Due to the covid-19 pandemic and continuing closure of the American-Canadian border, the Florida Panthers will play the truncated 2020-21 season in a revamped Central Division that includes three Western Conference clubs, two of Florida’s usual mates from the Atlantic Division, as well as former Southeastern Division rival Carolina and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This article serves as a getting to you know you piece for fans of our new division rivals, who we’ll see eight teams this season. Each of the eight SBN sites in this year’s Central will be sharing posts on a daily basis. You can check out Winging It In Motown’s on the Detroit Red Wings by clicking here and On The Forecheck’s on the Nashville Predators by clicking here.
1) How would you describe your team’s style of play?
Last season, the Panthers used a high-powered offense to overcome, to some degree, its defensive deficiencies and an off year from high-priced goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. With new general manager Bill Zito radically reshaping the roster during what seemed like an endless offseason, this year’s edition of the Cats will be a bit of mystery to fans of the team and the rest of the reconstituted division.
Point-per-game scorers Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau will once again be counted on to provide the bulk of the team’s offense, but Zito’s plan is to make the team deeper and harder to play to against. With the departures of Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov in free agency, the Panthers seem certain to score less, but the idea is to make the Cats grittier up and down the lineup and give Bobrovsky more help in his own end to cut down the goals against, they allowed 224 goals last season, to make up the difference.
2) What players should opposing fans know the name of - and why?
I realize the Panthers are one the league’s least popular teams, but you should know who the aforementioned Barkov and Huberdeau are and what they are capable of. Defenseman and former first overall pick Aaron Ekblad had a pretty damn good season last year, performing well in both ends of the ice as evidenced by a career-high 41 points and a team-best +12 rating. While plenty of Florida fans are down on him, iron man Keith Yandle is a well-known veteran who always seems to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 points from the back end. New Cats Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas are name players who will provide much-needed veteran leadership and toughness.
The guy who in large part will make or break the Panthers one season stint in Central will be two-time Vezina Trophy-winner Bobrovsky, who will be looking for a return to form after a lackluster first season in Sunrise. It certainly wasn’t all Bob’s fault, as he was hung out to dry far too many times, but when you are pulling in $10 million per, the buck, and the puck, should stop with you.
Youngsters that could make an impact are former Bolt Carter Verhaeghe and rookies Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko, both first round picks.
3) Why could your team win the division?
Look, I’m a bowl half full kind of Cats fan, but let’s be real here, the Panthers would need an almost impossible combination of things going amazingly right for them and woefully wrong for teams like Tampa Bay, Dallas and Carolina.
If the Panthers get career years from players like Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad as well as a complete return to form from Bobrovsky, a rebound season from Alexander Wennberg that sees him produce points as the 2C, and If all the other new acquisitions quickly gel and make this a more complete team that stops playing with puck in it’s own end like it’s a hot potato... who knows? Crazy things happen sometimes.
Right now, without seeing this revamped lineup play, I have the Cats penciled in for a sixth place finish in the division ahead of Chicago and Detroit (sorry Blackhawks and Red Wings fans!). The Panthers already slim playoffs hopes were hurt by the swapping of Minnesota for Dallas. Honestly, I’m not at all concerned with them finishing first. I’m a lot more curious to see if they have what it takes to leap over a couple more teams to get into the postseason.
4) Why could your team be the caboose of the division?
While I am almost positive the Panthers won’t win the division, I don’t see them being the caboose either, although the chance of the latter happening is admittedly much higher than the former.
As mentioned above, there has been a high degree of roster turnover since the end of last season. Joel Quenneville has a lot new faces to look at and roles remained undefined. We aren’t at all sure what the lines will look like and beyond that, even what position a number of the forwards will play, as many of them are capable of playing center or on the wing. The Panthers are definitely a team that has loads to figure out in what will be a short training camp.
With so much unknown about what this team will actually be, a combination of a slow start, slumps or injuries to any of the Panthers core, or another subpar performance from Bobrovsky could indeed doom the club to an eighth place finish
5) On a scale of baby kitten to Tiger King, what’s the potential of the heated matchup of your team with your new division mates?
Historically, I’ve got to go baby kitten pretty much across the board here. The Panthers usually see Chicago, Dallas and Nashville twice a year and while there been some exciting games played, there is no real heat to speak of. Same goes for Carolina, Columbus and Detroit.
Florida’s other team, the Lightning, are the team the Panthers should have a big rivalry with, but don’t really. Unfortunately, despite both clubs approaching 30 years in the NHL, the teams haven’t been good at the same time much and sadly, have never met in the playoffs. While the Lightning have become a model franchise, like the Panthers, they went through some tough times in the past, so there is a mutual respect and some shared experiences between the two Sunshine State fan bases and it’s more of friendly rivalry than anything else.
As for potential heat, I think we could get closer to Tiger King, or at least a chunky domestic cat, if the Panthers can overachieve and stay in the postseason chase. Games with the teams battling for that fourth and final playoff spot, like Columbus or Nashville, could get pretty heated, especially as the regular season winds down and the teams get sick of playing each other so much.
I might be in the minority among Panthers fans, who will miss the likes of Boston, Toronto and Montreal, but I’m pretty happy with being in this division for a year and hoping to see some good battles with playoff races going down to the wire.