After another busy offseason, are Panthers finally ready to take step forward?
There are always two constants with the Florida Panthers.
The first is they always seem to be in a perpetual state of change.
New players, new coaches, new front office, new organizational direction, new everything.
This offseason has been no different.
They have a new general manager, Bill Zito, which comes one year after the hiring of a new coach, and they were again one of the busiest teams during the first part of the offseason. They said goodbye to Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Matheson, Colton Sceviour, and (presumably) Mike Hoffman. They said hello to Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas, and Markus Nutivaara. It is the second year in a row they have brought in at least five new faces.
The second constant is that all of those changes never make a meaningful difference in the standings. The Panthers have finished higher than fourth place in their division just once in the past eight years and only made one playoff appearance (not including this year’s qualifying round loss to the New York Islanders).
The big unanswered question now is whether this particular group of changes can make a difference in the standings.
Looking at the changes
The Panthers’ biggest strength the past two seasons has been their offense, and in looking at their offseason departures they lost a lot of offense. Dadonov and Hoffman are both 25-30 goal forwards, while Matheson was one of their top contributors from the blue line.
Their incoming additions are not going to replace that offense.
That does not mean the Panthers are automatically going to be worse off.
While the Dadonov, Hoffman, and Matheson trio could definitely bring point production, they all had their flaws defensively. Especially the latter two players. While players like Wennberg, Verhaeghe, Hinostroza, and Hornqvist may not equal the offensive production, they do bring other elements to the team that could help make up for that (defensively, special teams, driving possession, etc.). The underlying numbers tend to show that, as Wennberg, Hinostroza, and Hornqvist all rate better when it comes to expected goals against and scoring chances against.
The same is true on defense where Nutivaara is a significant upgrade statistically over Matheson.
While the drop in goal scoring is a concern, the potential improvements elsewhere are somewhat encouraging. With Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau at the top of the lineup they are still going to have the potential for a potent offense. They can score goals. What this team needs is more goal prevention. These additions might help with that.
But what will help that most of all?
The big free agent signing a year ago was Bobrovsky on a seven-year, $70 million contract. It was always a long-term risk given his age, but there should have been an expectation that he could maintain a high level of play for at least the first part of the contract.
In year one, that did not happen.
Bobrovsky ended up having one of the worst seasons of his career and it turned out to be a huge drain on the Panthers’ season.
They had defensive issues for sure, but when you pay a goalie $10 million per year you are doing so with the expectation they will cover up for at least some of that. Is it unfair? Maybe. But that comes with the paycheck.
The changes to the roster might help solidify the defensive play in front, but if the Panthers are going to do anything this season it is going to have to start with Bobrovsky being the goalie they paid for.
Even with all of their defensive flaws, and even with Bobrovsky being a total year one bust, the Panthers were still on pace for 92 points over 82 games and were right in the thick of the playoff race.
It is not a stretch to think that they can make up that deficit with even marginal improvement from Bobrovsky and a better, more well-rounded team that can actually cut down on some defensive breakdowns.
The biggest knock against the Panthers is that you know they are already starting the season in a distant third behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. Toronto also should be better on paper, but that gap closed dramatically this past season.
The Panthers look like they made some decent moves, and with Barkov, Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Keith Yandle at the top of the lineup there is still a respectable core of players here. But this is the same type of thing that has been said about the Panthers for a couple of years now and it has not yet translated to the ice.
Maybe this will be the year it does.