The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 33-1
Key Additions: Mike Hoffman, LW; Troy Brouwer, RW; Michael Hutchinson, G; Julian Melchiori, D; Bogdan Kiselevich, D
Key Departures: Radim Vrbata, RW; Connor Brickley, C
With their depth of talent at all positions, the Panthers are a playoff team waiting to happen, even in the Eastern Conference where post-season spots are at a premium. A good start and wire-to-wire consistency are key to the Panthers making the playoffs for just the fourth time in 18 years. They have the ability. Florida went 25-8-2 from late January to the end of the season last year and bolstered its attack with the addition of perennial 25-goal man Mike Hoffman.
One year after the GM who never should’ve left was put back in place, Florida has built up formidable depth. Only a terrible start kept the Panthers out of the playoffs in 2017-18, so a positive first two months is crucial. They have one of the NHL’s top lines with young stud Aleksander Barkov centering Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov. Vincent Trocheck is one of the league’s best-kept secrets, but that could end this year with him playing alongside Hoffman and Nick Bjugstad on a line that will benefit from the Barkov unit drawing most tough assignments.
The top four on the blueline is solid, and a platoon of James Reimer and Roberto Luongo brings out the best in the latter.
This is a franchise that has made a cottage industry of underachieving, and it could happen again if the Panthers don’t get down to business at the beginning of the season and realize talent alone will not be enough to make them a contender. The Panthers were an unimpressive 12-16-5 through the first third of 2017-18 and never recovered from that start.
As solid as the defense corps is, it has to find a way to stop giving up the puck so much. Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson all ranked in the NHL’s top 10 in that category. The netminding tandem of Luongo and Reimer was solid last year, but Luongo will be 40 by season’s end and Reimer has never been able to handle the workload and pressure of being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
The Panthers have only three players – Luongo, Yandle and Hoffman – who have any real experience with a playoff run. This is a group that has not experienced a lot of success and may need another year before it develops a killer mentality. The lack of a proven winner was a hole before Troy Brouwer was signed. The right winger, 33, should be solid in the room, but he’s little more than a bit player on the ice at this stage of his career.
Have the Panthers built one of the NHL's top attacks?
There’s a lot of attention paid to the other attacks in the Atlantic. The hype around the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young core was already endless before the addition of John Tavares. The Tampa Bay Lightning have Nikita Kucherov leading the charge on what was the NHL’s top offense last season. The Boston Bruins also deserve their due, with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak forming one of the most formidable trios in the league. But let’s not go overlooking Florida’s attack.
Of course, we know what we’re going to get from the Barkov, Huberdeau and Dadonov unit: dominant possession numbers and a lot of goals. It’s the second unit, with the addition of Hoffman, that stands to surprise the most. Hoffman was already a 25-goal player in Ottawa with Matt Duchene and Jean-Gabriel Pageau as his centers. Playing on a more offensive-minded club and alongside Trocheck, who is going to turn heads this season, Hoffman has serious 30-plus goal potential. In fact, even the third line, which projects to be led by Henrik Borgstrom, has offensive upside, and if Denis Malgin and Maxim Mamin earn playing time on the fourth unit, even they could do some damage.
Last season, the Panthers finished 14th with 245 goals scored. Off-season changes have seen them add another 20 goals, easily. And if Florida can net 265 goals this season, they’ll flirt with having one of the league’s top-five attacks.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 4th in the Atlantic Division. It’s time for the Panthers to take the first step on the road to becoming a consistent contender. The offense is primed for big things, the defense is steady if not outstanding and Reimer and Luongo should prove to be a more than capable goaltending tandem. Anything less than a wild-card spot would be a disappointment.
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