After two-straight seasons in or near the NHL cellar, these three things could conspire to keep the Florida Panthers stuck there again in 2014-15. A version of this article originally appeared in the SB Nation 2014-15 NHL Season Preview.
Special Teams: The Panthers were dead last in the NHL on the power play and penalty kill last season. The numbers are not for the faint of heart: Florida had 269 power play opportunities, but scored only 27 goals, for a PP percentage of 10%, a full four percentage points below Buffalo (who finished in 29th place on the PP). On the penalty kill, the team gave up 63 goals against in 262 kills, for a league worst 76% (with the Islanders two percentage points better at 78% in 29th place). No team can win with those numbers and until the Panthers show they have in fact improved in this area, it will be a massive source of concern for fans, players and coaching staff alike.
Goal Scoring: The Panthers were second-to-last in the league in scoring last season, with only the punchless Sabres bagging fewer goals. Florida's leading marksman, Brad Boyes, was the only player with more than twenty goals (21). Nick Bjugstad and Sean Bergenheim tied for second best with 16 apiece. The Cats scored only 188 times last season, for a 2.29 goals-for-per-game average, but were 17th in shots-for per game. Middle-of-the-pack shots-for, with a 29th place goals-for means a lot of shot futility and that's worrisome. Florida took 1,125 shots last season from high-productive areas of the ice, 107 fewer than the Chicago Blackhawks. The biggest part of the problem comes from the flanks. A high-end lottery pick like Jonathan Huberdeau must produce like the first-liner he was expected to be after his Calder Trophy winning season. Putting it simply: he did not do so. The demise of Tomas Fleischmann from a top point producer to an 8-goal scorer was equally destructive to the offense. This team needs more finish and finishers, as well as a more productive system for generating higher percentage shots-for in a bad way. Until that happens, goal scoring is a major area of concern.
Young Defense: This is NOT to say the Cats' defense is a weakness, they are an exceptionally talented bunch. It IS to say that young defensemen without several hundred games worth of NHL experience are prone to make costly mistakes as they learn. A team must suffer through that learning curve, and the Panthers are likely to be no different in that regard. Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell are the geriatrics of the group, at 35 and 37 respectively, with 1,633 regular season NHL games between them. But after that pair, the Panthers next 5 D-men (Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Dylan Olsen, and Colby Robak) have a collective 589 regular season NHL games between them, with Kulikov leading the way with 313, while Ekblad (of course) has none. The defense could be excellent one day, but there are still some growing pains to expect this season.