Panthers are still a good team. That's without question.
But are they better? Let's take a look.
Obviously, the Matthew Tkachuk trade is the main point of emphasis here. Up front, swapping out the 30-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau for a budding 25-year-old superstar whose ceiling projects to be higher and whose contract will only become cheaper serves the Panthers quite well in the long run.
Only, this team doesn't really have its sights set on the long run. You don't trade all of your first-round picks until 2026 if you care about the future. The Panthers want to win now. They need to win now, really -- at least, if everyone involved wants to stay employed. And in giving up both Huberdeau and a top-pair defender in Mackenzie Weegar, both of whom are in the midst of their respective primes and signed to below-market value deals for the 2022-23 season, it seems like something of a step back.
For a team as deep into "win now" mode as it gets, it's interesting that their most seismic offseason move oddly had its sights set on the future.
Even if Tkachuk out-scores Huberdeau next season and proves to be the superior forward that he likely is, there's still the Weegar dilemma -- that being that the Panthers dealt away an elite two-way defenseman and didn't bring in anyone to replace him.
As it stands today, Florida's top four looks to feature Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour, Radko Gudas, and Gustav Forsling, a fine quartet of defenders to lead a blueline, sure, but not nearly as formidable without Weegar, whose presence on both sides of the puck was so vital to the Panthers' run-and-gun style of play last season.
Ekblad is obviously the clear top dog of the group, as he was when Weegar was still there, even. But the 26-year-old has had a rough time staying on the ice of late, missing extended stretches with injury in each of the past two seasons. While Ekblad is still young and should conceivably be his usual self once the puck drops on this coming season, his health track record undoubtedly calls into question whether he can be counted on to play a full 82-game season.
If he can -- great! The Panthers have a legitimately elite top-pair defender to run their blueline even without Weegar in the mix. But if Ekblad goes down once again, his absence won't nearly be as easy to replace, with Montour or Forsling being forced into roles that they, quite frankly, are not suited for.
Florida's depth hasn't just been depleted on the back-end, either.
Tkachuk's arrival will help soften the blow up front, but the Panthers have lost some key roster pieces among their forward corps from last season outside of Huberdeau with, as is the case with Weegar, no sure-fire options waiting in the wings to replace them.
Mason Marchment left for Dallas. Claude Giroux signed in Ottawa. Anthony Duclair will miss much of the season recovering from an Achilles tear.
Those are not insignificant losses. Marchment's blend of defensive acumen and point-per-game production was precisely the type of depth luxury that gave the Panthers their unparalleled offensive might last season. The team dealt a first-round pick and one of its top prospects for 18 games of Giroux that left them with a second-round sweep and a vacancy in their top six. Duclair just racked up 30 goals despite only logging 15 minutes per night and now leaves behind him a hole on the top power-play unit until he gets back.
To fill in their depleted forward corps, the Panthers took fliers on a few calculated bets in Rudolfs Balcers, Nick Cousins, and Senators buyout victim Colin White, while inviting 37-year-old Eric Staal, who did not play in the NHL last season, to training camp on a PTO.
None of those four can replace the production of their departed counterparts. While the Panthers still have the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Sam Bennet, Sam Reinhart, and Carter Verhaeghe to form a potent offensive attack, their forward group is unquestionably weaker than last season's, which didn't exactly challenge for the Stanley Cup in its own right.
The Panthers will be a major player in the Atlantic Division once again next season, hoping to avenge their disappointing exit the year prior and re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. But it's hard not to compare their roster from last season to this coming one and not think they took a step back, puzzlingly putting one foot in "win now" mode while the other prioritizes the future.