At this time last year, a dark and ominous cloud enveloped the Florida Panthers. Coming off two horrible seasons in a row, and with new coach Gerard Gallant seeming to have his work more than cut out for him, the plucky Cats shrugged off relocation rumors, attendance woes and a slow start to accumulate a highly-respectable 91 points, staying in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season slate.
The story this year is markedly different... positive vibes abound. The Panthers enter the season with plenty of reasons for optimism. Linchpin Roberto Luongo is coming off an All-Star caliber season. First round pick Aaron Ekblad returned from Las Vegas with the Calder Trophy. One, or maybe both, of Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri are poised to give the Cats their first 30-goal scorer since 2008-09. And the list goes on and on for the blossoming Panthers.
With the new season on rapid approach, Let's take a look at three burning questions facing the Cats:
Did the Panthers do enough this summer to make the playoffs?
Donny: Dale Tallon as much as openly admitted upon the Jaromir Jagr signing - one day after the season's conclusion - that #68 was to be considered the club's Big acquisition for the coming summer. Just one 40-something guy, sure, but considering his contribution to the offense in a mere 20 appearances, not to mention the transformational effect on linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, Jagr's retention was a major coup. It brought stability and confidence to anyone willing to pay attention to management's willingness to alter their long term plans and go with what works (though there's no reason to believe the future has been mortgaged; again, just one dude). As always prices for very average UFAs and high-profile trade targets continued to stratospherically escalate making deals that much more difficult to close without sacrificing a young stud - or two, or three - for a mediocre headline splash simply for the purpose of ultimately claiming "we did something!" Reportedly the Cats were close on picking up G Cam Talbot but Edmonton, speaking of teams suddenly hot for headlines, swooped in to assure Florida remained Al Montoya's domain; hoping for the best on that count but, ya know. Reilly Smith seems a fine addition in replacing Jimmy Hayes; could be a lateral move beyond the contracts involved but I'm forever hopeful. Allowing Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Sean Bergenheim to walk was the old addition-by-subtraction scheme: the prospects have labored long and earned their collective shot. On a similar note Brad Boyes was again afflicted by non-contract-year-itis, hence his inconsistency. No outside attention at all was required on the blue line. The future fans have waited half a decade for has arrived.
JC: I would first like to state that I welcome my LBC brothers to the organization's legendary roundtable. As for the offseason moves, I don't know that there were that many moves that could have been made. We know that the goaltending depth is an issue, but Dale Tallon worked hard to try and obtain Cam Talbot from the Rangers. We know the Rangers took Edmonton's offer instead, and many folks scratched their heads on that deal, as it seemed like the Panthers offered more than the three draft picks the Rangers got from the OIlers. The UFA market was weak, so not anything of interest there. I like the Reilly Smith trade, as I think he will be a better, more versatile and all around contributor than Hayes will down the road. The big move, of course, was getting Jagr and getting him re-signed to an extension. I think the team tried to address a potential weakness and the failure to do so was not their fault, the Rangers took a lesser deal. Other than that, yes, I think the Smith and Jagr moves put us closer to a playoff position.
Todd: Mixed feelings on this one. Yes, the free agent market was on the weak side; and yes, you want to see the prospects move up and claim the open spots on the team, but I was expecting the front office to do a little more in the offseason. When Brad Boyes was cut loose, I was expecting a veteran upgrade on the wing. Eventually David Booth and Martin Havlat were both signed to PTOs, at least upping the competition level in camp. I feel the team is playing with fire having Al Montoya and Mike McKenna behind Roberto Luongo. They simply can't afford a long-term injury to Brother Louie as Montoya play left a lot to be desired and McKenna, while having plenty of AHL experience, is missing the NHL resume that Dan Ellis brought to the table as the emergency option. I may be in the minority, but I was hoping the team would make a move on defense too. Yes, we have a ton of capable bodies, however, in my humble opinion, another blueliner that could contribute numbers, especially on the power play would be a big help. Yeah, yeah, I know, Dmitry Kulikov has the potential to be that player, but let's see it on the score sheet more often. I totally agree with JC on the Smith - Hayes deal. While I like both players, I think Smith might be a slightly better fit being a more versatile player than Hayes. While the Panthers are getting close personnel-wise, I still don't think they have quite the right mix yet. I feel they may need to swap a few bodies with another team to get it just right.
Shane: I thought that they had done enough during the 2014 offseason in order to make the playoffs. Adding Reilly Smith will help, and if Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri, Vincent Trocheck,Rocco Grimaldi, Dmitry Kulikov, Aaron Ekblad, and Erik Gudbranson all take steps forward like they did last season, there's no reason why this team shouldn't be able to surprise the Eastern Conference and sneak in one of the Wild Card spots.
Francisco: I think this is the Cats year to finally show the NHL what they've got. Think the Kansas City Royals of 2014 in MLB just having a meteoric rise after decades of futility. I believe the Cats offseason was safe. Every veteran that needed to stay did. Guys like Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky, fan favorites as they were, served their purpose in Sunrise. That purpose was to take up space to allow all those picks Tallon has hoarded for six years to develop and properly make their debut on the big stage. This is the year that finally happens.
Can the line of Barkov, Jagr and Huberdeau continue to dominate?
Donny: Certainly. Luck will determine the health of all three, but if each remain in the lineup for the better part of 75 games why shouldn't they exceed that torrid pace set last year? Barkov's skill - and ability to plant himself in front of the net as if by piledriver - is steadily growing into that 6'-3" frame, while Huberdeau seems, at least in early training camp action, to have become revived following a lengthy contractual process. Or perhaps it may be excitement in looking forward to again playing alongside Jagr, the NHL's current freak of nature? The opposition will not be taken by surprise again, but in theory and hope, the Cats should be rolling three genuine scoring lines if the youngsters can quickly blossom (admittedly a ridiculously big "if"), forcing the enemy to divvy shutdown resources from two forward squads to three. Thinking 2015's monster performance was just a modest beginning for them.
JC: I see no reason to doubt that they both can and will. Jagr is a man driven and has returned this season in incredible shape. He is still one of the strongest players on a puck in the league. Huberdeau undoubtedly has something to prove, as it's been reported that it was his camp that wanted the bridge deal, while Tallon sought a long-term contract. This tells me that Hubs is looking to spend the next two seasons earning a monster contract. As for Barkov, it's always hard to say where he will emerge from as he is so quiet over the summers, but there is every reason to believe that the final 21 games last season with Jagr had an fantastic impact on him as well, as he produced at a .71 point-per-game pace after his new linemate arrived (he was a .50 PPG player on the season). I expect they will absolutely continue to dominate.
Todd: Based on the first home preseason game, where the line produced 5 points and went a combined +5 in a 3-2 win over Dallas, I'd say the summer has done nothing to cool this trio off. Watching what these guys are able to do together over a full season is going to be one the most enjoyable things about watching the Panthers 2015-16. Playing with young guns Barkov and Huberdeau, as well as getting more ice time than he was in New Jersey, has re-energized the seemingly ageless Jagr, who remains a force with the puck. And who better to mentor the clubs blossoming corps of forwards than this generation's version of Gordie Howe.
Shane: Are they going to average a point per game, like they did last season? Probably not, but even if they all end up with 55+ points on the season, it will be a massive improvement over the offensively starved teams that the Cats have had since 2011-2012. Factor in their defensive dominance, and I would call Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr one of the better first lines in the entire NHL.
Francisco: I think it'll be difficult and if the league is able to figure them out, I think Jagr's services will be used with another pair of young partners. But boy do I hope they can sustain that production at least for half a season more. It'll make the Flash-Versteeg-Weiss line of 2012 look absolutely impotent in comparison.
Does Luongo have another high-quality, heavy workload season left in him?
Donny: For the sake of his teammates, the organization, and fans, he'd better be ready to do just that. There is no reason to doubt in the slightest that he'll be mentally prepared, arrive in A1 physical shape, and generally stoked to start the year, but if an injury knocks him out for any length beyond two or three games Dale Tallon will be in a difficult spot. Al Montoya's personal story was inspiring off the ice but did him no favors (3.01/.892) on it in 2014-15; just how long a leash management grants him will be interesting to follow, moreso now without a safety net such as Dan Ellis (2.35 - exactly the same as Lou!/.914) proved to be in the waning weeks of the season. Best set of circumstances would see Luongo remain relatively healthy throughout, Montoya provide a bounce-back (to...what?) effort, and DT won't need to contemplate a Plan B. Not seeing age having a negative bearing on his play. Yet.
JC: I have presented some numbers on this elsewhere, but history is not necessarily on his side here. The team will likely need him to start 60 or more games, unless Montoya shows himself more capable than last season. As a 36-year old, few goalies have started that many games, and they are all in, or will one day be in, the Hockey Hall-of-Fame. I do believe that Luongo is a Hall-of-Fame caliber goalie over his career, so maybe that answers that question. Still, there were injuries last season, and it only gets easier to re-injure those parts as age creeps in. I believe he can do it, but this is the thing that scares me the most.
Todd: Based on the quality of his play last season, I think Luongo will be fine. At some point Father Time will catch up with him, and while I do think think there could possibly be some drop off from the numbers he posted in 2014-15, I don't think it will be a precipitous one that happens all of the sudden. It's hard for me to imagine he will go from playing in the All-Star Game to needing to be put out to pasture in the span of one season. The team playing in front of him should be better, and if the Panthers could more out of Montoya this season that would help out immensely.
Shane: I genuinely have no idea on this one. Luongo did play well last season, and had a save percentage of .921%, which was above league average.
That being said, he also faced a very low proportion of shots from the slot. Using War-on-Ice's criteria for low danger, medium danger, and high danger shots, Luongo actually faced the lowest percentage of high danger shots, out of goalies who saw at least 800 shots.
With that in mind, how much of his performance last season was just stellar play from the defense? That is a question I just don't have an answer to, and it's why I can't make a call on Luongo's performance next year. He'll be at least league average in the games he does play, but I don't know if he'll be as good as he's been in the past.
Francisco: I think he's going to have to play 60+ again if Al Montoya truly can't show he can hold the fort. Montoya didn't impress last season and after losing Dan Ellis (props to him for playing stellar in Lu and Al's absence) I don't see any way Luongo can get a bit more rest, short of one of the AHL goalies coming out of nowhere and having a Hamburglar type performance.
Please feel free to leave your take on these questions (and add any other questions you might you have) in the comment section.