Season Preview: Florida Panthers
With 1st overall pick Aaron Ekblad on board, the Panthers have one of the strongest groups of prospects in the NHL.
Combined with some respectable veterans and one of the best netminders in the league, Florida suddenly has a lot going for them – but is it enough to propel them to an unlikely return to the post season?
In Nick Bjugstad and Sasha Barkov, Florida has two of the most exciting young centres in the league – both have great size and huge potential. 22-year old Bjugstad led the team in scoring last season, and though Barkov’s rookie season was derailed by a knee injury, which caused him to miss 28 games, he showed glimpses of the talent he has.
Both look set to play big parts in the Panthers future; and with 2013 Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau on the wing, half of the clubs top 6 appears to be locked in for years to come.
In a bid to provided the trio with some decent support, GM Dale Tallon made three bold veteran signings during the offseason.
Dave Bolland proved to be a somewhat divisive player when he sought a long term deal with Toronto; as analytics proponents questioned his true value whilst the ‘old guard’ praised Bolland’s qualities – based largely on his previous success in Chicago.
Ultimately no deal was forthcoming with the Maple Leafs though; and come July, Tallon wasted little time signing one of his former Blackhawks players to a 5-year deal worth $27.5m.
How the ankle laceration that sidelined Bolland for most of last season will affect him remains to be seen; but if he has made a full recovery, he is a strong addition to the Panthers third line.
Winger Jussi Jokinen was also signed to a 4-year deal, after scoring 21 goals and 57 points with Pittsburgh last season. Along with Brad Boyes, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim, it gives Florida a number of veteran wingers – but the club needs to find more offence this season, with only Buffalo scoring fewer goals last season.
Tomas Kopecky’s return form a concussion should provide an additional boost, while youngsters Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Hayes are likely to get opportunities again this year.
Rocco Grimaldi and Drew Shore may also challenge for a place in the line up, while veteran tough guy Shawn Thornton adds further leadership and a little grit to the fourth line.
At The Back
The arrival of Aaron Ekblad and Willie Mitchell gives the Panthers blue line a much more respectable look, assuming everyone is healthy.
23-year old Dmitry Kulikov will be looking to rebound from his worst season since breaking in to the NHL, whilst 6’5″ Erik Gudbranson looks to put injury troubles behind him.
Veteran Brian Campbell remains one of the best puck moving D men in the league, and Florida has no shortage of cap space with which to absorb his $7.1m cap hit. Along side Mitchell, he provides valuable experience for the clubs trio of young D men.
Between The Pipes
Roberto Luongo remains one of the leagues best netminders, and gives the Panthers something they’ve lacked since he was traded in 2006 – a legitimate #1.
It was no secret the 35-year old wanted to move back to Florida, and a happy ‘Lou’ between the pipes makes Florida a much more competitive outfit.
Luongo will get solid support from Al Montoya, who arrived as a free agent after two seasons with Winnipeg. Dan Ellis also remains on the books, and enters the final year of his contract.
Behind The Bench
Gerard Gallant became the Panthers 13th Head Coach this summer, after serving as an assistant in Montreal.
The former Blue Jackets supremo walks in to one of the most unique situations in the NHL thanks to Florida’s blend of youth and experience, and will be looking to make a significant improvement on the teams 29th overall finish last year.
Biggest Addition – Willie Mitchell
Though you could cheat a little and say Luongo, technically he joined last season rather than during the offseason. And so it is veteran blue liner Mitchell who gets the nod.
After acting as a sort of mentor to a number of defencemen in LA, the 37-year old can now aid the development of Messrs Ekblad, Gudbranson and Kulikov.
Biggest Loss – Tom Gilbert
Florida’s best defenceman behind Campbell last year, Gilbert has been a quietly effective player on some pretty bad teams over the past few years.
Bound for Montreal, it’s not always an easy task to fill the shoes of someone who helps control the play so well.
Key Man – Roberto Luongo
If Florida are to make significant strides, they need to do a better job keeping the puck out of their own net.
Only Edmonton had a worst goals against record last season, and some stability in net would all most certainly help improve the clubs fortunes in their own end.
There are few better, or more consistent, than Luongo once he hits his stride – normally in early November.
This Seasons Chances…
Florida finished 27 points outside the play-offs last year. Though there are some real plus points to this team, that’s an awful lot of ground to make up.
Even with the most optimistic projections, it’s hard to see Florida making the post season this year; but that’s not to say they couldn’t make a decent go of it if things go well, players rebound and the roster stays healthy.
Florida’s real goal this year is to ensure their young core continues to develop and the building blocks for future success are put in place.
Posted on September 11, 2014, in Florida Panthers, Hockey, NHL, Season Previews 2014 and tagged Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers, NHL, Roberto Luongo, Season Preview, Willie Mitchell. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.