The Florida Panthers have made a ton of decisions in the past several years that have led to a roster overhaul in order to build a true contender. The goal of this column is to measure how far they are from reaching Stanley Cup contender status. There is still work to be done and adjustments to be made, but the Panthers have changed the roster for the better and are another step closer to reaching maximum potential.
One way to make this key measurement is to examine Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s Stanley Cup checklist. He created this list after examining the past ten Stanley Cup Champions. While the checklist is certainly not perfect, it can be a very informative and evaluative tool.
An average Stanley Cup-winning team has been able to check off 7 out of 10 on the checklist, so we can use that as the mark. I decided it would be a fun exercise to do for the Panthers, especially after the roster turnover this offseason.
(1) Elite First-Line Center, Among The Best In The World
Florida Panthers: Aleksander Barkov
The Panthers currently have Barkov, who is one of the best centers in the league. He is a bona fide top-line center and he hasn’t even hit his peak yet which should be very scary to opposing teams. At just
The 2018-19 campaign was a glimpse of what Barkov’s peak will look like and is an indication of what his ceiling could look like. Barkov’s 4.5 wins above replacement - a comprehensive metric that takes into account all aspects of the game - was the third highest among all forwards in 2018-19. It still remains his best season in his career to date. He recorded 35 goals, 61 assists, and 96 points in 82 games in that same season. Likewise, he held a 52.99 Corsi for percentage and 50.36 expected goals for percentage.
Based on the results so far this season, I think it could be fair to predict that Barkov has molded himself into one of the very best centers in the league and has even replicated the 2018-19 campaign.
(2) Elite First-Line Winger
Florida Panthers: Jonathan Huberdeau
Huberdeau is an elite first-line winger for the Panthers. Similar to Barkov, he had an elite 2018-19 campaign and is looking to replicate it. He registered 30 goals, 62 assists, and 92 points and then followed that up with 23 goals, 55 assists, and 78 points last season. His underlying numbers would correspond too, he’s been dominant offensively the past several years.
He’s been strong so far this season and has displayed the immense value he brings to the Panthers. This season, the 27-year-old has 10 goals, 24 assists, and 34 points in 28 games.
(3) Elite Number One Defenseman
Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad
Not only is Ekblad becoming an elite number one defenseman. He’s a strong two-way defender that excels offensively and defensively. Using Evolving-Hockey’s wins above replacement, Ekblad was 17th last season in this regard. While his underlying numbers haven't been as favorable this season, he has notched 10 goals, 10 assists, and 20 points in 28 games.
He is a franchise cornerstone and is one of Florida’s most valuable players.
(4) Elite Goaltender
Florida Panthers: None
The Panthers are without an elite goaltender. They thought they were acquiring one in Sergei Bobrovsky when they signed him to a massive contract in free agency, but that has backfired. Between last season and this season, Bobrovsky has allowed 23.86 more goals than expected based on the quality of shots he has faced. This is one of the worst marks in the league during this span.
Chris Driedger has been average this season and has helped provide some stability between the pipes. He excelled last season and was near the top of the league, but it was too small of a sample size.
(5) Top-Line Center
Florida Panther: None
After Barkov, the Panthers are thin down the middle. It was a huge mistake to move Vincent Trocheck who is a strong top-six center. The Panthers could really use him right now and it would ultimately make them an immediate, dangerous contender. Regardless, I still think the Panthers are contenders, but a player of Trocheck’s caliber would have provided a huge boost offensively.
(6) Top-Line Winger
Florida Panthers: None
Outside of Huberdeau, the Panthers don’t really have a top-line winger. This isn’t a knockoff because the Panthers have several top-six forwards and respectable depth. Anthony Duclair has been unlucky this season and could have the potential to be a top-line winger.
(7) Number One Defenseman
Florida Panthers: None
The Panthers are without a number one defenseman because Ekblad fits the bill for an elite number one defenseman. Aside from Ekblad, nobody else fits the criteria as a number one defenseman. This isn’t necessarily bad by any means because the Panthers have strong defensive depth.
(8) Two Top-Six Forwards
Florida Panthers: Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe & Anthony Duclair
The Panthers have three top-six forwards in Hornqvist, Verhaeghe, and Duclair. None of them fit the bill of a top-line forward, but the latter two have the potential. It still is unbelievable how much of a fleece it was acquiring Hornqvist for Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour. It will most definitely go down near the top in the best trades in Panthers history to date. Acquiring a top-six forward for a bottom-pairing defenseman and 4th liner is unheard of.
Like I previously said, Verhaeghe and Duclair, both 25-year-olds, could become first-line players if they continue their trajectory.
(9) Top-Pair Defenseman
Florida Panthers: MacKenzie Weegar
While Weegar doesn’t put up big point totals that stand out, he provides first-pairing value. The 27-year-old is one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL. Among all defensemen, Weegar ranks 7th in expected goals against per hour so far this season. He allows fewer high-danger shots and scoring chances than almost all the defensemen in the NHL.
Not only has Weegar been defensively sound, but he has 2 goals, 15 assists, and 17 points in just 28 games this season. He has already established a new career-high in assists and is just two points away from establishing a new benchmark in points.
(10) Top-Four Defenseman
Florida Panthers: Keith Yandle, Radko Gudas
Both Yandle and Gudas are strong second-pairing options and provide immense value. Yandle - a power-play specialist - is actually having one of his best seasons at even-strength which is huge for the Panthers. Meanwhile, Gudas is having one of the best seasons of his career in terms of underlying numbers.
Verdict: How Close Are The Panthers?
The Panthers have six marks out of a possible ten. As I mentioned, the average Stanley Cup Champion has seven. While they only have six, usually an above-average starter is good enough to give a mark for the elite goaltender. If Bobrovsky can stay on his recent roll and/or Driedger can play at the level he did last season in the small sample size, that would give the Panthers seven.
There is no doubt that the Panthers are a legitimate contender as long as the goaltending holds up and they keep getting production from everyone, especially at 5-on-5.
(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)