Despite claiming its second-ever division title in 2015-16, change was the name of game for the Florida Panthers during the off-season. As part of SBN’s annual NHL preview (which launches today, btw) each blog was asked to come up with three questions facing the team it covers as we prepare to embark on the 2016-17 campaign. And away.. we... go! (nod to Billy on the street here)
At age 44, can Jaromir Jagr keep delivering in the regular season and end his playoff slump?
Donny: I've written numerous unpublished intros - since he continues to rewrite the book on veterans - regarding Jaromir Jagr's entry to the 2016-17 season. None were worthy, so we'll go the simplistic route.
We're experiencing something truly unique at work right now in South Florida; not unprecedented but certainly more than noteworthy: a Hall of Fame lock and top-five all-time player (good luck debating against that) chooses to remain with the 'we're going young' Panthers; i.e. It may work, it may not (but it looks good early, on paper).
Jagr has certainly delivered in his short time on Florida's first line alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau: 27G, 39A in the latest campaign. Solid, but back to Jagr.
No need to list this guy's career accomplishments; you either know it or have a line to the information thanks to modern social media. It's a long list of firsts-careers-leagues. And he is on Florida's first line. Blessed are the Sunrisers. Finally.
Big question on my end: how to limit his ice-time (for the playoff push after a brutal postseason) while maximizing his output on a youthful front line. Going to be interesting come game 60.
Sit Jags every other game - as he needs the rest - or go big early? Tough choices ahead for coach Gallant.
Was the overhaul of the blue line really necessary?
JC: I contend that the answers to this question were likely revealed in the playoff series against the Islanders. The Islanders ability to fire shots from the low slot on Roberto Luongo's blocker side showed what the career statistics confirmed: Lu has a weak side and the blocker is it. The Panthers shots-against-location charts had showed that the Cats began their winning ways (and streak) about the time they started preventing shots from that area of the ice. It was noticeable on those location charts that the Panthers were pushing all shots to Lu's glove side, and at the time we were unsure of why that was happening. Was it part of the game plan or just opponents trying to avoid Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson, and Alex Petrovic (the Cats 2015-16 right side D)? Once we realized that it had been game-planning, the strength of the defense was truly revealed: last year's unit did a fantastic job accomplishing the goal of pushing shooters to Lu's dominant side. The Cats defense generally did a great job of protecting the low slot. Whether this new bunch can accomplish a similar feat is the biggest question mark for the defense in 2016-17. Nonetheless, the playoff series also amplified what had been driving Panthers fans crazy all season: an utter lack of power play and offensive production. The power play was uncomfortable to watch. Both of those issues were based in large part on the blue line. While a great skater and puck mover, Brian Campbell did not produce points, and his lack of a legitimately threatening shot left penalty kills and defenses able to play off of him and double down on his teammates. Similarly, while Dmitry Kulikov has great ability, his flawed decision making and poor shooting accuracy rendered him useless on the power play, and too often he made critical mistakes for a player of his experience. Of the Panthers blue liners, only Aaron Ekblad was a real threat on the offensive side of the puck, and that meant he became a focus of opponents that were able to key on him without risk from the left side. If the United States world cup debacle and the Flyers Shane Gostisbehere proved anything. it is that modern hockey requires speedy, puck moving defensemen who can contribute offensively. With that in mind, along with last season's results, it is clear that the Panthers defense was a one-trick pony: excellent at shot suppression, but weak in all other aspects of the game. As a result, my answer is "yes," the blue line overhaul was necessary.
Is this year’s edition of the Florida Panthers better than last year’s?
Todd: The 2016-17 Panthers will have some big shoes to fill, as last year’s model set franchise records for most wins and points. While it’s always nice to add another division-title banner to the collection, the loss to the Islanders in the postseason was disappointing.
The steps the team took in hopes of building a more playoff-ready team have me excited. Keith Yandle and Jason Demers are proven defensemen who should improve the transition game 5-on-5 and upgrade the power play. Young offensive cogs Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith haven’t reached their ceilings yet, so more points from the quartet is entirely possible. The bottom-six is still a question mark, but if the Cats can get a full season out of center Nick Bjugstad and new additions Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault can up their games a bit, the team will not only be deeper, but more deadly. There’s no question the departed Al Montoya did a fine job spelling Roberto Luongo last season. Judging by his play in the preseason, James Reimer will do that and more, with the a lot more being more rest for Luongo as his starts will be reduced to having such a strong number two option.
It’s always risky to mess with what was working and it’s possible it might take a while for all the new pieces to mesh as the ‘16-17 campaign unfurls. While this year’s team might not replicate last year’s success in the regular season, in the end, I think the 16-17 Panthers will be one that can make a deep playoff run and that’s the kind of success that matters the most.