USATSI_9252507_154158418_lowresThe Florida Panthers finished the 2015-2016 season with 103 points, the best point total in franchise history. They won the Atlantic Division, too. Regrettably, the Panthers couldn’t secure a playoff series win and were eliminated by the New York Islanders. Florida hasn’t won a post-season series since 1996, when they ran all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, and they haven’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1997.

The Panthers made some changes in the off-season, with their defence essentially refurbished. Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk are in, while Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, Dmitry Kulikov, and Erik Gudbranson are out. Aaron Ekblad was signed to an eight-year extension in July.

The core of the Panthers is locked up, with contracts to Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith also part of the Florida summer. They joined nine Panthers inked for at least the next five seasons. Even the goaltending picture seems established, with Roberto Luongo and James Reimer set up as a reliable tandem.

Offence

The Panthers scored 239 goals last season and proved their offensive prowess. Scoring was evenly distributed, with Aleksander Barkov scoring 28 goals and adding 31 assists. The 20-year-old centre averaged 19:25 of ice time a game and is strong down the middle, with a tremendous compete level. Barkov saw more ice time in the playoffs, averaging nearly 26 minutes a game.

Winger Jonathan Huberdeau will continue to evolve. He had 20 goals and a total of 59 points last season, averaging over 18 minutes of ice time a game. The 23-year-old is a creative and coordinated player, but he still has some work to do when playing without the puck. The Panthers will look for him to produce even more in 2016-2017.

The ageless Jaromir Jagr continues to put up points at a high level. He scored 27 goals last season for a total of 66 points. He added two helpers in six playoff games and averaged nearly 22 minutes a game in the post-season. Jagr is still one of the strongest players on the puck in the league and he’s a slick setup man, with a vision for the game that is unparalleled.

25-year-old Reilly Smith will also put up points. He had 50 points last season, including 25 goals. The Toronto native is positionally sound and can play either wing. And centre Vincent Trocheck also managed 25 goals for a total of 53 points. He averaged 17:46 of ice time a game in the regular season and put up 31:32 of ice time a game in the post-season.

Defence

Ekblad had 36 points in 78 games, including 15 goals. He averaged 21:40 of ice time a game in the regular season and nearly reached 26 minutes a game in the post-season. The 20-year-old from Windsor has notable size at 6’4, 216 pounds. He can also serve as a power play quarterback, with a capacity to shoot the puck. He had 182 shots on goal last season.

29-year-old Yandle has great wheels and is a big part of transforming the Panthers blueline into a mobile force. The Boston native had 47 points in 82 games last season and averaged nearly 20 minutes a game. He’s a slick skater and he boasts terrific instincts, which makes him very skilled on the power play and allows him to initiate attacks from his own end.

Demers had 23 points in 62 games. The 28-year-old averaged nearly 21 minutes of ice time a game and gives the Panthers another puck-moving option. He can also jump into the rush and plays a physical game. 24-year-old Alex Petrovic is another physical defenceman. He had 17 points in 66 games last season and reached nearly 20 minutes of ice time a game in the post-season.

Goaltending

Luongo is once again the man in Florida and he’ll have the starting job when the puck drops on the new season. He went 35-19-6 last season, with a 2.35 goals against average and a .922 save percentage with four shutouts. Luongo is a workhorse and he’s still capable of putting in a lot of starts at age 37. He’ll steal games for the Panthers in 2016-2017.

28-year-old Reimer spent last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks. He should push Luongo and some say he’ll see 30 starts this season. In 40 games last season, Reimer went 17-14-7 with a 2.31 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.

Prospects

Florida has a terrific prospect pool, with plenty of depth down the middle and along the blueline. Defenceman Michael Matheson made his NHL debut in February and saw three games in the regular season. The 22-year-old also skated in five playoff games and even saw time with Ekblad. He should make a significant jump in 2016-2017.

Ian McCoshen is a big player at 6’3, 215 pounds. He has a dense point shot and can play a shutdown game, although the knock on him appears to be that he could use a little work on being a more physical player. McCoshen was on the top pair at Boston College and has experience with Matheson. That should set up another pairing for the Panthers and the impact could be immediate.

The Path Ahead

The Panthers are a solid team and they seem ready to make another leap into the post-season. They have stability at all positions, with a mobile defence backing up a young-ish forward core and a sturdy goaltending tandem. Look for Florida to make a decent playoff push. They should finally win a series or two.

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