Comments / New

LBC Florida Panthers Roundtable: A pre-2014 NHL Entry Draft discussion

With the 2013-14 NHL season now in the history books as one of the worst the Panthers have suffered through, we have come together to discuss the state of our favorite team. With the entry draft and free agency fast approaching, plus the very recent arrival of a new head coach, there is much to ponder. Away we go…

Only Buffalo (52 Points) was worse than Florida (66P) last season. What was the primary cause for the Panthers’ disastrous 2013-14 campaign?

Shane: For me, it comes to down to a mixture of a lack of skill, and bad puck luck. PDO is a stat that measures the combined shooting percentage and save percentage of a team, meaning that if they shoot at 9% and have a save percentage of 91%, then they’ll have a PDO of 100.0. This is mainly a luck stat, as goals are mostly the result of bounces, whether off of a goalie for a rebound or off the boards to spring a player on a 2 on 1. Though skill can play some factor, it doesn’t play a major one. Assuming each team has equal “puck luck”, a less skilled team could expect to see a PDO around 99.4, and a skilled team could see one around 100.6. The Panthers PDO this season? A league worst 97.4. The team was decent at possessing the puck (20th in the league at 5 on 5 close FF%; Minnesota was worse over the course of the season than the Cats were, to put it in perspective.) They just weren’t skilled, and saw a lot of bad puck luck. The poor goaltending early in the season can account for some of the PDO, but its best to just lump it together; not only was the team most often less skilled than their opponents, they also just couldn’t get the bounces. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, right?

JC: Interesting points Shane. I agree on luck and disagree as to skill. I look at the stats and see four areas that cost the Panthers last season: league worst goals against and save % while only being 12th in the league in shots against tells me that goaltending was generally very bad; being 29th in the league in goals for and 23rd in the league in shots for last season while being in the middle of the pack on possession stats tells me we were not getting off enough shots, and decent shots, especially with our shooting percentage at 29th in the league; among the league worst on the power play; and the same on the penalty kill. I disagree on skill to some extent because puck possession in this day and age of big bodies and big speed requires a large amount of skill, while scoring does have a lot to do with puck luck (just ask the Rangers about that!). We did not give up an enormous number of shots against (and in fact did better than half the league in that respect), so goaltending, shooting, and special teams killed us in my opinion.

Todd: Taking a bit more simplistic view, the lack of offense from the likes of Tomas Fleischmann and Jonathan Huberdeau was a big, big problem in my opinion. When you are a team that has trouble finishing to begin with and the guys who you were counting on to lead the team in scoring don’t come through, it’s going to cost you games. The goaltending was bad too. The backups were just awful the first couple of times Tim Thomas was out, and after he came back from his last stint on IR, Thomas wasn’t the same either, looked very, very ordinary or maybe he just over playing behind the Cats’ porous defense by that point.

Francisco: As a representative of the hockey noobs out there, I usually just go by the eye-test as the intricacies of the game are lost on me at times having never played it. No amount of Mario Hockey or NHL on PC will get me there. But in all seriousness, the Panthers’ biggest issue to me was effort. How many times did Florida start off with a one, two or more goal deficit heading into the second or third period? They made games interesting for sure, but the lack of spark in the first period was always a thorn in my side, as well as others in Pantherland. Hopefully Gallant and some fresh blood will get these guys energized for every game in the long, brutal NHL season.

John: Anything that could have gone wrong did. Kevin Dineen had already worn his welcome out in the dressing room, several players started the season injured, and the Panthers never recovered. There were stretches of good play, but the season started badly and they were never able to recover. Management made the correct decision in looking for a new coach. For as much as Peter Horachek did right, the Panthers never seemed ready to start games, conceding goals early and often in the first period and playing catch-up the rest of the game.

Donny: Among a multitude of issues, three aspects are forever burned into my own skull regarding The Year That Wasn’t: a dead-last power play, which was 4(!) percentage points behind 29th-ranked Buffalo; (2) a dead-last penalty kill, at more than 2 percentage points worse than the 29th-ranked Islanders; (3) those catastrophic first periods which ultimately clocked in with a jarring minus-39 goal differential by the time dust had settled. Really no particular order there, and we can debate the reasons why each of those stats evolved as they did – and there were many factors, no doubt – but those will be my lasting memories.

Ryan: Special teams. Every club in the NHL lives and dies by special teams. Countless power plays, 5-on-3’s, and other situations allowed the Panthers every opportunity to get themselves back into games or generate a lead (or widen an existing one). A conversion rate of 10% on the power play is absolutely atrocious and it’s an absolute mystery to me why this team couldn’t figure out how to fix that throughout the entire season. Add to that a dismal penalty killing figure and you have a recipe for disaster. All the positive even-strength play in the history of hockey can’t make up for last-place special teams.

What, if anything, can the team do to address the primary cause of its dreadful season through this season’s draft?

Shane: This year’s draft isn’t big on NHL-ready talent. One thing Dale Tallon can continue to do to help the team, however, is to stick to his blueprint. Tallon wants to build a puck possession team, which is the way to go in the new NHL (Los Angeles lead the league in 5 on 5 close FF during the regular season. Coincidence that they won the Cup?…) Even if the bounces don’t go the right way for them during the regular season, it just takes one glorious 20-28 game stretch in the postseason to win a Stanley Cup. It’s usually easier to get lucky when your team has the puck, right? Sticking to the blueprint is the right way to go during the draft.

JC: I agree completely with you Shane. While I think the Panthers have more prospects in the system at defense than offense (with Petrovic, Robak, Weegar, Racine, McCoshen, Matheson, Downing, and Wittchow) I have nonetheless come around to thinking that Ekblad is likely the best impact player the team can find in this year’s draft. Part of the reason our special teams were so bad, especially on the power play, was the lack of a big blasting right handed shot on defense. Ekblad is that, although his highlights show all his goals coming on the off-hand playing the left point. However, with Campbell reportedly unhappy, and only signed for two more years, maybe someone else is on the way up who can play right point and feed Ekblad from that side. With our defensive depth, Ekblad probably makes us the envy of the league at that position, and more importantly, makes some of these players trade bait for some important assets coming back.

Todd: I’d love to see the Panthers really shake things up by pulling off a blockbuster deal before they make the number one pick, something that gives us a more competitive team from the get-go. If that doesn’t happen, grab Ekblad in the first round, take a goaltender in round two or three, and stock up on some wingers with size, that can skate, and have some pop. The organization looks good prospect-wise at center and defense, especially if they take Ekblad, goaltending depth is a little iffy, and wing is an area that definitely needs to be addressed in this draft.

Francisco: That’s a tough one because the Panthers have so many needs on both the offensive and defensive side as well as in net beyond Roberto Luongo. They just have to keep drafting kids and hope they hit home runs with most of them. A blockbuster trade seems out of reach though we all thought that Luongo was too so who knows. If other teams really covet the first pick then I’m all for trading it.

John: In the short term, nothing. Replacing the coach will help some. Anything else will have to be done in trades and free agency. It’s all about getting a room full of guys who want to win and who have the skill to be something better than bottom dwellers.

Donny: Take the best deal available in exchange for the #1 selection. This is a mammoth opportunity for the organization. If Tallon, Inc. believes they can immediately improve the roster by utilizing the pick, then terrific, but whatever is ultimately done should reflect a win-now mentality.

Ryan: Puck possession. The best teams in the NHL play an extremely solid puck possession game, and when they can’t due to something like a 1-3-1 trap, they adapt to a forechecking game without skipping a beat. This is on the coaching staff and the players as a whole unit, buying into a clear system with a clear set of goals in mind, and not complicating it any further than that. The organization needs to look at acquiring free agents or players via trade that play that style of hockey and are able to do so in Coach Gallant’s system. There’s zero point in throwing more money at a weak free agent crop in the hopes of buying more goals; without a puck possesion system and the personnel to execute it, the offense and the defense will look no better than the previous two seasons.

Taking a realistic view of free agency, what if anything, can this team do to improve via that particular route?

Shane: The best for the team would be to not go overboard in free agency. There are prospects in the system that are definitely ready for the NHL (Barkov, Bjugstad, Petrovic etc) and allowing them to grow and gel as a team is crucial. At the same time, its also crucial for the Cats to find stopgaps who can fill in spaces for developing prospects like Quinton Howden and Colby Robak. If Howden pushes a free agent signing out of a roster spot halfway through the season, great. I just don’t see it happening. It’s best to let the team develop properly and not rush the prospects.

On a side note, adding a player on a blockbuster contract is possibly the worst idea Tallon could have. Free agents are scary; they’re older, slower, and nowhere near as effective. Most of them are not worth the cap hit they bring, and just make things difficult for teams down the road. Tallon’s best move this free agency would be not making a massive move.

JC: Free agency scares me also, and it should ALL Panther fans because it’s where the team has always done a lot of damage under past management (who remembers Reinprecht’s deal?). With that said, I think free agency can help the team with small splashes. At forward I think they could realistically add a non-superstar 2nd line wing not unlike Brad Boyes. I am thinking Vrbata here, on a two-year deal as he is good on possession, on both sides of the ice, and around the net. I am also a fan of Brian Gionta, as he has a workman like demeanor and attitude and could really key a 3rd line explosion. He quietly goes about his business. On the defensive side I have been alarmed at the team saying they want to get two free agent d-men. These guys are usually way overpriced and we really need to get these youngsters consistent NHL time now. I would love to see them get Hainsey and nothing more. Somebody is going to big time overpay for Niskanen, Boyle, and Stralman. I don’t want it to be us. If we can sign the three I mentioned, I think it will improve the team, put the right guys in the locker room and make us tougher to play against.

Todd: First priority is getting all of our RFA’s signed to new deals, and figuring out if Kulikov is part of the problem or the solution. Is he staying long-term or can we sign him now and then move him for an important asset or two before he plays down his value even more. As for bringing in UFA’s, it’s got to be the right guys, for the right dollars and contract term. This was, in many respects, the worst team in the league last year, so I want to see a different look to the roster, but not at the expense of mucking up the future. There are players out there that I like, but I am waiting to see the full list before I start pointing out specific guys that I think they should target, but since JC mentioned Vrbata, I’d be on board with that signing.

Francisco: Just the fact that the Panthers are allowed to be players is a welcome change, but this season may not be the one to splurge on free agents. Not for the fear that whomever the Cats sign will turn out to be an albatross, but instead I believe that the Panthers are just not a team ready to go “all in” in 2014-15. Free agents tend to overvalue themselves, so if the Panthers are going to overspend they must do it when the team looks to be ready to make the jump. Judging by the previous two seasons that time does not look to be this offseason.

John: Realistically, probably more bargain hunting. When your team isn’t a destination, you have to find players who are undervalued. Dale Tallon’s results here have been mixed, but he’s found a few gems. The biggest problems have been from splash signings, especially Filip Kuba and Ed Jovanovski. The Kris Versteeg signing didn’t work out too well, either. But Scottie Upshall has been good when he’s been healthy, Sean Bergenheim as well, and Tomas Kopecky has made the team more difficult to play.

Donny: A good indicator that a sub-par free agent season is on the horizon? When David Legwand (51 points) is tied for 5th among soon-to-be UFAs in scoring. Whatever. As long as management does their due diligence and homework on every potential option, I can live with their decision. It’s easy to recall the overpaid signing madness of July 1, 2011 but this is a very different situation, allowing the club to much more strategically target specific needs. Yes, they’ll “overpay”, but not nearly as they had to in ’11.

Ryan: Retain Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen, Dmitry Kulikov, Tom Gilbert on defense; force Olsen into a situation where he’s playing for a job with a two-year, two-way deal. Try to acquire another solid defender in free agency without overpaying for someone like Matt Niskanen, who was a product of the system and the talent around him most of the previous year. Retain Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Jesse Winchester, and try to bring in Matt Moulson, Paul Statsny (if he’s available), Marian Gaborik, or Tomas Vanek. Any one of those would vastly improve the offense, and I am more interested in Moulson, as the club really needs proven scoring wingers who aren’t head cases. Dump Dan Ellis by the side of the freeway and sign Chad Johnson or Thomas Greiss, and have a solid third option playing for San Antonio. But above all else here, the most important thing to do is not spend big chunks of money on players who have no historical evidence that they will live up to $3 to 4 million a year (see: Upshall, Scottie and Kopecky, Tomas).

Where do you believe the Panthers will see their greatest improvement next season?

Shane: Goaltending. Plain and simple. The addition of Luongo cures the ailment of having dismal backstoppers in 2013-14, and should really help the team next season.

JC: I could not agree more. Look for an additional 8-12 wins off of that change alone. It was that bad.

Todd: I’ll third that opinion. Luongo is a definite upgrade and should add the consistency that was missing this past season. Thomas had his moments, but he also had his share of clunkers, especially as the year wore on, and like I said above, the backups were simply dreadful. Roberto still has enough in the tank to start the a lot of games, but I have to say, I am a little sketched out about Dan Ellis returning as the number two. If Luongo gets injured….

John: Everyone else said goaltending, so I’ll say the power play. Because let’s face it, it couldn’t really be much worse.

Francisco: The power play. Mind you I don’t expect us to be tops in the league but just being below average would be a massive improvement over last season. For me it cannot get any worse than last season. I hope that Gallant’s new system along with some improvement by returning players will get the Panthers some extra points in the standings that were squandered in 2013-14 due to futility on the man-advantage.

Donny: Morale. Everything else lives or dies on it.

Ryan: Management. For the first time in a very long time, there seems to be an air around the club that is hockey-first. Whether or not that is reality remains to be seen, but it feels like many of the decisions made since the Viola’s purchased the team are in the interests of the hockey club.

What are your expectations for Jonathan Huberdeau in Year Three?

Shane: With Gerard Gallant behind the bench, I see a breakout season from Huberdeau. Having his old mentor back should kickstart his confidence, and if he sees top line minutes with Barkov and another talented winger, I see no reason that Huberdeau doesn’t put up 70 points next year.

JC: I am cautiously optimistic. He is putting on weight, another year removed from his injury and another year more experienced. A steady coach he sees eye to eye with will greatly help. Huby was always a better set-up guy than finisher. We need to put him with the right linemates, particularly someone who is a big finisher. Huby needs to play with Pirri and Trocheck (who works hard enough at both ends of the ice to cover those two!).

Todd: I’d be happy to see Huberdeau get past the 50-point plateau. Breaking that number would be a big step forward after the struggles he endured last season. JC makes a good point about him being better off playing on a line with a big finisher. That would allow him to pad his assist total and help build his confidence. Hubs has the skill set to score more goals, but can he bring himself into the dirty areas more often instead of being content to hang around the periphery in the offensive zone? Hopefully, being 100% and adding some size will see him also add some new facets to his game, which the opposition seemed to have a pretty good handle on last season.

John: He should be fully healed now, and with his sophomore slump behind him and his old juniors coach behind the bench, I expect he’ll surpass his first season performance.

Francisco: I expect for him to come back with a chip on his shoulder. Being completely neutralized in 2013-14 has to motivate him to prove he was more than just a one-year wonder in a lockout shortened season. At the Gallant press conference he looks healthy unlike last offseason which he spent rehabbing from surgery.

Donny: Gallant should do wonders for his confidence in a big bounce-back year. I’m seeing 50 points.

Ryan: I have the same expectations for Huberdeau as any other player on this team: to buy into a solid puck possession system with plenty of scoring punch spread out through the lineup, and to come to the rink prepared from the first minute to the last. I think it’s a big mistake to think Huberdeau is the scoring wonder that many have projected him to be. He has yet to put together a complete 82 game NHL season in which he is both healthy and productive, and so to rely on him to be a consistent point producer for the Panthers is premature.

On that note, what about Barkov, Bjugstad, and Trocheck in 2014-15?

Shane: I expect Barkov and Bjugstad to continue to grow. Though there won’t be a huge point totaling season from either one, they’ll help the Panthers dominate play and control the puck. If one of them goes down to injury, or has a sophomore slump, look for Trocheck to slide right in, and pick up where the other left off. Though Trocheck isn’t as big as the other two, he never stops relentlessly hunting the puck down, and has the shiftiness and stick skills to get puck on (and in) the net.

JC: I actually expect somewhat eye raising growth in point totals from the “B” boys next season. Why? When Bjugstad really came on last season, Barkov was down with the injury. Spread those two out on two lines, with Trocheck on a 3rd line and the opposition must pick their poison. Whomever the opposition picks for their top line defense, the other two are going to start feasting on lesser defensive talent. We really did not have much of that last season once Barkov went down, although Pirri, Hayes, and Trocheck did get more points as Bjugstad drew top pairing opposition. One of them will suffer for this, but the other two (with their NHL experience helping them) are going to feast.

Todd: I just want to see them keep improving, stay healthy, and avoid the sophomore slump. It would be great to see this trio solidify themselves into the roles that we as fans, and the press, are already penciling them into. There is huge potential in all three of those kids and if they keep progressing, then this team is going to get better in a hurry.

Francisco: I think there will be some growing pains especially if the Panthers don’t surround them with competent veterans. The hope is they don’t suffer to the extent that Huberdeau did in his second season.

John: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid as young as Barkov as strong on the puck as he was against legitimate NHL players last season. He’s going to be a monster eventually. Maybe this year, maybe next. But it will happen. Bjugstad, I think, will build on last year. The atmosphere should be better than last year, which can only help. I haven’t seen enough of Trocheck to make an informed prediction.

Donny: Really stoked to see a healthy Barkov, who was the team’s best player on many nights. Nothing brought more joy in a lousy year than when he planted himself in front of an opponent’s net; jeez that kid has strength. Bjugstad should steadily continue his progression into the “new age” power forward role, whatever that means. Can see him leading the club in scoring once again, even as Huberdeau regains his own form. Trocheck was a blast to watch on every shift. Seemed as if he never left the ice, and appeared quite the pest along the boards. Definite role for him.

Ryan: Barkov and Trocheck will still be maturing and adapting to the NHL game next season, so I expect growing pains for both. They will be productive and I definitely expect them to be solid contributors but as I mentioned with Huberdeau, the jury is still out on both for a full season. There is no denying the talent they each possess, but they need to adapt that to Coach Gallant’s systems to make them work for the club. Nick Bjugstad, on the other hand, is a game-changing forward the likes of which Florida has not had in some time. He can dominate a game (as can Barkov) and his preparedness and work ethic were better than almost every veteran on the team last year. He is going to be a leader on this club for a long time coming and his potential for next season excites me more than any other current player on the roster aside from Brandon Pirri.

What should the Panthers do with Ed Jovanovski?

Shane: I’m undecided here. I would much rather prefer that the Panthers have that roster spot open for a younger player, but don’t necessarily want to see Jovo leave the Cats organization. With Gallant as the new bench boss, I don’t see him being unable to pick at least one assistant, and would much rather prefer John Madden to Jovanovski. This gives management their own man helping Gallant, and allows Gallant to bring on a hockey mind that he likes as well. That being said, I would love to keep him in the organization at some type of coaching/mentorship role, if possible.

JC: This is the last season on his contract so it may not be worth buying him out. But I agree 100% that he is keeping time away from the younger defensemen who need it. Olsen and Robak are the two who really spring to mind here. I would use him as the 7th defenseman and have him sit the press box the majority of the time.

Todd: What they should do is buy him out, but it’s just not going to happen. Hopefully, with another few months of recovery time under his belt, he’ll be able to surprise us and put in somewhat of a solid farewell season. I know that’s what he is going to try to do, the guy is a frackin’ warrior. I admire him big-time for the comeback, but the reality is that it’s time to open that roster spot up for someone who is going to be here longer term, but that will most likely have to wait another year.

Francisco: As I said in my “Eye On The Cats” entry for him, I do not mind Florida letting him try to ride out a final season. As I stated in question three I do not think this upcoming season is the one they should go “all in” for. Let Jovo do what he can. Either way, his retirement marks both the end of a solid career and possibly a point in which Panthers fans can start to move on from the euphoria and ultimate downfall of the 1996 season.

John: Two words: buyout. Or is that one word? In any case, that’s what should happen. It’s time for Captain Poolside to retire. Looking at the advanced stats (20 games played or more), he was the second worst player (behind Krys Barch) while playing against the easiest competition. Other than Brandon Pirri, who played half of his games with a much better Blackhawks team, no one on the Panthers made his team better by leaving the ice than Jovanovski.

Donny: What should they do in the best interest of the roster? I’m with Johnny and Todd: utilize a buyout. What will they do? Honor the contract with one year – this year – remaining. He’s day-to-day for the remainder of his playing career, won’t participate in either the first or more likely second game of back-to-back sets (there are 12 such occasions in 2014-15), and if Gallant feels Jovo isn’t bringing anything to the table, he simply won’t play him. Eddie knows the score, and won’t whine at being bypassed. An expensive part-time 3rd pairing blueliner for sure, but I personally can’t imagine Tallon cutting him.

Ryan: Let him play or buy him out; which do you choose? I say let him play but make him a healthy scratch more often than not. Disrespectful or not, his skills have eroded quite a bit and hockey is a team sport, and if he’s a detriment to the team on the ice, he should be fine with sitting. He’s likely not going to be worth anything in a trade, so the Cats are stuck with him unless they buy him out.

What do you believe the Panthers have in Dylan Olsen and Colby Robak?

Shane: Top-6 defenseman at most, depth D at their least. There’s no need to rush them onto the pro roster, but if they’re ready for it (and I feel Olsen is), by all means do it.

JC: Unfortunately, I disagree….as to rushing them. Both of these players have played a large number of AHL games, so they should be ready for full time NHL duty. We need to see what they have now. Robak will be in the last year of his contract and on a one-way deal next season. I think he has earned the chance to show us a full season and has much more to offer than he has been able to show so far. If we draft Ekblad, by all means, rush these guys and see if they sink or swim but don’t pull the plug too early, mistakes come with the position. I think they are both NHL-caliber defensemen we are lucky to have in the stable.

Todd: I’m very high on what I saw from Olsen last season, especially before the injury, which cost him games in January. I really hope he receives the ice time he needs in Sunrise to continue getting better. Unfortunately, my feeling on Robak is that he plays out his contract in San Antonio or gets traded during the season. With Tallon saying the Cats are planning on signing two veteran free-agent blueliners, I don’t see room for him on the Panthers’ roster, unless he’s filling in for an injured player.

John: If I knew that, I’d be making more money as a scout. In all seriousness, it’s still too early to tell, though both have been good in spots with the Panthers. Olsen, in particular, was the third best Panthers defenseman (behind Campbell and Gilbert) in Relative Corsi and Corsi on, facing decent competition. If he can keep that up for another season, he could be a future top-four guy for the Cats.

Donny: They’ll be fighting for a spot probably all the way through the exhibition season. Olsen likely has a better chance of sticking, but the short-term future of both players rests heavily on what is brought in over the summer. Tallon has stated his desire for acquiring two veteran defensemen, which would almost certainly land Robak and Olsen in San Antonio.

Ryan: Jury is out on both, but I believe they can both be potential NHL starters. I believe they haven’t had the coaching or stability in place in either the AHL or the NHL to bring their games to a level that warrants a long-term deal. I’d put both on two-way deals and sign a veteran in free agency to make sure they are competing for a roster spot. Too much depth is a good thing, and not being handed a roster spot should keep these two hungry.

How much impact do you believe that Gerard Gallant will have on this team?

Shane: The impact won’t be felt immensely, but I think that the foundation for a solid number of seasons to follow will be set. If Gallant implements his system, and the team gels into it, look for the team to really start to come into their own near the end of the season, and watch them come out 2 years from now with a huge bang.

JC: I agree in most respects with you Shane. I think the consistency of a set coach who is used to working with a mix of rookies and senior players in Montreal will show results sometime in December. Gallant will also benefit from Luongo in net and a bit more experience from the youngsters. Consistency and communication will lead to a big impact on the team, but I don’t know if it will make a great deal of difference in the standings.

Todd: I think the impact could be quite noticeable. The club seemed to have tuned out Kevin Dineen a long time ago (I know I did), and I think everyone knew Peter Horachek was just here while the string was played out. Plus, I don’t think Horachek ran the best of systems for the “talent” on the roster. Having a new voice should provide a spark, and I’m hoping Gallant has the cure for our power-play ills, that alone will result in more wins.

John: I expect the team to be prepared for games, unlike last season. I also expect that he won’t tolerate players moping, but will deal with problems more constructively than Kevin Dineen. I don’t expect the Panthers to be challenging for a division title again already, but I think the team will not be playing from behind early in games quite so often as last season.

Donny: A true breath of fresh air, as the dark clouds were simply far too heavy for Horachek to overcome after Dineen effectively destroyed any remaining semblance of “team” in that dressing room.

Ryan: That’s completely on the players. They’ve been through two coaches now with two different styles and didn’t respond to either very well. Dineen was better than many gave him credit for, and both coaches had very little to work with in terms of a lineup. This was an AHL club last season yet again, and that doesn’t project to change much this season, except for the fact that those AHL players have been forced into NHL graduations. While Gallant is definitely a positive for the club in respect to coaching, this will rest entirely on the shoulders of the guys in the Cats sweater.

How will the Panthers improve on special teams next season?

Shane: Obviously, the goaltending helps to fix some of the PK issues, and Gallant is credited with helping Montreal’s power play last season. Also, if Ekblad is drafted, he may add that right-handed bomb from the point that compliments Brian Campbell oh so well. They won’t be top notch, but they’ll be around the league average and will help us steal games from time to time.

JC: The power play does need that bomb from the point you mention to spread the PK thin, but as I mentioned earlier- I am not sure if Ekblad and Campbell are well paired. If it is to be Ekblad, we need to know if he can bomb from the right side as well as the left. His inexperience at the NHL level also makes me very hesitant. I actually think that Robak can help on the power play. He has a massive shot and is left-handed. It’s playing the right side that puts him in position for the big one-timer (If you haven’t noticed yet, I think highly of his game!). With Hayes developing as the guy in front of the net and a full season of Pirri, I tentatively think the players are in place as a first unit, but we only have about half a second unit after that. As for the PK, maybe a healthy Kopecky helps us, and I agree that Luongo is a massive step up there as well. A more experienced Gudbranson helps as would removing Jovo from these duties.

Todd: I’m hoping the coaching change and a couple personnel tweaks improve the special teams. They can’t get any worse and they weren’t that bad in 2012-13, so I’m hoping that last year’s horror show was more an aberration than anything else. Perhaps the team should focus on getting a good penalty killer and a winger who can help the power play in free agency.

John: Last season was so bad that I don’t think it’s possible they’re not better. The young players will have another year of experience, fewer guys will be starting the season hurt, and the team will hopefully not have another mid-season coaching change, all of which should help. And that’s not even mentioning the change behind the bench.

Donny: Based on the dual “honor” of finishing worst and worst in those categories, just about anything the 2014-15 version of the Cats do will best last season’s version, but that’s not really saying anything. The talent seemed to be there but the mental aspect wasn’t, as anyone who watched regularly would testify, and focus will likely be placed on coaching to solve it.

Ryan: For the power play: More traffic in front. More point shots actually hitting the net. Better positioning by the forwards on point shots and perimeter plays (eg. get into the slot to prepare for rebounds). No more dumping and chasing, but rather entering the zone with possession due to use of team speed. And on the penalty kill: better goaltending will help immensely, plus better zone play. Far too many instances of players losing their coverage because they were watching the puck.

Finally: what can the Panthers realistically do to improve for next season?

Shane: Not mess up the blueprint. Plain and simple. Going all in this year when it just isn’t there is a recipe for disaster. Stick to the blueprint, develop the kids, and compete for the Cup 3-5 years down the road.

JC: Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Todd: Yeah, stick to the plan. It’s unlikely this franchise is ever going to be able to attract the elite of any free-agent class, and unfortunately, this year’s crop isn’t anything to write home about, so don’t go crazy this summer, even though you have the money to spend. Smarter signings are needed. The free agents need to be younger (think long and hard about signing anyone over 30) and better role models for your prospects. Draft Ekblad, scour the NCAA for undrafted players and Europe for overlooked players in their prime who can step in and immediately fill holes on the bottom of the roster.

Francisco: Going off the ice here, continue to change the perception of the organization. The team has looked and acted the same way for twenty years and it has not gotten them anywhere since 2000. 2012 was probably the last hurrah for the previous incarnation of the organization. With the new ownership making headway and making radical, sweeping changes from the bottom to the top it is refreshing even as a relatively recent fan to see. I hope that almost every aspect of the team changes so that in a couple of years from now people cannot even recognize this organization but for all the right reasons.

John: Buy out Jovo. Be ready to start games. Don’t try to overhaul the team over one summer. Find the best defensemen who’s willing to come to Florida, or who doesn’t have a no-trade clause. Let the coach do his job and if $4 million guys are playing on the fourth line, then $4 million guys are playing on the fourth line. Don’t waste a roster spot on an enforcer. The Canadiens did a pretty good job against the Bruins in the playoffs without putting a heavyweight out there. But most importantly: win against the bad teams. Don’t play brilliantly against the Habs, Flyers and Penguins and then half-ass it against the Islanders and Sabres. That, ultimately, is what got most of the last bunch of coaches fired.

Donny: As a number of my buddies above stated: don’t lose sight of the plan. Be measured and cool during the highs and more importantly the lows.

Ryan: I agree with the others: stick to the plan. Don’t throw money at a problem that money can’t fix, and focus on building a winner both in Florida and San Antonio. There’s a culture of losing in both places and that has to change to build player confidence. Don’t ask the youth to do too much, and hold the veterans and youth equally accountable. Keep the fans happy by focusing on hockey and continue to remove the dark cloud that the Micheal Yormark era cast over the club. And most importantly, keep things stable. Don’t fire the GM or coach after a bad start, don’t start trading the young guys. Grow together, learn together, and eventually win together.

On to Philadelphia.