THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: No. 8 in Atlantic Division
2013: 15-27-6. 15th in East.
THN’s TOP PROJECTED SCORERS: Jonathan Huberdeau (63), Tomas Fleishmann (60), Aleksander Barkov (52).
KEY DEPARTURES: Stephen Weiss, Jack Skille, George Parros, Tyson Strachan
KEY ADDITIONS: Aleksander Barkov, Bobby Butler, Joey Crabb, Mike Mottau, Matt Gilroy
THE PROS: Once again, the Panthers are moving ahead with as many quality young players as they can hoard. That philosophy of patiently building through the draft has come to define this franchise over the past decade-plus, but there’s hope that the long-term pay off will be much more rich this time. Huberdeau’s Calder season in 2013 buttressed the belief that this build up will be different and with Barkov coming in as an 18-year-old rookie with two seasons of strong hockey in Finland’s top professional league in his back pocket, there’s legitimate hope the team has a No. 1 center wrapped up. Erik Gudbranson’s TOI rose by four-and-a-half minutes lasts season and will probably hike again, while Dmitri Kulikov should see increased point output on the man advantage. At the very least, this young core isn’t completely on its own; it’s surrounded by a decent group of veterans, led by captain Ed Jovanovski and Cup winners Campbell and Tomas Kopecky. Finally, it’s not likely the team will be as crippled by injuries this season as it was last…is it?
THE CONS: We’ve seen and heard this all before. There was supposed to be promise at the start of the 21st Century for this team when it used back-to-back-to-back top four picks on Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton, but all three are gone and only one experienced post-season play with Florida. And even as promising as this new young core is, the players won’t hit their primes for another couple of years. Making matters worse, the Panthers move into a new division that includes all five teams from the old Northeast Division – a group they went 3-10-2 against last season. The lineup remains thin and won’t be able to withstand much in the way of injuries.
X-FACTOR: Jacob Markstrom is no longer the goalie of the future – he’s the goalie of the present. Markstrom was thrust into 23 games last season when Jose Theodore’s groin gave out, and though the Swede showed some signs of brilliance, his overall body of work was mediocre and lacked consistency. A .901 save percentage and 3.22 GAA won't cut it for a lowly team like this and could subvert any progress made by other parts of the lineup. One of the better goalies in the American League the past two seasons, Markstrom needs to show progress at the NHL level for Florida to have any chance of exceeding bottom of the barrel expectations. Jacob, are you de better goalie?
PERIPHERAL PREDICTION: Brian Campbell, who has excelled offensively with 80 points in 130 games in Florida, will again approach 50 points and inflate the totals of his blueline partner. But he’ll also chase after the green jacket and approach his 2013 league-worst minus-22 rating again.
ATLANTIC NO. 8: FLORIDA PANTHERS