2017-18 Bench Life NHL Previews: 22. Florida Panthers
Part 10 of 31 in our NHL previews where Ballantyne, Burgess and I rank each NHL team 1 through 31 and give you an outlook on their season. Each of our previews will be given to you in order of where we collectively power ranked that team. It’s not the most exciting system, but neither is Jacques Lemaire’s neutral zone trap.
Check out our other previews:
#31. Colorado Avalanche , #30. Vegas Golden Knights, #29. Vancouver Canucks, #28. Detroit Red Wings, #27. New Jersey Devils , #26. Arizona Coyotes, #25. Buffalo Sabres, #24. Winnipeg Jets, #23. New York Islanders
Record: 35-36-11 (81 Points) 6th in the Atlantic Division (23rd Overall)
GPG: 2.50 (23rd)
GAPG: 2.82 (21st)
PP%: 17.0% (24th)
PK%: 85.3% (2nd)
Corsi For %: 51.7% (5th)
Last season was a huge letdown in Sunrise, Florida. A year removed from a 103 point Atlantic-winning 2015-16 season, the Panthers dropped out of the playoff conversation altogether in 2017. Despite being third in the league shots on goal with 32.2 shots per game, their scoring fell off of a cliff due to their 28th ranked team shooting percentage of 7.8%. This drop in shooting percentage could be explained by poor shot selection, but I tend to think that the team was just incredibly unluckly last season. It certainly didn’t help that Huberdeau was only healthy enough to suit up for 31 games.
The disappointing showing in the standings ended up riding shotgun to the circus that become of the Gerard Gallant firing and the front office purge at season’s end. This team became the battleground for the analytics crowd versus “old-school hockey guys” as the respected Gallant became a martyr for the “old boys club”, while the reinstatement of Dale Tallon as GM irked the analytics community. This whole gongshow weirdly enough made the Panthers more relevant in the media than they had been for years.
List of Key Additions: Evgeni Dadanov, Radim Vrbata, Jamie McGinn
List of Key Departures: Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith
Despite the questionable decision to not protect Marchessault in the expansion draft, Florida’s leading scorer and 30 goal guy, the Panthers should be relatively fine. Reilly Smith’s 15 goals should be internally replaceable and who knows how much 45 year-old Jagr would’ve given them at this point.
Vrbata had a nice 55 point season on a bad Arizona team last year and could rediscover his 30 goal scoring touch playing alongside Florida’s speedy young forwards. Florida also acquired winger Evgeni Dadanov from the KHL to hopefully replace some of the offense lost in the Expansion Draft transactions. The 28 year old right winger was actually Florida’s third round pick in the 2007 draft but he left the organization for the KHL in 2012. Last year Dadanov scored an impressive 66 points in 53 games for a St. Petersburg SKA juggernaut that also featured Ilya Kovalchuk, Vadim Shipachyov and Pavel Datsyuk. Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers hope he can break out in the NHL like former St. Petersberg teammate Artemi Panarin did two seasons ago.
Team MVP: Alex Barkov
While seemingly an off-the-board pick at the time, Barkov has shown enough in his short career to justify the Panthers taking him second overall in 2013. While Drouin and Seth Jones would’ve also look nice on this roster, Barkov’s tremendous upside gives the Panthers a shot at a franchise center that they’ve just never had (apologies to Oli Jokinen and Stephen Weiss).
Barkov has been a force in the offensive end, breaking out with 28 goals in 2015-16 and following it up with 52 points in 61 games last year. Given his hands and scoring prowess, he still plays a responsible two-way game. Given Barkov’s inherent talent and potential, his role as Florida’s first line center with his utilization on the powerplay and penalty kill, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Barkov is Florida’s most important player.
Team’s Strength: High upside roster
The Panthers’ roster currently has a first overall pick (Ekblad), second overall pick (Barkov) and third overall pick (Huberdeau) all receiving heavy minutes and playing pretty well considering their age. Ekblad has already shown flashes of elite offensive ability from the backend and the big, mobile 21 year old should still have plenty of room to grow his game.
Trocheck has developed into a two-way force and a very effective second line center. He led the team with 54 points last year and led all Panthers forwards in ice time with 20:49 TOI/GP.
Outside of the crease, this is still a very young team and any leap that they make over the next couple of years will likely be attributed to internal growth. When you’re a team constantly picking in the lottery, you’re bound to accumulate some blue chip guys and now it’s up to the coaching staff to get these guys clicking for 82 games.
Team’s Weakness: Timing
When the Panthers brought Luongo back to the beach in 2014, they envisioned him guiding their young, talented roster through a deep playoff run. At the time of the trade he was 34 years old and had shown that he still had a couple of years of high-end play left in the tank. Florida had their shot in 2015-16 when they won the Atlantic division, but were quickly bounced in the first round by a Wild Card Islanders team. That is the only season that they’ve qualified for the playoffs in Luongo’s second stint in Florida, and at age 38 it’s fair to question whether Luongo can even get them back there again.
Entering this season, there are questions about the health of Luongo’s surgically repaired hip. With a roster consisting of players entering their prime or already in their prime–Barkov (22 years old), Huberdeau (24), Trocheck (24), Bjugstad (25), Petrovic (25), Dadanov (28), Yandle (31) and Vrbata (36)–the time is now or never to go for it before some of their older players become empty cap space. Luongo is owed $4.53 mil cap space per season through 2021-22 and Yandle $6.35 mil though 2022-23. These types of contracts will make it tough for a low budget team like Florida to surround Barkov and Ekblad with a talented supporting cast in the coming years. If the Panthers don’t strike now they may share the same mediocre fate in eighth seed limbo as the Tavares-era Islanders that eliminated them in the 2016 playoffs.
Drafted 31st overall in 2013, left-shooting blue line Ian McCoshen is looking to crack the roster out of camp after a 3 game debut last season. After shipping out Jason Demers to Arizona for Jame McGinn over a week ago, there is room for McCoshen to stick at the close of training camp.
Owen Tippet may have a tougher time making the Panthers. Florida’s 10th overall pick from this summer’s draft certainly has enough skill that he could push for a vacant fourth line spot. But they won’t because that would be terrible for his development. At 6’0″ and 200 lbs, Tippet is a strong player with quick feet and a laser of a wrister. 44 goals in 60 games with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads show that he has a clear knack for scoring goals. Scouts have pointed towards sniping wingers like Kyle Okposo and Phil Kessel as potential comparisons for his ceiling. Panthers fans (?) should be ecstatic that he was available at 10th overall.
Key Player: James Reimer
Short of Bobby Lu defying age and regaining All Star form into his forties, the Panthers’ answer to the Roberto Luongo “problem” is a smooth transition to the next goalie. Florida is hoping that Reimer is their guy and his .920 save percentage over 42 games should leave them hopeful. While I’ve been a big Reimer guy since his Leafs days, you have to be wary that he hasn’t carried a starter’s workload and has never started more than 39 games in a season. I’m not ready to close the book on Luongo yet, but if age and injuries catch up to him, the Panthers will need Reimer to step in and play like starter at age 29 going into his eighth NHL season. Like Florida, I hope he has it in him.
T. Waind: 18th
C. Burgess: 23rd
B. Ballantyne: 23rd
I honestly think that this team can and will sneak up on some teams this season. There’s just no way that their shooting percentage will be as poor as it was last season. With some added goal support, I think that a tandem of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer can sneak this team into the playoffs. They are a far better team than their record showed last season. That being said I don’t think that they have the jam to leapfrog Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston, Ottawa AND Montreal to contend for the Atlantic division title. They are prime suspects to be in the Wild Card hunt late into this season.