The Florida Panthers bounced back from a disastrous “season of change” in 2016-17 to post the third-highest point total in franchise history last year. They finished fourth in the Atlantic Division and barely missed out on a wild card spot, becoming just the second team to finish with 96 points and not qualify for the postseason.
Cornerstone forwards Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck all set new career-highs in points.
Iron man Keith Yandle played in all 82 games and produced 56 points from the back end while his defense partner Aaron Ekblad shook off a shaky third season performance to rack up 16 goals and 38 points to go along with a +9 rating.
Injuries limited aging goaltender Roberto Luongo to just 35 games, leading to a career-high 44 appearances for James Reimer. Reimer finished with a winning record, but he needs to lower his GAA if he’s ever going supplant Luongo as the club’s goalie of choice.
Forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Jared McCann, Denis Malgin, Frank Vatrano, Derek MacKenzie, Colton Sceviour, Troy Brouwer, Maxim Mamim, Micheal Haley
Defense: Keith Yandle, Aaron Ekblad, Mike Matheson, Mark Pysyk, Bogdan Kiselevich (injured), MacKenzie Weegar, Alex Petrovic, Jacob MacDonald
Goaltenders: Roberto Luongo, James Reimer
The Panthers biggest acquisition this summer was 28-year-old forward Mike Hoffman. Florida got the shoot-first winger from the San Jose Sharks for draft picks almost immediately after the Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion traded him out of the conference.
Hoffman is a perennial 20+ goal man and will bolster the club’s second line and should add another dimension to the power play.
Florida also made some a smattering of depth signings that could pay off.
They inked former KHL defenseman Bodgan Kiselevich, currently nursing a broken jaw, and added UFA Troy Brouwer to provide more experience and grit with Jamie McGinn out after offseason back surgery. Defenseman Jacob MacDonald, signed to a two-year, two-way deal, surprised and made the squad after an impressive preseason.
There is not much noteworthy in the departure department.
Radim Vrbata retired after playing in 42 games and producing 14 points in what turned out to be an ill-advised signing.
NHL/AHL tweener Connor Brickley moved on after making 44 appearances (4G/8A) in his second stint with the Panthers. Brickley is now a member of the Nashville Predators.
The Cats lost UFA goaltender Harri Sateri to the Detroit Red Wings. Sateri won four big games in late January – early February to help keep the playoff dream alive, becoming somewhat of a fan favorite in the process.
Farmhands Chase Balisy and Curtis Valk have also left the organization.
Best case scenario
- Aleksander Barkov continues his ascent into the NHL’s top tier of forwards and captures his first Selke Trophy as the reward for his stellar two-way play.
- Sparked by new linemates Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman cracks the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career.
- Goaltenders Roberto Luongo and James Remier stay healthy all season long and the ensuing “freshness” of both players allows them to form a highly-effective tandem.
- The young and talented trio of Jared McCann, Denis Malgin and former Bruin Frank Vatrano combine to give the Panthers a third line that can provide secondary scoring on a consistent basis.
Worst case scenario
- Multiple players among Florida’s key core of twenty-somethings have peaked and can’t match last year’s performance.
- Roberto Luongo continues to have injury issues and misses significant time, leaving it up to the inconsistent James Reimer to carry the Cats to the playoffs.
- Florida’s bottom-six continues to be non-productive, making the team easier to play against.
- Expected improvement from within and the addition of Hoffman aren’t enough to push the power play into the top half of the league rankings.
With the addition of Hoffman, the Panthers have a top-six that is expected be among the league’s best, creating match-up problems for many opposing teams. Florida should feast on the four Atlantic teams (Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal and Ottawa) that little is expected of this season. Ranking up points against that quartet could be the key to the campaign as the Cats aren’t quite as talented yet as the Lightning and Maple Leafs and will need to be at their best for long stretches and avoid the injury bug to beat out the Bruins for a guaranteed playoff spot. Look for Florida to put up a few more points than they did last year and capture a wild card spot. This is going to be a fun team to watch and one I would not want to face in the first round of the playoffs.