Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team -- from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.
44-30-9, 96 pts. (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
The Florida Panthers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point.
One. Measly. Point.
Imagine where they’d have been if they kept Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Gerard Gallant, am I right?
All jokes aside, the Panthers actually had a pretty good year after finishing 26th in the NHL in 2016-17.
They managed through a coaching change, a new system and a time where both Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were hurt (thanks to the now-departed Harri Sateri) and still got to watch some of their biggest names -- Aleksander Barkov (78 points), Vincent Trochek (75 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points) -- flourish in career years.
Evgenii Dadonov came back from an extended stint in Russia with a love for producing points. He had 65 to sit fourth on the team after spending six seasons in his homeland. Dadonov and Barkov looked at home with each other on the top line, and the addition of Nick Bjugstad to the line later in the season formed a nice trio.
What didn’t help was the lack of secondary scoring. Outside of the five listed above one forward, no one topped 15 goals or 30 points. That said, the Panthers scored 40 more goals last season compared to the one previous. It’s a step in the right direction and fueled by young players that are only getting better.
That number could increase again this season, too. The Panthers went out and traded for Mike Hoffman after the debacle in Ottawa. Hoffman, despite off-ice issues with between his significant other and Erik Karlsson’s, was solid on it with 22 goals and 56 points for a terrible Senators team.
Hoffman should slide into the left wing spot alongside Trocheck and Bjugstad, solidifying two quite good scoring lines.
A little more scoring from the bottom six could go a long way this season, as could an improved power play (21st) and penalty kill (16th).
The team was anchored on the backend by Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, but the Panthers still need to find a way to stop so much rubber coming their way. The Cats gave up 34.6 shots per game, third most in the NHL. A little shot suppression would surely help, and they’re hoping it comes in the form of Bogdan Kiselevich. Unless you’re an avid KHL supporter, you likely haven’t heard of Kiselevich, but in Florida, he’s expected to be a top-four pairing defenseman after an all-star season in Russia.
“Bogdan is a solid, shutdown defenseman who adds depth to our blue line and possesses a strong work ethic,” general manager Dale Tallon said when they signed the 28-year-old. “He’s proven himself to be a reliable defensive presence on the international stage and in the KHL and has the ability to be a steadying influence on the back end for our young defensemen.”
To its credit, Florida’s defense battened down the hatches as the season progressed, so finding that same stride early in this coming season will be crucial to a good start, which they didn’t have last year after going 7-11-2 in their first 20 games. Sometimes it’s about how you finish, and with the 24-8-2 record from Feb. 1 onward, the Panthers certainly closed out the season on a high note.
A healthy Luongo as a starter for the duration of next season would be a blessing for the Panthers. When he played, Luongo was the same solid netminder he’s always been, posting a .933 save percentage five-on-five and a very respectable 9.41 goals saved above average.
Reimer played more games than Luongo because of the latter’s injury but is slated to start the year as the backup once again. He had a .917 save percentage at five-on-five. The Panthers brought in former Winnipeg Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson, who provides good depth should the injury bug sting again.
Florida has been building quite the farm system over the past few years. Hoffman’s addition is the only opening day roster move Dale Tallon has pulled the trigger on so far, but there’s hope that a couple youngsters could make the jump.
Not trying to jinx it, but Panthers feel like a team on the brink -- words not always uttered for this particular Florida-based team. Two very good scoring lines, an improved defensive group and an elite goalie (when healthy).
Keep it all consistent and it usually adds up to playoff hockey.
• Henrik Borgstrom, C, 21, University of Denver (NCAA) - 2016 first-round pick
In his second season with the Pioneers, Borgstrom once again put up a strong showing, building off his freshman season with 23 goals and 52 points in 40 games. His play helped Denver become National Collegiate Hockey Conference champs, and Borgstrom was named the conference’s player of the year, forward of the year and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, handed to college’s top player. His season was topped off by four games with the Panthers and included his first NHL goal. Now, Borgstrom will challenge for a roster spot in Florida come training camp. For the 21-year-old, there’s a good chance he’s in the Show this year.
• Owen Tippett, RW/LW, 19, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) - 2017 first-round pick
Taken 10th overall in last year’s NHL Draft, Tippett scored the same 75 points this past season in the OHL as he did in his draft year, only he did it this season in nine fewer games. Tippett began the year with the Panthers, playing in seven games and scoring his first NHL goal as he got his first taste of pro hockey. When the Steelheads were bounced from the first round of the OHL playoffs, Tippett got a second helping, this time with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, where he notched a goal and added an assist. Tippett will compete for a spot, and if he can make it, could provide that coveted secondary scoring. He’ll likely have to beat out Borgstrom, so that should be an interesting camp battle to keep an eye on.
• Aleksi Heponiemi, C, 19, Karpat (Liiga) - 2017 second-round pick
Heponiemi peppered the Western Hockey League with 90 assists last season with the Swift Current Broncos, the most in the league, and finished third in league scoring with 118 points as he helped the Broncos to the league title and an appearance at the Memorial Cup. Too good for the Canadian junior hockey ranks -- he had 204 points in 129 games over two years in Saskatchewan -- Heponiemi will take his talents back home to Finland this season to play with Karpat in the Finnish Elite League. It will be a step up in competition for the speedster, who will get to play against men. His deal in Finland is for two years.