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An end of July look at where the revamped Florida Panthers currently stand

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From the Gudbranson trade through free-agency, it has been hard to catch our collective breath, as the Cats maxed out the "activity-monitor." With things settling down after prospect camp, we can take a look at where the team stands moving forward.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

So... yeah... How about them Panthers? Have you had a chance to breath yet? The period commencing with the trade of Erik Gudbranson, through the conclusion of Development Camp was one that was as busy as anything this franchise has ever seen. It was... an interesting time, because as each move happened, it was easy to wonder what the team was thinking, or why something was being done. A lot of folks are still scratching their heads about some of the off-ice moves. But watching as the on-ice moves accumulated, it was easy to see that the sum-total of the moves was turning into something very, well- positive. I, myself, went from bemoaning the losses of Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov to a nod of approval as the new defense corps was formed. That "nod of approval," extends beyond the D-corps, to the great majority of moves the team made. We can now relax, sit back, turn up the air conditioning, and look at where the Panthers are.

Lets start with the new depth chart. It has changed a great deal since our last look:

Defense:

Keith Yandle Aaron Ekblad
Michael Matheson Jason Demers
Steve Kampfer Alex Petrovic

This is a bit of a guess right now. Obviously, Mark Pysyk, and Jakub Kindl are still in the mix as well, and could displace some of these other defensemen. What we know for sure is this:

Left-Handed Right-Handed
Keith Yandle Aaron Ekblad
Michael Matheson Jason Demers
Jakub Kindl Steve Kampfer
Mark Pysyk
Alex Petrovic

So... remember those concerns I have previously posted about the right side? What a change. Suddenly, the left side is the side lacking depth! Steve Kampfer played mostly on his off-hand last season (on the left side), and did well, which is why I guessed him into that 3rd pair, left-side, D slot. Of course, it is equally likely that Pysyk, or Petrovic, or even Demers could swap to their off-hand as well. In fact, one thing to consider is that playing off-hand on defense opens up more one-timer opportunities on offense, and allows defensemen to protect and move pucks on their forehand as they move behind or near their own net to start the breakout. For a team who plans to use a "quick-up-to-the-forwards" style of defense, playing off-hand on the back-end may be the plan.

Seven of the defensemen played 40 or more games in the NHL last season, and taking their collective Corsi-For %, the average is 51.37%. Michael Matheson played only 8 NHL games, so he is not included. Of the seven defensemen who played 40 or more games, only Petrovic and Kampfer had Corsi-For % below 50%. The numbers break down like this:

Name GP A G +/- Shots AVG TOI CF% O-zone Start % D-Zone Start %
Ekblad 78 21 15 +18 182 21:41 51.4 55.6 44.4
Yandle 82 42 5 -4 160 19:58 50.3 66.7 33.3
Demers 62 16 7 +16 94 20:52 50.3 49 51
Petrovic 66 15 2 +17 53 16:57 48.7 45.7 54.3
Pysyk 55 10 1 -1 44 15:54 51.9 55 45
Kampfer 47 4 0 +5 54 15:06 47.6 48.6 51.4
Kindl 44 6 2 +13 63 13:59* 55.6* 51.8* 48.2*

* Kindl's TOI, CF%, and zone start rates are for the Panthers only, and do not include his stats from Detroit for last season.

It is no real surprise that the three defensemen with the lowest Corsi-For % are also the three who started the most shifts in the defensive zone (Demers, Petrovic, and Kampfer), with Yandle being the one outlier. Nor is it surprising that the two D-men with more than 65 games played, and massive offensive-zone start rates lead this crew in shots taken last season (Ekblad and Yandle). As the numbers show even without Matheson in this picture, the D looks very capable. Yandle and Ekblad possess considerable offensive firepower, and with Yandle, the team can expect great improvement on the power play (where he had 20 power play assists last season). There have been questions about the loss of Brian Campbell, and the effect it may have on the team.

As a replacement for Campbell, Yandle produces far more offense. Campbell played the same number of games last season as Yandle, but averaged about two more minutes in ice-time per game (for about 164 more minutes of ice time over the season than Yandle), with a 50.9% O-zone start rate. But while Campbell was better at driving possession (with a 52.7 Corsi-For %) it didn't turn into point production like one would expect it to. Let's look at it this way: normally speaking, a player may be evaluated by their rate of points-per-game. If we look at it that way, it breaks down like this:

Name GP Pts Rate-per-Game
Brian Campbell 82 31 .37
Keith Yandle 82 47 .57
Aaron Ekblad 78 36 .46
Jason Demers 62 23 .37
Alex Petrovic 66 17 .25
Mark Pysyk 55 11 .20
Steven Kampfer 47 4 .08
Jakub Kindl 44 8 .18

The flaw in that approach is that within those games, these defensemen are playing very different amounts of minutes, which leads to bigger differences by the end of a season. Take this brief example: Mark Pysyk played 875 minutes last season in his 55 games. Brian Campbell played 1827 minutes over his 82 games (952 more minutes), as he averaged 22:17 TOI per-game. There are stats that measure points-per-60-minutes, but what if we take actual minutes and points? What if we examine actual points per minute rates?

Name Pts Minutes Rate-points-per-minutes-played
Brian Campbell 31 1827 .016
Keith Yandle 47 1637 .028
Aaron Ekblad 36 1691 .021
Jason Demers 23 1294 .017
Alex Petrovic 17 1119 .015
Mark Pysyk 11 875 .012
Steve Kampfer 4 709 .005
Jakub Kindl 8 678 .011

This gets a bit muddier- because when a player plays more minutes, their averages may flatten out. On the other hand, with more minutes come more opportunities to produce offense (especially when Campbell got to play with Ekblad so often- which begs the question of who was contributing more last season). This is even more true when a player is not starting more than 50% of their shifts in the defensive zone (more on that in a moment). But, with Campbell's Corsi-For %-- his noted possession-- one would expect a higher rate of offensive production than Alex Petrovic (who also had a much higher defensive zone-start-rate than Campbell).

Campbell's lack of defensive ability was also on full display against the Islanders in the playoffs, where he went -3, with 1 assist in 6 games. Gerard Gallant could literally not find a partner to cover Campbell and at the same time, allow him to play to his strengths. Michael Matheson was a more capable defender in the Panthers zone in the playoffs. Both Yandle and Demers produce more points-per-minute played than Campbell, and Pysyk and Petrovic are both in the "neighborhood." On paper, it seems the defense has grown stronger.

Both Petrovic and Matheson showed some offensive firepower late last season, and Demers is a very capable 2nd pair D-man. All in all, the new defense is big, possesses the puck well, and produces more offense than the team saw from the blue line last year.

Depth-wise, the signing of Ian McCoshen, Michael Downing, Linus Hultstrom, and the re-signing of Jonathan Racine provide solid options when injuries strike. All of these defensemen will likely be in Springfield next season, perhaps joined by Josh Brown and MacKenzie Weegar. With the 8 defensemen noted above vying for 6, or perhaps 7 spots on the Panthers, there will be very solid options for fill-ins.

The defense looks like an exciting and upgraded bunch for the foreseeable future but questions remain:

1) Does the newly re-constituted defense have enough physical shut-down ability to play stalwart defensive hockey when needed?

2) Can the fast, "puck-mover," style defense adopted from the Pittsburgh Penguins system succeed without 3 forward lines with stand-out ability, or a Phil Kessel on the 3rd line?

3) On the suddenly thin left-side, can Michael Matheson play like the veteran he portrayed in the playoffs, and can Kindl stay in the coaching staff's good graces?

Forwards:

The top-7 forwards remain the same as last year for the Panthers for the upcoming season- and that is a good thing. Questions still abound when we get to the 3rd and 4th line wings. We can try and plug in a depth chart, but the bottom six represent quite a bit of guesswork:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Jonathan Huberdeau Aleksander Barkov Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen Vincent Trocheck Reilly Smith
Jared McCann Nick Bjugstad Colton Sceviour
Jonathan Marchessault Derek MacKenzie Shawn Thornton

The mix among the bottom four (since the centers are set) could easily include Lawson Crouse, Logan Shaw, Kyle Rau, Jayce Hawryluk, or Connor Brickley. The changes at forward are in the 4 bottom-six wing positions, as the centers will remain the same through all 4-lines (perhaps with Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad switching spots if either dips). The good news is that the noteworthy production spread throughout the top-6 forwards is all back for another season. Better news is that Trocheck is again healthy, and a year more experienced. Reilly Smith and Jonathan Huberdeau both had great seasons, and both took an additional step forward in the playoffs against the Islanders. Aleksander Barkov is also growing into a player that many now compare to Anze Kopitar.

With that in mind, lets move away from the well-established top-6, and go to the area of chief concern: the 3rd line. We all know that the lack of 3rd line production was crippling to the Panthers in the playoffs, and at times during the season. There is good news. Nick Bjugstad appears to be healthy, and played as one of the team's top producing forwards while paired with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith in the playoffs. The big pivot was limited to 67 games last season due to medical issues. Yet, he showed incredible growth in the playoffs, where he produced 2 goals, and 2 assists in 5 games, while also going +6. Give Big Nick some wings to play with, and he has shown that he has learned how to use his size to great advantage. The question is: who are those wings?

Jared McCann was obtained in the Erik Gudbranson trade. Many felt he should have spent last season back with his junior team rather than in Vancouver. McCann produced 18 points in 69 games for Vancouver last season. He produced at a rate of .020 points-per-minute played last season. These numbers do not show a player who is knocking socks off... yet. McCann is still very much a prospect, and to that end, he reported voluntarily to Panthers development camp, where it was noted that he packed on 25 lbs. of muscle and weight since last season. As a prospect, he is expected to produce offensively at some point. Our own Todd Little found these tidbits around the web in his discussion of the McCann acquisition:

"Jared is a highly skilled and creative playmaker," Edwards said. "He has excellent hands and puckhandling ability. He sees the ice very well and can get the puck through traffic with great saucer passes.

"He is not a guy who will always bring you out of your seat but is dangerous every shift and at the end of the game he will quietly have a goal and three assists. Jared is an excellent penalty killer, smart and reads the play very well." – NHL.com

McCann is a gifted playmaker who skates well, accelerating quickly and with strong lateral mobility. He has a long reach and utilizes it well in all three zones. He is a two-way center with outstanding hockey IQ and his on-ice vision and decision-making are exceptional. He plays at a consistent high level with determination and a competitive edge. He is strong on face-offs and should continue to develop the supplementary aspects of his game. His lack of bulk and injury history are concerns. – Hockey’s Future

The question is, when will he hit his stride? Nick Bjugstad hopes for sooner, rather than later. It also should be remembered that McCann prefers to play center, and will be forced to transition full time to wing with the Cats. It may take some time for this pairing to come together. For those pushing for Bjugstad to make the move to wing- his face-off win % went up to 51.7% last season. Vincent Trocheck won 49.5% of his face-offs, and Aleksander Barkov won 49.2% of his. McCann won 34.7% of his face-offs in Vancouver last year. (for those wondering, Derek MacKenzie won 54.8% of his face-offs).

On the right side, its possible that UFA signing Colton Sceviour may fit the bill. Once again, our own Todd Little had this to say about Sceviour after his singing:

Sceviour, 27, is an accomplished AHL scorer who has spent the last two seasons with the Dallas Stars. In 2015-16, Sceviour scored a career-high 12 goals and finished with 23 points, three less than he had in 2014-15 in his first full NHL season.

Can Sceviour produce more? In 71 games for Dallas last season, this right wing produced 23 points, and played 900 minutes- good for .025 points-per-minute. Bjugstad produced at a rate of .032 points-per-minute played last season. For comparison's sake, Reilly Smith produced .032 points-per-minute played last season; Jokinen .040, and Trocheck .039. Bjugstad produced points at a rate consistent with a 2nd line Panther. Neither McCann or Sceviour have produced near that rate... yet.

It is darn near impossible to compare Sceviour or McCann to the 3rd line wings the Panthers ran with last season, as it was such a revolving door position that few players spent an identifiable amount of time at the position. Quinton Howden played a bunch of time on the 3rd line, but in 602 minutes played last season he scored points at a rate of .01 per-minute played. Similarly, Logan Shaw produced at the same rate of .01 points-per-minute played. Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell did not play nearly enough games to be compared, and Hudler was notably shut down during the playoffs by the Islanders (6 games with 1 assist and a -1 rating). Obviously, the Panthers will need whoever steps on to the 3rd line wings next season to up their offensive output.

It is possible that the answer at 3rd line wing will come in the form of a rookie, such as Lawson Crouse or Jayce Hawryluk. While unlikely, it is a possibility worth exploring here. The answer could also be Kyle Rau. In 9 games for the Panthers last season, Rau was unable to get on the scoreboard, but his possession stats were good, he was not zone protected, and he managed to produce an average of 1.66 shots-for per game, while running a slightly below average PDO of 98.2. Rau managed .13 shots-for per minute played. He was also fearless, making a living around the front of the net. Rau has the added advantage of historical pairing at the University of Minnesota with Bjugstad. His below-average PDO suggests that he was hit by some bad puck-luck, but it also must be noted that he did not score in the AHL at a rate like Colton Sceviour has. Rau scored at a rate of almost .5 points-per game in the AHL last season, and in the AHL playoffs. Sceviour's last season in the AHL (2013-14 in Texas)- he scored at better than a point-per-game pace.

Only training camp can solve the question of who will play alongside Bjugstad. At this time the choices break down to Sceviour, young, and younger. This remains an area of concern.

On the 4th line we know that Derek MacKenzie will center, and we are fairly confident that newly acquired Jonathan Marchessault will play on the left side. Marchessault is a considerable Corsi-For upgrade on the Panthers 4th line. The new left wing put up a 53.9% Corsi-For % for Tampa Bay last season in 45 games, with a hefty defensive zone start rate, which should make for a very positive upgrade for the Panthers. After that, there are questions.

Shawn Thornton will definitely get games at right wing. How many games is unclear. Who he will share time with is equally unclear. The likely suspects are Logan Shaw, Connor Brickley, Lawson Crouse, or maybe Gregg McKegg. Shaw played 53 games for the Cats last season, with more defensive zone starts than offensive. The rookie put up poor Corsi-for %, and was -7 despite producing 7 points. Nonetheless, Shaw did not play poorly in 3 playoff games, and now has experience under his belt. He is likely the front runner, but a good training camp out of Crouse, Brickley, or McKegg, and Shaw could just as easily find himself in Springfield.

Jonathan Marchessault was a savvy 4th line addition by Tom Rowe and company. In 409 minutes played for Tampa last season, he produced points at a rate of .02 per minute played. He appears to be a 4th liner who can play solid defense, and be a threat on the offensive side if opposition lets its guard down. Aside from him there are still question marks surrounding the remaining 3 wing positions in the bottom-6. However, there are also more options to answer those questions with. Questions:

1) Can a 3rd line of Bjugstad, McCann and Sceviour produce at a dangerous rate?

2) Can Jagr keep producing as a top-3 wing?

3) Will either of Reilly Smith or Vincent Trocheck regress from stand-out seasons?

4) Do the Panthers have the depth to survive injuries to crucial forwards?

Goaltending:

The most recent news is that Roberto Luongo's hip surgery went well, he is recuperating quickly, and will likely be ready to start next season. This is excellent news. Luongo had a terrific season for the Cats, sporting a .922 save % (good for 7th in the league) and a 2.35 GAA (16th in the league). Florida's 37-year-old netminder also played 62-games, which is not ideal. The wear-and-tear revealed themselves in the playoffs, as Lu himself admitted to being tired after back-to-back games.

I noted many times last season that the team's defense had done an excellent job "enhancing Lu." Shot location charts from late November on revealed that the Panthers were forcing opponents on most nights to play to Lu's strengths- notably: shooting from the glove side (Panthers left D, opponents right wings). This was less-so in the playoffs, and the results showed.

The Panthers were 13th in the NHL last season in shots-against-per-game (29.5), 5th in the league in save-percentage (.917), and 7th in goals-against-per-game (2.44). Once all factors are considered, this was likely the result of great goalies playing behind a system meant to give them their best chance at stopping shots, and limiting shots to low probability areas of the ice, and to the goalies strong sides.

There is no reason to believe that Roberto Luongo will play differently than he did last season, despite his age. He will likely be aided in this respect by the addition of 28-year-old James Reimer. With the younger Reimer in the mix, it is doubtful Luongo will start as many games. Reimer is a very capable goalie. In 32 games for the Maple Leafs last season, he posted a .918 save percentage and 2.49 GAA. The Leafs were 21st in the league in shots-against-per-game last season, with 30.5. For those who think defense has no effect on save percentage: once Reimer was traded to the Sharks, his SV% jumped to .938 and his GAA fell to 1.62. Admittedly he only played 8 games, but San Jose was also 2nd best in the league in shots-against-per-game, with 27.4.

The sum total breaks down like this: in 62 games Luongo faced an average of 29.04 shots-against per game. In 40 games played, Reimer faced an average of 28.20 shots against per game, a difference of .84 shots-per-game. Reiner handled himself well, and will spell Lu more often than Montoya did.

The Panthers also added 29-year-old Reto Berra from Colorado. Berra was, more-or-less an insurance policy in the event the Panthers could not sign Reimer. Berra played 14 games for Colorado last season, sporting a 2.41 GAA and .922 SV %. Colorado, of course, was 28th in the league in shots-against-per-game with 32.2. Yet Berra only averaged 24.6 saves-per-game with the Avalanche last season. It is likely he will start the season in Springfield and work as an injury call up. What this does to the prospect pipeline we will discuss momentarily. Questions:

1) Will the Panthers new defense do as capable, better, or worse a job of protecting its goalies and suppressing shots?

2) Will Roberto Luongo's age finally catch up to him with either injuries or diminished play?

3) Will the real James Reimer please stand up- is Reimer the maligned goalie they complained about in Toronto, or a good goalie who played for a poor team?

Depth:

Depth-wise, there is an inability to fill a top-6 forward role if one of the team's top forwards is injured. After Bjugstad, there are no established answers to look to, to move up the roster. This is not unusual. Any team holding a top-6 capable player is not going to keep them in the AHL. As mentioned above, there are bodies to fill 3rd and 4th line roles. McKegg, Brickley, Dryden Hunt, Jayce Hawryluk, Kyle Rau, Logan Shaw, and even Juho Lammikko, could all likely do spot duty if needed to cover for an injured bottom-6 player.

Lawson Crouse is the big question mark. He showed improved offensive output last season in the OHL, and he has grown even stronger. But uncertainty remains about where he slots in in the NHL. Is this a player who could Milan Lucic his way into a top-6 role? Or is Crouse's offensive potential more limited and he will be a bottom 6 player? More uncertainty exists regarding when his time will be- he cannot play in the AHL next season, so it's Panthers or another year in Kingston. At development camp Crouse looked big, strong, defensively capable, and fast. But he did not look (at this point) like a top-6 skill guy, Yet, Crouse could be that power forward the team has been looking for with the likes of Shawn Matthias, Jack Skille, and Quinton Howden, but still has not found. Crouse has shown an ability to drop his shoulder and drive, and he is hard to take off of the puck. Power forwards don't dazzle with nifty moves or blazing speed, they drop the shoulder and drive, and post up in tough areas of the ice to get shots off and pin defenses. Crouse has shown some of this type of ability.

At defense, Jonathan Racine and Brent Regner will be the most experienced players available in Springfield for injury duty. Linus Hultstrom and Ian McCoshen will be professional rookies who could also provide injury call-up duty (like Michael Matheson did last season). With the 8 NHL-caliber defensemen presently on the Panthers roster the "8th man out" will likely end up in Springfield, and will be the first call-up if needed. There will be some intriguing prospects on defense in Springfield with MacKenzie Weegar, Michael Downing and Ian McCoshen. Defense remains a point of organizational strength.

The Panthers farm system was thin on top prospect youngsters last season. At forward we saw Garrett Wilson, Connor Brickley, Corban Knight, Greg McKegg and Logan Shaw spend time at the NHL level playing around the 3rd and 4th lines. For the most part, all of those players were 4th line contributors. Wilson is now gone and Knight has not been re-signed (to date). Brickley, Shaw, and McKegg all likely top out as 4th line fill-ins, with some possibility of regular time on the Panthers 4th line.

We also saw Rocco Grimaldi and Kyle Rau make short appearances with the Panthers on the 3rd line. Rocco is now in Denver, and Rau remains something of a mystery. The most intriguing of the new AHL prospects will likely be Jayce Hawryluk, who lit up the offensive columns for the Brandon Wheat Kings last season. But after perhaps Hawryluk and Crouse, there is little indication that the Cats will have other prospects in Springfield who could play at a 2nd line level. While Juho Lammikko is intriguing, he is never going to play above an NHL 3rd line, if that, and Denis Malgin still has much to prove in North America.

There is a developmental logjam at goalie, with Berra likely headed for Springfield to join veteran Mike McKenna. Colin Stevens had already been lent last season to Manchester, in the ECHL, and now the Panthers will need to find both he and Sam Brittain homes for the season. What the future holds for the two prospect goalies (Stevens and Brittain) is nothing more than guesswork at this point. It is unlikely we will see either of the young goalies in NHL spot duty this season, with Berra available. Samuel Montembault was signed to his entry-level contract, so the clock is now ticking on him, but he looks to be years away from the NHL. The Reimer signing makes the "goalie-of-the-future" issue more settled for the mid-term.

Questions:

1) Where, within a year, is the replacement for Jagr coming from?

2) Is Jayce Hawryluk another Vincent Trocheck or Bobby Butler?

3) Is Denis Malgin good enough to have an NHL future?

4) Can Dryden Hunt maintain his sniping skills at the professional level?

It has been a fascinating off-season of big changes around Sunrise, and at this point there is not too much that would surprise anyone. In a recent article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, columnist Dave Hyde seemed to have access to some conversations between new General Manager Tom Rowe and owner Vincent Viola. What we know from that column is that (as expected) Viola wants to win now. We'd sure like that too! But Viola, unlike prior owners, has put his money behind it, as the team went out and spent. We also know from the Hyde column that Rowe has indicated to Viola that the Panthers will win it next year, or (if not) within the next three years. It's a bold statement, but one that feels good for long-suffering Cats fans. Its been a rather entertaining roller coaster around here of late, and soon enough we see if it works or not.