The Florida Panthers were far and away one of the most surprising teams in the NHL this past season, but goaltender Roberto Luongo says it’s time for the Cats to take the next step.
In an interview with Panthers broadcaster Steve Goldstein, Luongo said that last season no one was sure what to expect out of Florida in 2014-15, but with the club coming only a handful of points shy of a post-season berth there are expectations — especially from inside the dressing room — of what the upcoming campaign should hold for the Panthers.
"Last year we weren't quite sure what we were going to get; we had a lot of new faces and a new coaching staff," Luongo said. "This year it's time to take that next step. It's really all about the playoffs for our team; nothing beneath that will be acceptable. I think as a group we realize that and demand that of ourselves.”
Problem is, though, this may not be a team that’s built to make the playoffs.
It almost goes without saying that Florida’s biggest struggle has been their ability to score goals. At 5-on-5 in 2014-15, the Panthers scored 144 goals which was good enough for 18th in the league, but overall Florida managed only 206 markers, which was the fifth worst total this past season. It was something that needed to be addressed this off-season, but GM Dale Tallon hasn’t done much — or, really, anything — to fix the goal-scoring issue that plagues the Panthers. More than anything, Florida has removed offensive punch.
First, there was the strange buyout of Brad Boyes. The 33-year-old was coming off of a 14-goal, 38-point season and was one year removed from a 21-goal campaign as part of a Panthers offense that was even more stunted. He was the Panthers’ fifth-highest scorer in 2014-15 and produced well as a middle-six player. It’s not as if Boyes’ $2.625 million cap hit was egregious, either.
After the buyout of Boyes came the trade of Jimmy Hayes to the Boston Bruins, which netted the Panthers right winger Reilly Smith in return. Over their respective careers, Hayes has played 168 NHL games between the Blackhawks and Panthers, while Smith has appeared in 203 with the Stars and Bruins. Both players are even in goals scored — each has netted 36 career goals — but Smith has the edge in playmaking ability, having 64 assists to Hayes’ 30. Realistically, the Hayes-for-Smith swap stands to be a push for the Panthers, which isn’t exactly the greatest result for a team that desperately needs someone to put pucks in the net.
Of course, some will point to Jaromir Jagr and say that the 43-year-old’s production when he came over to the Panthers in a February deal with the New Jersey Devils means Florida has added a potent veteran offensive player. While Jagr’s uncanny scoring ability so late in his career is impressive, for him to be the hope for an offense that was stagnant for most of 2014-15 seems foolish. Yes, he had six goals and 18 points in 20 games with Florida, but he’ll also turn 44 this season and likely shouldn’t be relied upon for more than 50 points.
Obviously, that Florida has a backend that includes Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad and the offensive-minded Brian Campbell will help production from the blueline, but it’s the stable of forwards that are cause for concern. It’s evident most of the Panthers’ offense will have to come from the team’s young guns, such as Jonathan Huberdeau (who is still awaiting a new deal), Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov and Brandon Pirri.
Luckily for Florida, the 22-year-old Huberdeau is coming off of a career-year with 15 goals and 54 points in 79 games and 23-year-old Bjugstad cracked the 20-goal plateau in his sophomore season. As for Barkov, the 19-year-old pivot continues to prove he’s as NHL ready as the Panthers had hoped when they selected him second overall in 2013 and he will look to improve on a 16-goal, 36-point 2014-15 campaign. When it comes to Pirri, Florida saw what he can do offensively when he scored 22 goals this past season, but the hope is he’ll add more than two assists to his point total in 2015-16.
That said, even if Tallon’s group of youth talent produces, it still doesn’t fix the problem completely. While divisional opponents like Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Buffalo improved their rosters through addition, the Panthers stood pat. Florida doesn’t have the budget to add big name free agents, but even a few low-end, bang-for-your-buck signings could have helped.
Alexander Semin could have provided some offensive punch, and he signed for $1 million in Montreal. Jiri Tlusty remains on the free agent market and could be worth a slight overpayment for the chance of some added production. Even Mike Santorelli would be a cheap, depth option that could help the Panthers. Yet no proven NHL talent has come to Florida by way of free agency, and this after a 2014 off-season where the Cats dished out a five-year, $27.5 million contract to Dave Bolland and a four-year, $16 million deal to Jussi Jokinen.
Without adding some help up front, it could be difficult for the Panthers to keep up in the Eastern Conference. The team benefitted from 24 games that went past regulation and picked up the extra point in nine of those outings. Playing for overtime worked this past season and hanging on for the shootout is much easier when the extra frame is 4-on-4. With the introduction of 3-on-3 overtime in 2015-16, it might not be as easy to get to the coin-toss that is the shootout.
Luongo isn’t wrong in saying it’s playoffs or bust for the Panthers — matter of fact, that’s what Florida fans should want to hear from arguably the team’s most important player — but realistically, the Cats could still be a few years away from being perennial post-season contenders. And until the offensive issues get sorted out or the young talent all find their stride, the Panthers will be on the outside looking in after the regular season’s last contest.