After spending the 2020-21 season in a temporary division and finishing fourth overall in the NHL, the Florida Panthers return to the Atlantic Division true Stanley Cup contenders with what looks to be the best roster in franchise history.
General Manager: Bill Zito
Head Coach: Joel Quenneville
2020-21 Record: 37-14-5, 2nd in Central
Key Additions: Sam Reinhart, Joe Thornton, Maxim Mamin, Christopher Gibson
Notable Departures: Chris Driedger, Alex Wennberg, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman
Prospects To Watch: Spencer Knight, Anton Lundell, Matt Kiersted, Chase Priskie, Serron Noel, Grigori Denisenko
Will Florida’s depth at forward carry the team to the top of the standings?
Second-year general manager Bill Zito inherited star players Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, but quickly put his own stamp on the club’s foward corps by building enviable depth with a combination of savvy unrestricted free agent signings like Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair and smart trades that brought in the scoring grit of Patric Hornqvist and Sam Bennett, and defenseman Brandon Montour, who re-upped with the team after helping offset the in-season loss of Aaron Ekblad. This offseason, Zito made a big move by acquiring talented number two overall pick in the 2014 draft, Sam Reinhart, whose 25 goals and 40 points led the putrid Buffalo Sabres last season. He also brought in grizzled veteran Joe Thornton to bolster the team’s depth down the middle and add veteran intangibles. In addition to Thornton, For a second straight offseason Zito was able to mend fences with an ex-Cat and get him to return from Europe. Maxim Mamin could provide a useful addition to the bottom-six with his hard-nosed game and willingness to go to the net. The Panthers boast a fast, deep and dangerous batch of forwards who should bedevil the league’s goaltenders all season long.
Will the uncertainty in goal keep the Panthers from reaching the top of the mountain?
To say Sergei Bobrovsky has not been the solution in net the organization hoped for when former GM Dale Tallon signed him to a $70 million whopper of deal in the Summer of ‘19 would be an understatement. Last season, Bobrovsky posted a 19-8-2 record, 2.91 GAA and .906 save percentage and found himself on the outside looking in towards the end of Florida’s tough first round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Florida’s overachieving second option in goal, steady Chris Driedger was lost when he signed a three-year deal with the Seattle Kraken during the expansion draft negotiating window. Taking over for Driedger will be 20-year-old Spencer Knight, the 13th overall pick in 2020. After shining as a freshman and sophomore at Boston College, Knight signed his entry-level contract on March 31 and became the youngest goaltender in NHL history to start their career with a 4–0 record. Knight proved he’s cool as cucumber by winning his first playoff start when he got the call with the Cats facing elimination in Game 5 of the series and acquitted himself well enough in the season-ending defeat in Game 6. For all his potential, Knight is still a rookie, who could quickly find himself in a pressure cooker if Bobrovsky can’t up his game for what is now a Stanley Cup contender, especially in the postseason, where the Cats will need to win four times in seven games to take a series for the first time since 1996. Free agent signing Christopher Gibson has stepped into the number three role
I could’ve gone with a number of different players here, but I chose to go with the new guy. The Panthers acquired the unhappy Sabre on July 24, 2021 in exchange for goalie prospect Devon Levi and a 2022 first-round pick. On August 11, the restricted free agent inked a three-year deal worth $19.5 million, temporarily making him the team’s highest-paid forward. Reinhart scored 20-plus goals in five of his six seasons in Buffalo and matched his career-high with 25 in just 54 games last year, which prorates to 38 over 82 games. The Panthers seem to be catching the 25-year-old just as he enters his prime scoring years and he’ll start the season on the club’s first line with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. The Panthers aren’t paying Reinhart to keep scoring in the low 20s. With the change in locale, a happier mindset and uber-talented linemates look for Reinhart to ascend to new heights.
The Panthers will win the Atlantic Division
The time has come for the Panthers and its fans to stop stressing about whether the team can squeak into the playoffs. Florida had one of the most talented rosters in the league last year and its only gotten better through addition (Reinhart) and subtraction (Yandle). They are also getting Ekblad, who was having a great season before breaking his leg and missing the postseason, back to boost the blue line up to full strength. The Panthers are good enough to finish in the top three of the Atlantic, guaranteeing a playoff spot, but I think they have what it takes to win the division with Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto close behind. The Stanley Cup window in Sunrise is open, and every move the club makes going forward should be done with an eye on winning hockey’s greatest prize.
Aleksander Barkov will be a Hart Trophy finalist
Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine anyone will beat out point-machine Connor McDavid for the Hart Trophy, but Barkov will be one of the very few players with a chance to actually do so this season. Surrounded by the deepest lineup in his tenure with the Panthers, look for Florida’s $80 million man to ratchet his game up one more level. Instead of carrying the team on his back, Barkov should be able to pile up more goals and assists and crack the 100-point barrier for the first time. With a team ready to take the league by storm and glitzier offensive numbers, Barkov should go from being recognized as a top 10-15 player in the league to one of the three best.
ESPN+ has you covered for national and out of market games
The 2021-22 season gets underway tonight with the Lightning raising another Stanley Cup banner and then taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins on the NHL’s new broadcast partner, ESPN. A smattering of Panthers games throughout the season will be broadcast exclusively on ESPN+, if you haven’t signed up yet, now is your chance.