The Florida Panthers walked out of the 2014-2015 season with a 38-29-15 record, good for sixth in the Atlantic Division. They finished well ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, but they were five points back from the Bruins and eight points out of a playoff spot.
Still, there were bright spots. They only lost 13 games at home and they only allowed a respectable 213 goals. The Maple Leafs allowed 44 more, not that we’re picking on the Maple Leafs. Unfortunately, the Panthers only scored 198 goals (Toronto scored eight more goals, so there) and they couldn’t put much together on the road.
Florida wasn’t overly busy in the off-season, either, and that means that the team that takes the ice to commence 2015-2016 will pretty much be the same group that took the ice in 2014-2015. Place your bets. They did sign five players in free agency, but they’re all inked to two-way deals. And they let a lot of players skate off in free agency, including Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky. Brad Boyes was also released.
Up front, the Panthers are about opportunities. They have some veteran players ready to deliver in support roles, but for the most part this team is about the development of prospects. Jonathan Huberdeau is a giant piece of the puzzle. The 22-year-old had 54 points in 79 games last season and should be up for more this season. He’s ready to break out in a huge way.
Centre Aleksander Barkov is also ready to break out. He posted 36 points last season and is a strong competitor down the middle. He’s expected to anchor the top line and should see plenty of action with Huberdeau, which is an exciting prospect all on its own. Barkov could use some more physicality in his game, but he seems prepared to make some big moves this season.
Having the ageless Jaromir Jagr in the fold for a full season isn’t a bad thing, either. Jagr landed in Florida in 2015 and is still one of the greats. He scored 47 points in 77 games last season, averaging over 17 minutes of ice time in a game and firing off 169 shots. Together with the likes of Jussi Jokinen and young centre Nick Bjugstad, Jagr and the Panthers have some serious options to work with in the forward group.
The Panthers selected defenceman Aaron Ekblad first overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and they haven’t looked back. They haven’t needed to. Ekblad has been as advertised. He’s a tremendous skater and a sensible player. He won the Calder Trophy and managed 39 points last season, but there is a lot of pressure on him to anchor this defensive group. Luckily, he has plenty of veteran help.
Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell are two of the most experienced active defencemen in the National Hockey League and Florida is banking on them to help their blueline transition to a younger and more polished group. Campbell will continue to put up serious minutes (he averaged over 23 minutes a game last year) and Mitchell will grind away in the shutdown role. It’s a stellar combo, especially when you put Dmitry Kulikov in the mix.
Kulikov put up 22 points in 73 games last season and boasts a rocking point shot. He’s a well-rounded skater and likes to jump in the play, which gives the Panthers one of t
hose active defences the kids are talking about. 23-year-old Erik Gudbranson is also part of the unit. He has all-around potential and he scored four goals last season, showing signs of offensive flourish to go with his shutdown capacities.
With Roberto Luongo back where he belongs, the Panthers have some much-needed stability in goal. Luongo is one of the best goalies in the NHL (sorry Vancouver, but you know it’s true) and he’ll play a lot of games. He played in 61 last season, winning 28 and posting a 2.35 goals against average. He’ll also face a lot of shots and still come around to give his team a chance to win every game.
Al Montoya is the backup at this point and time, although Florida may want to look into some more viable solutions. Montoya played 20 games last season and still has consistency issues. He posted a 3.01 goals against average with a .892 save percentage. At the NHL level, those numbers are far from acceptable. Still, he’s an option until Sam Brittain is ready to rock.
Since Dale Tallon took the reins in 2010, the Panthers have been all about stacking up draft picks. As a result, they’ve had two of the last three Calder winners (Huberdeau and Ekblad). There may be more to come, with the emergence of players like Lawson Crouse and Michael Matheson. Crouse is a big power forward with plenty of upside. He looks after his teammates, earning the nickname “The Sheriff” from teammates, and he’s maybe just a year away from making the squad full-time.
Matheson is also in the wings. The 21-year-old defenceman from Pointe-Claire just finished his third season at Boston College and he’s looking great. He has remarkable poise for his age, plus he has a heck of an outlet pass. The Panthers will be looking for Matheson to quarterback the power play and lead the rush.
The Path Ahead
It’s hard to put the Panthers in playoff position this season, but they’re definitely in good shape down the road. This is a well-balanced team in terms of veterans and rookies and we could be looking at the emergence of some key pieces to the long-term puzzle. Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad should also put up solid campaigns, with Jagr, Mitchell and Campbell working well in support roles.
So is it safe to say the Florida Panthers are in a year of transition? Yes. This could be the last of a bad stretch for Tallon and Co. and it’s about time. They’ve done well in the draft and have built a strong, young team on paper. Now it’s time to deliver the goods. That won’t happen this season, but Florida fans will have their patience rewarded soon enough.