It’s a cliché replete across the sports world, but the Florida Panthers really do have the tools to make this year the year. The club hired Joel Quenneville as their new head coach, plus they’ve got Sergei Bobrovsky as their new goalie. Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari are among other additions.
“What management did in free agency, you couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said forward Aleksander Barkov. “We got a really good goalie, a defenceman and a couple of forwards. That’s all we needed. I just can’t wait to get back to training camp and start from there.”
Barkov, going into his second year as team captain, has a point. And the team seems to believe in the process, with Bobrovsky among those suggesting that this year is a Cup year. Nothing else is acceptable, which in turn energizes the fanbase and lights a fire under the franchise. Can Florida live up to these expectations, though?
Quenneville knows the score, for one. He knows how to win. He is second to Scotty Bowman on the all-time regular season wins list, but he’s inheriting a team with room for improvement. The Panthers were 28th overall last season in goals against and they made a lot of giveaways, leading the NHL in that category. Defensive responsibility, therefore, has to be near the top of the list.
But first, goal-scoring. The Panthers finished ninth in the NHL, scoring an average of 3.22 goals per game. Barkov led last season with 96 points, including 35 goals. Mike Hoffman had one more goal than Barkov, but finished with 70 points in 82 games. Barkov took off with career-highs in goals, assists, points, even-strength goals, power play goals, and even shooting percentage.
Barkov’s complete efficiency, 17 percent last season, is something the Panthers can build around. Jonathan Huberdeau was pretty effective in his own right, with a career-high 13.3 shooting percentage. He was second on the team in points with 92 points, a share above his previous career-high of 69 points in 2017-2018.
Evgenii Dadonov may have struggled for reliable line placement in 2018-2019, but he also put up career-highs in many offensive categories. Dadonov produced 70 points, including 28 goals, and he found his groove playing with Huberdeau and Barkov in the second half of the season. That led the 30-year-old from Chelyabinsk to shoot the puck more, finishing with a career-high 195 shots on goal.
Getting Dadonov to find the confidence in his game is a boon for the Panthers and so is the play of Hoffman, who charged things up with a brilliant 2018-2019 season. He finished with career-highs in goals, points, power play goals, shooting percentage, and hits. The 29-year-old is wandering into a contract year, so expect more production as he works to earn that raise.
Florida allowed a miserable 280 goals against last season, spiking them third from the Eastern Conference basement. Only the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators were worse. Funnily enough, it appears most of the damage to the Panthers was done in even-strength situations. The club was okay on the PK, finishing 10th overall, and they concluded business just below the league average in shots against.
At the top of the defensive ladder is Keith Yandle, who posted 39 points on the power play – leading all NHL blueliners. The veteran hasn’t missed a contest since 2008-2009 and should play well under Quenneville, which means he’ll see more power play time and get exposure to Huberdeau and Barkov when necessary. That makes him a nice bet for points.
The Panthers like to activate their defence, but they also like to quarterback that power play. That’s where Aaron Ekblad is beneficial. He scored 13 goals last season, five of which came on the power play. He had six PP goals in his rookie season in 2014-2015. Putting Ekblad with Yandle is the expectation for Quenneville, which makes a noteworthy second pairing out of Stralman and Mike Matheson.
Goaltending was THE problem for the Panthers last season, but that’s all over now. Bobrovsky is a major upgrade. The Panthers used four goalies last season, with Sam Montembeault the only one set to return. Robert Luongo retired, James Reimer is in Carolina and Michael Hutchinson found his way to Toronto.
Bobrovsky should be in line for a great year, although nothing’s for certain. The netminder signed a seven-year deal on July 1 and it might be worth it to think about this deal over the long haul, but right now there is every reason to believe the 30-year-old can deliver some hardware. That’ll make it all worth it five years from now, won’t it?
Goaltending was a major issue for the Panthers in 2018-2019 and the team solved it in the best way possible. With a world-class goalie, the defensive accountability will come and Florida can push the tempo. That security in their own end should give Barkov, Huberdeau, Hoffman, and Dadonov all they need to fill the net.
Photo credit: Nick Wass/AP