After a surprise playoff appearance in 2011-12, the last two seasons have been complete duds for the Florida Panthers. Here's a look at what could be in store for the club 2014-15. A version of this article originally appeared in the stupendous SB Nation 2014-15 NHL Season Preview.
BEST CASE SCENARIO (Shane)
Young centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad are able to hold their own, and then some, as the Panthers' one-two punch down the middle. Jonathan Huberdeau has a bounce back season under his former junior coach, Gerard Gallant. Brad Boyes, Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim perform as expected, and provide some much-needed scoring from the wing. Two-time team scoring leader Tomas Fleischmann recovers from last year's horrible season to put up 20 goals. Roberto Luongo gives the Cats the above average goaltending that they need, and Al Montoya is able to win enough games to give both Luongo a rest and the club some additional victories. Veterans like Willie Mitchell, Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen and Brian Campbell play well enough to make up for the few mishaps that the young guns have, and provide that apparently necessary "leadership" in the locker room. Above all, whatever system Gallant installs results in a high tempo, upbeat, possession game that the Panthers execute to perfection, and the roster as a whole gels under the new coach. Florida sneaks into the playoffs as one of the wild cards, and gives whoever the division winner is a good run for their money before bowing out in seven games.
WORST CASE SCENARIO (Todd)
The Panthers whiffed in free agency and once again, don't have the right veteran players surrounding their promising young core. New head coach Gerard Gallant can't squeeze any more out of the roster than the recently departed Kevin Dineen and Peter Horachek were able to. Special teams continue to be an absolute abomination, with both units stuck at the bottom of the league rankings. As usual, scoring depth is thin, and if Jonathan Huberdeau and Tomas Fleischmann don't have bounce back seasons, or if the team's top two centers, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, don't build on their promising rookie campaigns, there won't be a whole lot of goal support for reacquired lynchpin Roberto Luongo. Speaking of Luongo, he is 35-years-old and the Panthers will be counting on him to be at his best to backstop a mostly young defense corps. If Luongo gets hurt or starts "playing old" all of the sudden, it will be another long season in Sunrise, which is the last thing this organization needs as it tries to: contend for a playoff spot; revitalize an apathetic fan base; and shake the growing sentiment across most of North America that it doesn't belong in South Florida anymore.