Five keys to Panthers hot start

The Florida Panthers are off to the hottest start in franchise history, heading into Thursday with a record of 8-0-1. As a top team in the NHL, the Panthers have had a lot go right for them to start the year.

Here are five keys to the Panthers hot start this season. 

Goaltending

The biggest question mark heading into this season was the Panthers goaltending. With Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight as the goalie tandem, many wondered who would be the main guy and how well the duo would play. 

Throughout the first nine games, Bobrovsky has started six of them, winning all of them. He has a 1.81 GAA, a .944 save percentage and has only given up 11 goals all season. Rookie Spencer Knight has had the crease three times this year and posted a 1.95 GAA alongside a .929 save percentage and a 2-0-1.

With Bobrovsky looking like his former Vezina self and Knight playing three solid games, it seems like the Panthers goalie situation is solid for now.

The return of Aaron Ekblad

Aaron Ekblad is back from the injury that kept him sidelined for a large portion of last season and the entirety of the playoffs. Florida getting their number one defenseman back into the lineup was a huge key point going into this season. Ekblad jumped right back into the mix and didn’t miss a beat.

In nine games, the 25-year-old has seven points and is a +10 on the season. He is once again paired with MacKenzie Weegar and the d-pair are shaping out to be one of the best lines in pro hockey. 

Ekblad being back not only reinserted one of the best defenseman in the league into Florida’s lineup, it took the weight off the shoulders of guys like Weegar, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour, who had to step up in the absence of Ekblad last season. Forsling hasn’t seen a drop in his game this season either, he has seven points in nine games.

With Florida’s best defenseman back, the blueline has continued to secure the fort.

Penalty Kill

While the power play hasn’t been something to brag over, Florida’s penalty kill definitely deserves the praise.

Florida is one of the most penalized teams so far this season, being short handed a total of 36 times through nine games. However, the PK percentage is 86.11, ranking them top eight in the NHL. 

The Panthers penalty kill has seen a lot of new faces on it this season. While Aleksander Barkov and Radko Gudas are still on the kill, Florida has used Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Bennett and most surprisingly, 20-year-old rookie Anton Lundell frequently on the kill. The PK has been effective this year and it will need to stay on form over the 82 game season.

Depth scoring

The Panthers forward depth was mentioned in our Florida Panthers season preview and they lived up to the praise that was given.

While the top-six is always relied on to provide offense, the bottom-six has really stepped up this season. 

With injuries and roster moves, the third line has seen a few different guys cycle in and out of the lineup, but that hasn’t slowed them down. When healthy, Anton Lundell, Mason Marchment and Sam Reinhart have seemed to build some chemistry together. Eetu Luostarinen has also done a solid job centering the bottom-six in the absence of Lundell. 

For the fourth line, the ageless veterans Joe Thornton and Patric Hornqvist have worked nicely alongside Frank Vatrano. The line doesn’t score a lot but they work hard and get under the skin of the opposing team. 

And obviously the we know the big boys on this team were going to get going. Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe have looked great this season alongside Barkov; Sam Bennett and Jonathan Huberdeau have been red hot all season and their linemate Owen Tippett has had his fair share of scoring as well. 

The team is playing well together and they’re putting the puck in the back of the net. 14 different Panthers have scored at least one goal this season and the team has a goal differential of +18.

 

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Anton Lundell

He hasn’t been in the lineup for the last four games, but the play of this rookie was too good not to mention.

First off, Anton Lundell proved he can compete in the NHL. The youngster has five points in five games, has the best face off percentage on the team with 54.79% win rate and he has been entrusted on the Panthers penalty kill.  

When he is in the lineup, you can’t ignore him. For a player so young to be able to not only make decisions as quickly and effectively as he does but to also be trusted by the team to play big minutes on the penalty kill shows how confident the organization is in their 2020 first-round pick. 

Lundell is a smart player who plays a great two-way game. He will win you draws, back check and make the defensive play and put the puck in the net. You can see flashes of another Finnish center in his game, his roommate and Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov.

 

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Breaking down potential power play lines for the Florida Panthers

During the 2020-2021 NHL season, the Florida Panther’s power play was average at best. By the end of the season the Cats finished right in the middle of the league as the 15th best power play with a 20.53% conversion rate. Come playoff time the power play percentage jumped up, seeing the team go 27.27% from the man advantage, getting six goals in 22 attempts during the first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. As the 2021-2022 season approaches, the power play is going to look a little different from the end of the previous season. I’m going to talk about a few different options the Panther’s can run on the power play this season.

After Aaron Ekblad was sidelined for the season from injury, the Panther’s special teams looked lost on the 5-on-4. Keith Yandle had to reassume the role of power play quarterback and it didn’t go too well. Florida’s zone entries were extremely predictable; Yandle would carry the puck from behind the net, make a telegraphed drop pass from the far blueline and hope that the other team wouldn’t know what was happening for the hundredth time that season. When the Panthers were able to enter the zone, they often tried to force cross ice passes that often got intercepted. There were a handful of games that saw the Panthers concede short handed goals from their lackluster “man advantage”.

Five Top Picks

This season, the Panthers once again have Ekblad as their power play QB and Yandle has taken his services to Philadelphia. With that, the top power play unit will look different. No team in the NHL can field what Florida can on the PP; put five top-four draft picks on the ice at once. After acquiring Sam Reinhart in the off-season, Florida could put Aaron Ekblad (1st overall, 2014), Aleksander Barkov (2nd overall, 2013) Sam Reinhart (2nd overall, 2014), Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd overall, 2011) and Sam Bennett (4th overall, 2014) all on the power play at the same time. Florida had run this five man PP unit in practice during training camp, and according to George Richards of Florida Hockey Now, “it looks scary good”.

While running this rotation, Barkov would be your center, Huberdeau would be on  one of the wings and Ekblad would be the lone man on the blue line. One of Reinhart or Bennett would start the power play on the point and slide to the end boards once the Panthers retain control of the puck. This would have one guy at the point, two along the end boards on the wing, one guy in front of the net, who should be Bennett because of his size and one guy below the goal line who creeps towards the front of the net. I’d want to see Huberdeau down here because of his craftiness with the puck in tight spaces. 

Obviously on the man advantage there’s more space, which will have the players moving consistently, but this basic type of “umbrella” power play allows for shots to be fired from all angles of the ice and have one to two players crashing for rebounds in front of the crease.

The addition of Reinhart is going to be deadly for the Cats while running this set. After scoring 20 plus goals for five seasons in Buffalo, the 25-year-old will feast when he has Huberdeau, Ekblad and Barkov feeding him pucks in the slot. If you watched Reinhart throughout his 

career, you could see how good of a shot he has. On the other side you’ll have the captain Barkov, who is always dangerous with the puck. Since Barkov can shoot and pass without hesitation, he’s going to draw the attention of the other team’s penalty killers, which could leave a Panther open. At the top they’ll have Ekblad walking the blue line trying to find open players and shooting lanes. Before his injury last season, he had 11 power play points in 35 games. 

 

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Second Unit

Despite having so much fire power on the first unit, they can’t stay on the ice for the full duration of the powerplay. Luckily Florida is so deep at the forward position they’ll be able to put out a second power play unit that wouldn’t miss a beat. Carter Verhaeghe is going to be a mainstay on the powerplay this year for Florida after scoring 36 points in 43 games last season. Alongside him I would put Owen Tippett and Frank Vatrano on the ice. Tippett has become more confident in his game since making the jump into Florida’s top-six last season, playing on a line with Huberdeau and Bennett. Like Reinhart from unit one, Tippett can snipe the puck, which is why he will be on the wing for this PP. Vatrano’s speed and ability to score in clutch situations will pair nicely with Verhaeghe, so he will be on the opposite wing from Tippett.

Up front there’s two options I would consider looking at right now. The first one is Patric Hornqvist. When Hornqvist joined the team last season, he brought something that the powerplay didn’t previously have. A feisty net front presence. Nothing gets under a goalie’s skin more than someone who is sitting at the top of their crease and screening them while they try to track the puck. Hornqvist does exactly that and it fires up the rest of the team to keep pushing for opportunities in front of goal. Another option here would be Anthony Duclair. With his foot speed and skill with the puck, zone entries on the rush would be extremely efficient with Duclair on the power play. While he doesn’t bring that net front presence like Hornqvist, he will have more skill with the puck in the lower areas of the zone, which could help open up the other players.

For the defenseman on this unit, there are quite a few options. Florida has given Brandon Montour a few looks on the power play last season and in practice this year. He is good at jumping in the rush and controlling the puck in the offensive zone. MacKenzie Weegar could also be in consideration at some point during the season on the power play. Weegar has continued to elevate his game on both sides of the puck, and is becoming more of an offensive threat at this point in his career after scoring 36 points last season. Put him at the top of this power play unit and I see him filling out a similar role to Ekblad on PP1, quarterback of the powerplay. He looks more and more like a top defenseman and his confidence is through the roof, this could be a good move for Florida. Another player I wouldn’t count out here is Gustav Forsling. If Florida is running one defenseman on this power play unit I don’t think Forsling would get the nod over Weegar or Montour, but if they wanted to run two defenseman, his speed kills and it would make offensive zone entries and defensive transitions a lot easier for the Panthers. 

The quality of players Florida has on their roster truly makes their special teams combinations endless. I had mentioned 13 players as potential guys to look for on the power play this year and I kept the likes of Anton Lundell and Joe Thornton off the list, both of whom could potentially find some PP time during the season. Florida is going to have two very skilled power play units to cycle through this year.

2021-2022 Florida Panthers Season Preview

The start of the new NHL season for the Florida Panthers is only a week away and the league should be scared of this year’s Cats team. With key players returning from injury and some new faces in Sunrise, can the Panthers compete for the Stanley Cup? Here is the 2021-2022 Florida Panthers season preview.

Last year the Panthers surprised a lot of people around the league after finishing second place in the Discover Central Division and taking the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions to six games in the first round of the playoffs. After a long off-season, the Cats are back, but Bill Zito and company weren’t going to let other teams get the jump on them for this season. The team made some huge moves in the summer which helped line up their roster for the upcoming year.

And the bookmakers have noticed.

The Panthers are in the top 10 favorites to win the 2022 Stanley Cup. Their current odds are listed at +1800 which is a slight improvement from prior to the preseason games.

It might be worth checking out some of the sportsbooks available for NHL right now before the odds get even better. If they win this season and bets were placed on the current +1800, the payout would be good. There are a bunch of other futures you could find on the sites, just make sure to shop around to find one that gives you the best value.

Forwards

Top Six

The biggest off-season move for the Panthers has to be the acquisition of Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres. The former second overall pick had five 20 goal seasons in his six full years with Buffalo. At just 25-years-old Reinhart has already scored 295 points in his NHL career, while playing on one of the worst teams in the league. He is expected to start the season on the first line with Carter Verhaeghe and Panthers’ captain Aleksander Barkov. Barkov just won his first career Selke trophy as the best defensive forward in the league and finished the year above a point-per-game. Verhaeghe finished his first year with the Panthers scoring 18 goals and 18 assists in only 43 games, proving to be a consistent scorer for the club. Expect this line to put up a lot of goals, night in and night out.

While Florida’s first line will be a nightmare for any opposition to come against, the second line is arguably just as lethal as the first. This line is led by Florida’s leading scorer last year, Jonathan Huberdeau. Huberdeau has been above a point-per-game player in his last three NHL seasons and has solidified himself as one of the best forwards in today’s game. To start the year on the opposite wing will most likely be 22-year-old Owen Tippett. Florida’s first round pick from 2017 played his first full NHL season last year with the team. After a shaky start to the season which saw him getting limited ice time, Tippett found his game and went on a tear while playing big minutes on Florida’s top-six. In six playoff games last season, he scored four points and has already shown good form this preseason. Down the middle is another former first round pick and potentially the hidden gem of Florida’s forward core; Sam Bennett. Bennett joined the Panthers at the trade deadline last season and immediately made his presence felt in the lineup. He’s a big, aggressive center who not only can lay the body, but can also put the puck in the back of the net. My main critique of the Panthers at the beginning of last season was their lack of physicality up front. With Bennett slotted down the middle, nobody is safe when he’s coming at them.

 

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Depth forwards

The Panther’s top two lines will be carrying the load offensively for the majority of the season, but where the true heart of the team lies is in the bottom-six, or the depth lines.

The third and fourth lines aren’t as clear cut as the first two; there are too many different options the Panthers can field for me to create accurate lines. However, this isn’t a bad thing. Some depth guys this season will include Anthony Duclair, Frank Vatrano and Mason Marchment; all of whom spent time playing on top lines throughout the last few years. Duclair and Vatrano both can be moved up and down the lineup throughout the year, as seen last season. With the speed and skill of Duclair and the clutch late scoring genes within Vatrano, Florida won’t have to continuously depend on Barkov, Reinhart and Huberdeau to provide consistent offense.

Compared to the beginning of last season, a lack of physicality isn’t an issue for the Panthers anymore. Mason Marchment made his debut last year after being acquired from Toronto the season before in the Denis Malgin trade. The 6’4, 210 pound winger is big and will need to lay the body when he is on the ices;. However Marchment isn’t the energy bus of the bottom-six, that would be 5’9 Ryan Lomberg. While he isn’t the most offensively or physically gifted player on the team, Lomberg plays with his heart on his chest. He will drive the net, get into the corners, fight guys twice his size and throw his body everywhere. Both of them played in all six playoff games last season and let their presence be felt.

While this team is composed of mostly guys in their mid twenties, Bill Zito hasn’t been afraid to bring in veterans during his tenure in Sunrise. One of his first moves as GM last off-season was bringing in two-time Stanley Cup champion Patric Hornqvist from Pittsburgh. Hornqvist became a fan favourite and was part of the Panthers’ leadership group last season. This year another long-time NHL vet will be joining him at FLA Live Arena, future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton. Thornton has accumulated over 1,500 NHL points in 1,680 NHL games. Jumbo Joe also has 134 points in 186 career playoff games. 

Florida lost Alexander Wennberg to Seattle in free agency this year, but his replacement is the 2020 first round pick, Anton Lundell. Lundell was a star at last year’s IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship (U-20) and IIHF World Hockey Championship (Seniors) for Finland, leading the Finns in points at both tournaments. He showed that he was a man amongst boys at the World Juniors; his puck moving ability paired with his speed and hockey IQ helped lead Finland to a Bronze medal in Edmonton. Lundell didn’t miss a beat when he got the opportunity to play for the senior national team at the World’s, once again proving he could play with the best in the world. He won a Silver medal for his country in Riga. Lundell is only 20-years-old but the 6’1 Finn is going to be good and playing on the same team with one of the best Finns on the planet Aleksander Barkov will only boost his development. 

Defense

Defense wins championships is a true statement. Look at the bluelines of the last few Stanley Cup winners. Each team had a Norris trophy caliber defenseman. Luckily for Florida Aaron Ekblad is back and looks better than ever after he suffered a season-ending injury against Dallas last season. Before the injury, Ekblad looked as if he would be contending for the Norris. When the number one defenseman on the team went down, it seemed as if Florida was in a tough spot. And then MacKenzie Weegar stepped up and never looked back. Weegar ended the season with 69 Norris trophy votes, the seventh most in the league. For this upcoming season, a healthy Florida D-core would have two elite level defenseman playing on the top pair with Ekblad and Weegar.

The top-two defenseman on the team are set in stone, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to be excited about. Gustav Forsling joined the Panthers before the start of last season after being waived by the Carolina Hurricanes. When Ekblad went down, Weegar assumed the top defenseman role and Forsling leaped into that number two spot. The Swede is extremely fast on his feet, both with the puck and without. I’d say he is the fastest defenseman on the team. Forsling will command that second unit and he has a few guys that could pair up nicely with him. As of now it looks like Brandon Montour will round out the top-four defense pairs for the Cats. Montour was traded from Buffalo to Florida last season and jumped into the lineup straight away. Both Montour and Forsling have the ability to jump up in the play and create offense from the back-end. The pair also extended with Florida this off-season, each signing three-year contract extensions. 

To round out the defense, the butcher himself Radko Gudas will continue to be a human wrecking ball on the blueline. Gudas led the NHL with 250 hits last year in his first season with the Panthers. The sixth defenseman spot is up in the air as of now, with the likes of Markus Nutivaara and Matt Kiersted in contention. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevin Connaughton also gets a look.

Goalies

The biggest question heading into next season for the Panthers is between the pipes. With the departure of Chris Driedger, there’s no doubt that Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight will be the two goalies for Florida this season. Yet, we don’t know who the starting goaltender will be for the year. It looks like Bobrovsky will be the starter on opening night and if that’s the case, it will be his net to lose. Spencer Knight is the future of the Florida Panthers goaltending and he did a great job coming in the middle of a playoff series last season and winning the Panthers a game at just 20-years-old. But he is still only 20 and has yet to officially play in his rookie season (didn’t play enough games in 2020-2021). Goalie is the most important position on a hockey team. A hot goaltender can carry you in a series, as we saw last year with Carey Price taking the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final. Even if Bobrovsky is the starter opening night, down the stretch, who will the Panthers call? On one hand you have a two-time Vezina winner with Bob. When he is on his game, he is one of the best in the world. However he hasn’t performed like his former self in his two seasons in Florida. On the other hand Spencer Knight is a rookie playing on a team that could very well compete for the Stanley Cup. Goalies VERY rarely ever make their NHL debut at such a young age, but Knight isn’t a normal goalie; he is a first round pick and a proven winner at the junior level. Only time will tell who is the number one goalie going forward for the Panthers.

Expectations

Looking at this roster, it is extremely deep. The top-six has proven scorers in this league and they seem to be very comfortable playing alongside one another. Every team experiences injuries and setbacks throughout a season. Having guys who can jump in and out of the lineup on the forward side will be a key to the year round success of the team. The defensive core is strong, but after the top-four, it’s not anything special. Having a healthy blueline at the end of the year will be important for the team. Finally, the goaltending. The Panthers could either have two really good goalies, one guy that isn’t living up to expectations, or another long off-season. Can the Panthers win the Cup? Looking at how other contenders are constructed around the league, I do believe Florida should be one of the top-five teams in contention for the Stanley Cup. Then again, the Cats haven’t won a playoff series since 1996 and they are playing in easily the most competitive division in hockey this season, the Atlantic.

Five best Florida Panthers prospects

The Florida Panthers seem to be on the right track towards building a Stanley Cup contending team. After one year of the Bill Zito regime in Florida, the Panthers finished second in the Discover Central Division and clinched a playoff berth before losing in the first round to the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While the core of this team is well established with the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, there are some exciting prospects in the pipeline who could help the Panthers sooner than you think.

For the purpose of this list, players who have completed a full season in the NHL won’t be eligible, like Owen Tippett. However, Grigori Denisenko only played in seven regular season games and would still be considered a rookie next season, thus making him a prospect. 

Here are the five best prospects in the Florida Panthers organization.

1. Spencer Knight

It was pretty obvious that Spencer Knight would rank at the top of this prospects list. The 20-year-old goalie was selected 13th overall by Florida in the 2019 NHL Draft and has already become a fan favourite in Sunrise. Usually you don’t see goalies picked in the first round of the draft, but Florida rolled the dice to get their franchise goalie. Including Knight, there have only been eight goalies selected in the first round since 2010. It is clear that Florida had a lot of confidence about his future as an NHL starter when they took him that early in the draft.

Knight finished off his two years at Boston College with a 39-12-3 record, posted a .932 save percentage in his sophomore season and capped off his collegiate/junior hockey career winning a gold medal with Team USA at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.

After his season ended with Boston College, Knight signed his entry-level contract with the Panthers and immediately stole the show. Knight went a perfect 4-0-0, with a .919 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA  in the 2020-2021 NHL regular season. When the Panthers were down three games to one in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Lightning, Knight was given the opportunity to start in his first career playoff game. He stole the show, stopping 36 of Tampa’s 37 shots in a 4-1 victory. 

In his limited appearances with the Panthers, Knight showed flashes of elite goaltending ability. You could see he was calm in the net and had the ability to make the big saves when he needed to.

Spencer Knight is the goalie of the future for the Florida Panthers and he will be in contention for next year’s starting job after Sergei Bobrovsky’s less than stellar second season with the Cats.

2. Anton Lundell 

Like Knight, Lundell has a really good chance of not only making Florida’s roster for the 2021-2022 season but playing a meaningful role on the team.

Selected 12th overall by the Panthers in the 2020 NHL Draft, 19-year-old Anton Lundell plays an extremely similar game to his fellow countryman and Florida captain Aleksander Barkov. Lundell isn’t the flashiest player by any means, but he is a great skater with an amazing hockey IQ. The 6’1, 195 lbs center plays a great two-way game, which is extremely valuable in today’s NHL. 

As a teenager, Lundell spent three seasons playing for HIFK in Finland’s top professional league, Liiga. In the 2020-2021 campaign, he nearly averaged a point per game, finishing the year with 25 points in 26 games.

Lundell also found success at the international level this past year with Finland. He started off 2021 on a high note, winning bronze at the World Juniors as Finland’s captain with 10 points in seven games. Lundell was no match for his opposition that tournament. Every time he had the puck he skated by the other team as if they weren’t there, you could tell he was better than most players in his age group. Lundell continued his success with the national team just a few weeks ago at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. He finished the tournament with seven points in 10 games, leading all Finnish skaters en route to a silver medal. Keep in mind, this tournament was with the senior national team and his competition were all professional hockey players, including many from the NHL.

Next season I could see Lundell slot in nicely as the Panther’s third line center. It would give him valuable minutes on the top-nine while still not forcing him to play too much in crunch time situations with the likes of Barkov and Sam Bennett centering the top-six. Even if he spends next season in the AHL, all the signs are pointing towards Lundell developing into a top two-way center. 

3. Grigori Denisenko

Drafted 15th overall in the 2018 draft, it didn’t take long for Grigori Denisenko to get a shot with the Florida Panthers. The 5’11 Russian winger spent two full seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), undoubtedly one of the best professional hockey leagues after the NHL. At 20-years-old, Denisenko made the jump to North America, splitting time between the Panthers and the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. Denisenko had an impressive 9 points in 15 games with the Crunch and 4 assists in seven games with the Panthers.

Offensively, Denisenko is everything you want in a winger. He is a smooth skater who has great edge work and agility. On top of his skating, Denisenko has an elite shot that he can get off the stick quickly and effectively. When I look at his skill set, I immediately think of another 5’11 Russian winger and current New York Ranger Artemi Panarin. I’m not saying Denisenko will be as good as Panarin, but I see some similarities in their game.

I don’t expect Denisenko to be a regular with the Panthers next season, but I do think he could split the year between the AHL and NHL. Between the Panthers forward depth and Denisenko barely being 21 when the season starts, It wouldn’t surprise me if Florida continues to develop his game before giving a bigger role with the main team, whether that is towards the end of next season or later.

4. Matt Kiersted

Looking at the Panthers prospect list, there aren’t too many top defensive prospects to be excited about. Luckily for Florida, they were able to sign Matt Kiersted last season after he finished his college hockey career with the University of North Dakota (UND). Through his four seasons at UND, Kiersted had 77 points in 127 games and was a plus 37.

Kiersted had limited chances last season with the Panthers, playing in only seven games and not dressing in the playoff series against Tampa. What I did see from Kiersted in those games was a surprisingly calm composure on the blueline. He plays a very tight gap when defending, but it works because of his foot speed and that is something that will help him against the fastest players in the world.

Florida’s blueline wasn’t the greatest after Aaron Ekblad went down with an injury last season. Unless Florida acquires another top-four defenseman in free agency, I think Kiersted should be on the team over some of the guys who were given minutes in the playoffs. 

5. Aleksi Heponiemi

While the first three players on this list were all first round picks, Aleksi Heponiemi was selected in the second round by the Cats in the 2017 NHL Draft. After scoring 204 points in 129 games with Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Heponiemi went back to Finland to play for Kärpät in Liiga. After a 46 point season in Finland, he made the move to the Springfield Thunderbirds of the AHL, where he had 14 points in 46 games.

This past season, Heponiemi made his NHL debut with the Panthers and scored his first career NHL goal against the Detroit Red Wings. In 9 games with the Cats, Heponiemi had 2 points.

I do have some concerns for Heponiemi at the NHL level. He’s a smaller guy, clocking in at 5’10, 155 pounds, according to NHL.com. Heponiemi was so effective in junior because he used his foot speed to blow by the other teams’ defenders and create his own space. He can still use his speed in the NHL, but the defenseman are a lot quicker in transition than the guys he saw in the WHL and way more physical. I think he needs to put on 10-15 more pounds and play in the 165-170 range so he can be stronger on the puck against NHL defenders. 

Barring an amazing training camp, I expect Heponiemi to start next season in the AHL, with the possibility he gets called up to the Panthers throughout the season.

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5 Takeaways from Panthers Game 1 loss to Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning came away with a 5-4 win against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of their first-round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Panthers played a competitive game, but Tampa’s last minute goal sealed the deal on the first game. Here are tonight’s five takeaways.

 

The Crowd

With the home-ice advantage and an increased crowd capacity, the Panthers were feeding off of the crowd energy. Even before the puck dropped, the BB&T Center was electric. Rally towels were waiving, rats were flying onto the ice and the fans’ cheers and boos echoed throughout the arena. 

Every hit, scoring chance and takeaway was followed by excitement from the crowd. One of the biggest reasons why playoff hockey is so exciting is because of the fans and the 9,646 in attendance kept the building rocking all night.

Game 2 will once again be at the BB&T Center. The Panthers faithful will show out as their team is down in the series. 

 

Physical Play was Prevalent 

As said in the 5 keys to the series, you have to play physical and hungry to win the game. Tampa was aggressive, but Florida didn’t let that scare them. From the opening faceoff the entire Panthers team was letting their presence be felt. Even captain Aleksander Barkov wasn’t afraid to throw the body. 

We saw a glimpse of the physical play in the last two games of the season between these two teams. There were 156 penalty minutes in the Panthers 5-1 win on May 8.

It seemed like every few shifts someone was in the penalty box for a roughing penalty. I’ve never seen a game with so many 4-on-4 chances. This is playoff hockey, these two teams don’t like each other, expect more of this.

 

Letting Tampa Set Up

The defending Stanley Cup Champions were as dangerous as ever in the offensive zone. The Lightning converted on three of their power plays tonight, they only scored once when it was 5-on-5.

Their 5-on-5 zone entries were also something that had the Panthers on their heels. When Tampa got some space in the offensive zone, they were able to create quality scoring chances. 

Tampa has too much offensive firepower, if they get the chance to set up, they’ll make you pay, which they did tonight against the Panthers. 

 

Refs gonna Ref

The story of tonight’s game was the officiating. In the opening period, Sam Bennett seemed to have opened the scoring with a power play goal. However, it was quickly waived off for goaltender interference. The replay showed that the puck was loose, the goal should have counted. Tampa immediately scored a short-handed goal, giving them the lead.

There were plenty of questionable calls in this game and it seemed like the Panthers got the short end of the stick. 

The dying minutes of the game saw Ryan Lomberg get tripped in the Lightning zone. What seemed like a penalty was waived off by the referees. Shortly after, Brayden Point scored the game winning goal.

 

The Stars Shined

Both teams are lucky to boast some of the best forwards in the NHL. Tonight, the stars  stepped up for both teams. 

Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov scored two power play goals in his first game of the season. The last time he played was Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals. His teammate Brayden Point also scored tonight for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Point and Kucherov combined for nine points on the night.

Florida’s top guns didn’t disappoint either. Jonatha Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Sam  Bennett all had multiple points tonight. Huberdeau and Barkov have been on this team for so many years, yet they barely sniffed the postseason. We said in our 5 keys to the series, you need to get your big boys on the board early. Safe to say the Panthers and Lightning did just that. 

5 Keys to the Panthers-Lightning Playoff Series

For the first time in franchise history, the Florida Panthers will face their cross-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series. 

After finishing the 2020-2021 NHL regular season with 79 points in 56 games, the Panthers locked up the] second seed in the Discover Central Division, giving them home-ice advantage for their first round matchup against the Lightning. While Florida won the season series against the defending Stanley Cup Champions with a 5-2-1 record, the playoffs are a different monster. 

Here are the five keys to the Panthers-Lightning playoff series.

Stay Out of the Box

It’s obvious that you don’t want to take penalties in a hockey game, but when you are playing the Tampa Bay Lightning, that’s all the more reason not to go down a man. In the final three games of the season Florida did a really good job of shutting down Tampa’s powerplay. The Lightning were 0-12 on the man advantage over that stretch. 

However, Tampa still ranked NO. 8 in the league on the man advantage during the season, and they are expected to have captain Steven Stamkos and 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup sometime during the first round. With these two coming back alongside Brayden Point and Norris Trophy winner Victor Headman, their powerplay will be as lethal as ever. 

Throughout the year Florida had an average penalty kill at best, ranking 17th in the NHL at 79.8 percent. Tampa knows how to put the puck in the net, keep them off the power play. 

Use the Team’s Depth to your Advantage 

Bill Zito did an amazing job constructing this Panthers team in his first season as GM. Four of the seven leading scorers on the team weren’t on the roster last season and Florida has dressed over 20 skaters who didn’t suit up in a game last year for the Cats. All four forward lines have the talent and skill to compete with Tampa. 

Teams that have gone on to win the cup in the past have always relied on their bottom 6 to provide quality minutes down the stretch. Last year the Lightning relied on players like Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman to bring energy to the ice when the top 6 wasn’t on. 

The Panthers have guys like Noel Acciari, Frank Vatrano and Patric Hornqvist who can go toe-to-toe with any line Tampa throws at them. Florida has a surplus of forwards who can come in and out of the lineup throughout a long and physical playoff series, this depth will prove to be beneficial in this matchup.

Get the Stars Rolling Early

Playoff hockey isn’t for the weak. The intensity of the game picks up, the physicality increases, and the goals become tougher to come by. The best thing for a team in a playoff series is to get their star players involved on the scoresheet early. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have once again proven to be elite hockey players this season. The duo averaged over a point per game on the season and they both hit the 20 goal mark. But the longtime Panthers aren’t alone this year. 

The offseason acquisitions of Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist and Alexander Wennberg have not only helped the Panthers this season, but it also took a large part of the offensive responsibilities off of Barkov and Huberdeau. Bill Zito also made a trade at the deadline for proven playoff performer and 2014 4th overall pick, Sam Bennett, from Calgary. Bennett has 15 points in 10 games this season for the Panthers and has 19 points in 30 career postseason games with the Flames. 

Throughout the season they all played a huge part in getting Florida to the playoffs. If these guys can show up offensively early in the series, Tampa is going to have a hard time trying to shut them down over seven games.

Win the Goalie Battle

Whoever is in net for the Panthers in game 1 will be going up against 2019 Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy has once again proven to be one of the world’s top goalies this season, winning 31 of his 42 starts with a 2.21 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He has had a great year, but the Panthers have been one of the only teams in the league who consistently put multiple goals up on him, including nine total in their final two meetings of the season.

The Panthers have three goalies to choose from for this series. Sergei Bobrovsky won 19 of his 30 starts and has looked significantly better than he did last season for Florida. He has started the most games this season for the Panthers. Florida’s other goalie Chris Dreidger also had an impressive 2020-2021 campaign, winning 14 of his 23 starts and posting a .927 save percentage with a 2.07 GAA. Rookie Spencer Knight is also on the roster. The 20-year-old is 4-0-0 in his NHL career.

No matter who gets the crease for the majority of this series, they need to stand on their head. Tampa has the offensive firepower to score a few quick goals and run away with the game. You don’t want to be playing behind in the playoffs against the defending champions. 

Goalies win championships and Florida has a few really talented netminders who can steal them a playoff series if needed. 

Bring the Physicality

This Panthers team is different than any other team I have seen. This roster is physical, strong and hungry. In the final two games of the season, Florida needed three points to clinch home-ice advantage for the first round. 

Tampa came to town and tried to bring the pressure to the Cats. Florida didn’t back down from the fight, or fights. On May 8, the Florida-Tampa game had 154 total penalty minutes and a large part of that was due to the bad blood between the two sides. Everytime Tampa came out aggressive, everyone on Florida answered the bell and the Cats took that game 5-1. The Panthers made the message clear that night, they weren’t going to let anyone beat them up at their home in front of their fans.

The BB&T Center will be at nearly 50 percent capacity for the first round. With the building rocking and the city excited, Florida will feed off of that energy and bring the game to Tampa.

What to Expect

Both teams have a lot to play for in this series. Tampa just won the cup and they want to defend it, not lose in the first round. Florida has little playoff experience and they just saw the only other NHL team in their state win the whole thing last year, they don’t want to be the little brother anymore. From what we saw over the eight regular season games, these two sides clearly don’t like each other. Expect a hard fought, extremely exciting and not so “polite’ series in this first round matchup between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

 

The new look Panthers start season strong

The Panthers have been South Florida’s hottest team over the month of January with a 5-0-1 record in a six game span. The Cats are off to their best start in franchise history early on in this shortened NHL season. 

A large part of the team’s early success can be attributed to all of the new players the Panthers have in the lineup this season. In six games this year, Florida has used 13 different players who did not play a game with the team last season.

After a mediocre 2019-2020 campaign which saw the team get bounced in the Stanley Cup qualifying round by the New York Islanders, Florida clearly needed to make a lot of changes. 

Which started with the front office.

Shortly after being eliminated, the Panthers and general manager Dale Tallon mutually agreed to part ways, bringing his tenure in Florida to an end. Not satisfied with three playoff appearances and no playoff series wins during Tallon’s decade-long tenure, Florida hired  former Columbus Blue Jackets assistant general manager Bill Zito as the new gm.

Zito immediately went to work, completely changing the roster over the offseason. With the departures of top players like Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov over the past year, Florida needed to add more depth to the forward core. And that’s exactly what they did.

Two of the biggest moves was the signing of NHL All Star Anthony Duclair and Stanley Cup Champion Carter Verhaeghe. Both players were put on the top line with captain Aleksander Barkov to start the season and they haven’t looked back. The trio has combined for 20 points in six games this year and have dominated oppositions nearly every time they are on the ice. The speed and puck skills of Verhaeghe and Duclair have helped open up Barkov’s game this year. The Finn has never looked more dominant.

Another huge offseason move made by Zito was the acquisition of two-time Stanley Cup champion Patric Hornqvist for Mike Matheson. It was evident that Matheson had become a liability on the back end, especially when the Panthers entered the NHL postseason bubble as he was scratched twice in four games. The veteran Hornqvist came into Florida and hasn’t shown any signs of aging as he already has five goals to start the season.

Hornqvist joined last year’s leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and former Blue Jacket Alexander Wennberg on the second line. The Barkov, Verhaeghe, Duclair line has received all the attention so far, but this second unit is just as dangerous. They have combined for 16 points in six games. As of now, the losses of Hoffman and Dadonov don’t seem to be an issue for Florida.

As the Panthers progress through the 56 game season, a huge key to their success will be the goalie tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Dreidger. After signing a 7-year, $70M contract, he only posted a 23-19-6 record with a 3.23 GAA, ranking in the bottom third of the league. The two-time Vezina winner didn’t have a good season in 2019-2020, but he is talented enough to bounce back.

So far this season, Bob and Dreidger have split the games evenly. Even though it hasn’t all been pretty, if they can both stay on their game, this 1A-1B tandem will win Florida some much needed games down the stretch.

With the condensed schedule consisting of many back to backs and short turn arounds, teams around the league are going to rely on two goalies more than ever. Whether it’s Carey Price and Jake Allen in Montreal or Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner in Vegas, top teams this year have been using multiple goalies. When they are on their A-game, Bobrovsky and Dreidger are one of the best duos in the league.

Top to bottom, this year’s Panthers team has something for fans to be excited about. The top 6 looks great, young players like Aleksi Heponiemi and Owen Tippett have been getting opportunities, Aaron Ekblad has continued to shape into a solidified top defenseman and the Reverse Retro jerseys look unbelievable.

We have barely started this NHL season but you could already sense a different vibe to this Florida team. They have more energy and excitement than any Panthers team I could remember watching. They haven’t played some of the top teams in Discover Central division yet, but with what we’ve seen on the ice so far, there’s no reason why Florida can’t be one of the four teams to make the playoffs out of the division.

NHL Playoffs: Breaking down the next round

The NHL has released its official playoff schedule following the end of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, where eight teams were eliminated to form the 16-team playoff bracket. While this year has been a year like no other, what with the COVID-19 pandemic halting play before the end of the regular season, the NHL will hold the Stanley Cup Playoffs now in its two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton.

 

Eastern Conference

 

#1 Philadelphia Flyers (49-21-7) vs #8 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)

 

Both of these teams have underdog status after Philadelphia went from second place in the Metropolitan Division to the #1 seed after winning its three round robin matches and the Canadiens finished off an improbable 3-1 series versus the 5th seed Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.  While the Flyers are favored to win this series, they have been known to get lazy when they feel an easy matchup in the wind. The Canadiens are also coming off those big wins versus the Penguins, led by Jeff Petry (two game-winning goals) and goaltender Carey Price, whose experience far outpaces that of the Flyer’s 21-year-old goalie, Carter Hart. Price will have his work cut out for him defending the Flyers’ four 20+ goal scorers (Giroux, Couturier, Hayes, Konecny), however, so look for goaltending to make or break this series and don’t be surprised if Montreal pulls off the upset.

 

Game 1: Wednesday, Aug 12 8pmEST

 

 

#2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs #7 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15)

 

The Blue Jackets shocked the NHL when they swept the #1 ranked Lightning last season in the first round, which makes this rematch one of the most interesting series of the 2020 playoffs. The Lightning, who had tied the NHL regular season record for wins that year, as well as scoring a record-breaking 128 points, psychologically crumbled versus the Blues. This year, they’ll look to prove that last season’s early exit was just a fluke. However, Tampa Bay will be without Captain Steven Stamkos, who is dealing with a leg injury, for the foreseeable future. This should be a high-scoring series between two teams familiar with the playoffs (and with each other).

 

Game 1: Tuesday, Aug 11 3pmEST

 

 

#3 Washington Capitals (41-20-8) vs #6 New York Islanders (35-23-10)

 

The story to watch in this matchup will be that of Barry Trotz going up against his former Stanley Cup winning squad. The current Islanders head coach helped the Capitals win the franchises’ first championship just a couple of years ago, but now his road to the Cup leads through the Caps instead of with them. Despite the Islanders being the lower ranked seed, Trotz’s knowledge of the Capitals, who still have 12 players who were on that Cup-winning roster in 2018, will be imperative in this matchup, and could lead to the Isles stealing the show like they did in their qualifying round series versus the Florida Panthers.

 

Game 1: Wednesday, Aug 12 3pmEST

 

 

#4 Boston Bruins (44-14-12) vs #5 Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5)

 

The Bruins return to play has been less than ideal, with the team losing all three of their round robin matches against the Flyers, Lightning, and Capitals. During that time, Boston only put together four goals, but their play did improve with each game and star goaltender Tuukka Rask was ruled unfit for play twice, which could have something to do with the losses. Rask is expected to play on Tuesday. Look out for individual play from the Canes’ Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho and the Bruins’ David Pastrnak. Svechnikov had his first NHL hat trick in Game 2 of the qualifying round versus the Rangers and has had a breakout season with 61 points in 68 games. Aho has momentum of his own as well, with eight points against New York (three goals, five assists) and 20 points in 18 NHL postseason games. But Pastrnak has been a machine this season, tying Alexander Ovechkin for the most goals (48) and finishing first in power-play goals (20) and third in power-play points (38).

 

Game 1: Tuesday, Aug 11 8pmEST

 

Western Conference

 

 

#1 Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8) vs #8 Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8)

 

The Blackhawks finished at the bottom of the Western Conference rankings in the regular season with just 72 points but managed to scrape into the Qualifiers with the 12th seed. In their return to play, Chicago has looked like a completely different team, winning the qualifying series versus the 5th-seeded Edmonton Oilers 3-1 with 16 total goals. The Hawks’ regular season woes are clearly behind them and they come into the series with a core of three-time Cup winners in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. However, the Golden Knights are having another championship-worthy season, finishing at the top of the Pacific Division in the regular season and winning all three of their round robin matchups versus the Stars, Blues, and Avalanche. Vegas also has upside at goalie with three-time champion Marc-Andre Fleury in the net, backed up by Robin Lehner, who played twice in the round robin games, winning each with a combined .903 save percentage. Meanwhile, Chicago’s goaltender Corey Crawford has been trending upward after struggling in the first two games of the qualifying round series. Though the Blackhawks have a lot going for them, it will probably not be enough to beat out the Golden Knights, who are quickly becoming familiar faces in the playoffs in only their third year of existence.

 

Game 1: Tuesday, Aug 11 10:30pmEST

 

 

#2 Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8) vs #7 Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8)

 

The Avalanche looked good in their round robin play with two victories over the Blues and Stars, including a shutout versus the latter, and a one-goal loss to the Golden Knights. General manager Joe Sakic, who had an illustrious 21-year career with the Avalanche, including two titles in ’96 and ’01, has stayed with the team long after his retirement from playing to put together one of the deepest rosters in the NHL. The Avalanche are led by young stars Nathan MacKinnon, a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and Cale Makar, a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Meanwhile the Coyotes are on somewhat new territory, this being their first time in the playoffs since 2012. However, they pulled off the upset over the sixth-seeded Nashville Predators in the Qualifiers and have lots of momentum coming into the first round. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper is hot right now, with a .933 save percentage versus the Preds.

 

Game 1: Wednesday, Aug 12 5:30pmEST

 

 

#3 Dallas Stars (37-24-8) vs #6 Calgary Flames (36-27-7)

 

The Stars have had a newsworthy season, if only because of the firing of head coach Jim Montgomery in December. Dallas replaced him on an interim basis with Rick Bowness, who was previously an assistant coach in the organization. It should be interesting to see how Bowness shakes things up, but both teams should have a fairly straightforward approach to the playoffs. The Stars will be looking for a shift in momentum, as they’ve been trending down for some time now, losing eight of their last nine, with the one win coming on Sunday’s round robin matchup versus the Blues, where Denis Gurianov managed to pull out the W in shootouts. The Flames, meanwhile, have been scoring big with 16 total goals in their 4-game series versus the Jets, including one six-goal outing and a 4-0 shutout to decisively take the qualifying round. Expect this series to be close and physical.

 

Game 1: Tuesday, Aug 11 5:30pmEST

 

 

#4 St Louis Blues (42-19-10) vs #5 Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6)

 

While the Blues took first place in the Central Division at the end of the regular season, not to mention winning the Cup last year, their return to play in 2020 has been shaky at best. St Louis lost all three of their round-robin contests versus the Avalanche, the Golden Knights, and the Stars, the last in a heartbreaking shootout. And history is not on their side in this matchup versus Vancouver. The Canucks have played the Blues three times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the latest in 2009, and won all three times. Furthermore, Vancouver is hot from a 3-1 qualifying series versus Minnesota where they managed to shut out the Wild once and win the series in an OT thriller off a Christopher Tanev wrister 11 seconds into overtime. The Blues will need to take over the third period if they hope to win this series, as they entered the third with the lead in all three of their round robin games, only to be outscored by a total of 6-0.

 

Game 1: Wednesday, Aug 12 10:30pmEST

What Florida Panthers need in a new General Manager

5 Things The Florida Panthers Should Look For in Their New GM

 

On Friday afternoon, the Florida Panthers suffered another loss filled with easily avoided mistakes to the New York Islanders in the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 5-1 defeat sent the Islanders to the next round and the Panthers home with a bitter, yet familiar, feeling. The last time the Panthers made the playoffs was in 2016, when they won the Atlantic Division but lost to the same team, the Isles, in the first round, which makes this last loss particularly hard to swallow. What have the Panthers learned from 2016? Not much, it seems, and not much in the last 24 years, dating back to the last time they won a playoff series. Something needs to change, and that started with the reported firing of longtime General Manager Dale Tallon immediately following the game.

Here’s what the Panthers need to look for in a new GM:

 

#1: High quality drafting

 

Tallon spent the first four years of his 10-year stint with the Panthers doing some impressive work in the draft. In his first year as the Panthers GM, he drafted defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Nick Bjugstad, both of which have since moved to different clubs but served the Cats well. Tallon continued to draft well over the next few years, taking a generational talent in center Aleksander Barkov (2013) and big Panthers names like Jonathan Huberdeau (2011), Vincent Trocheck (now on the Hurricanes), and Aaron Ekblad (2014). Some of his later picks, like seventh rounder MacKenzie Weegar (2013), have also proved prosperous. But drafting fell off after 2014 with few of the Cats’ picks getting ice time. 

 

If the Panthers want to be serious playoff contenders, they need a GM who can do what Tallon did in his heyday and draft young, talented players to learn under experienced veteran leaders. With the loss to the Isles, the Panthers can at least look forward to a chance at drafting Alexis Lafreniere if they get a good position in the lottery draft. 

 

#2: Reduction of contractual mistakes

 

As things go in any pro league, there are inevitable mistakes made when it comes to contracts, but the last few years have been a bit harder on the Panthers than many would expect.

 

Tallon’s previously salvageable legacy was effectively and brutally tarnished by the moves he made in the Vegas expansion draft. The loss of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith for what amounts to nothing, as well as trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to Pittsburgh (also for basically nothing but more contractual obligations), is too much to even get into. 

 

Then there’s the recent controversy over Mike Matheson. You could ask most Panthers fans over the last few years what they thought of Mike Matheson and they probably would’ve given you a glowing review of the 26-year-old defenseman. But Matheson is on the hot seat now after committing two excessively violent penalties against the Isles in the first two games of the series, including a hit against Johnny Boychuk which took him out of play for the rest of the series. Matheson was benched, and if the problems persist into next season, the Panthers may have a big problem offloading his contract, which has five more years and over $24 million left on it. 

 

But Matheson is chump change compared to the catastrophe that was the signing of Dave Bolland. In 2014, the Panthers signed Bolland to a five-year, $27.5 million contract. In two seasons, he played in only 78 out of 164 possible games due to injuries. Eventually, the Cats sent him to the Arizona Coyotes for a couple of picks, but Bolland never played another game. Just a few millions down the drain…

 

The Panthers new GM can’t make these mistakes. Players must be evaluated, not only for talent, but also for physical health and decision-making, especially when it comes to how they will represent the team. Not every player, no matter how talented they may be on the ice, is worth a long-term contract.

 

#3: Understanding of a winning formula (with an emphasis on consistency)

 

When the Cats won the Atlantic Division in 2016, it was because of a very specific player formula. The Panthers took their young core (Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Trocheck, Ekblad) and let them grow under the leadership of hockey legends Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo, as well as veterans like Jussi Jokinen, Derek MacKenzie, Brian Campbell, and Willie Mitchell, amongst others. 

 

Having a team of young stars is great, but you can’t blame them (at least, not entirely) when you run into consistency issues. Most young players won’t know how to win in a professional setting unless and until you teach them, and the easiest way to do that is to let winners teach them. The Cats’ consistency issues recently may be a result of having only four players over 30 on the roster. While deserved, it does say something that the team captain is only 24 years old.

 

#4: Development of a young goaltender

 

What can we say about Sergei Bobrovsky? The 31-year-old goalie has definitely had his moments this season, but his contract, signed by Dale Tallon, has definitely put the Panthers in the hole for the next six seasons. Bobrovsky lucked into a 7-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers only because of Tallon’s incompetence. 

 

The Panthers have cycled through a few young goaltenders since Roberto Luongo’s retirement, including AHL call-up Sam Montembeault, who had a few of his own moments as a backup to Bobrovsky, and Chris Driedger, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Panthers last year. Either or both of these two could turn out to be valuable aspects of the future of the organization, but they are also competing against the Panthers first round draft pick of last year, Spencer Knight. Knight is the first goaltender ever taken in the first round by the franchise, and was ranked as the top eligible goaltender in the 2019 Draft.

 

One of these three goalies needs to prove himself a standout to take over as Bobrovsky’s backup (and maybe even to supersede him). But it will take some development to make it happen, and that will have to fall on the new GM’s shoulders.

 

#5: Locking up stars Mike Hoffman and/or Evgeni Dadanov (or replacing them)

 

The Panthers new GM will also need to look at keeping two of their most valuable players, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadanov, locked up for the next few years, after they become free agents this season. 

 

Hoffman was the Panthers third-leading goal scorer this season with 29 goals and 30 assists in the regular season and three in the qualifying round to lead the team. His talents lie especially in the power play, where he dominates, but he is productive in most, if not all, aspects of the offense. His price will likely come in at around $7 million a year, but if the Panthers can keep him on, it seems worth the cap hit. 

 

Dadanov, meanwhile, has proved himself a worthy addition after some swapping around early in his NHL career. The right wing has scored at least 25 goals in his last three seasons, topping off at 70 points in the 2018-19 season, and frequently joins Huberdeau and Barkov on the Panthers’ first line. 

 

The Cats will need to balance the two players’ worth on the ice with their worth in their wallets because it will almost certainly take some big bucks to keep either of them in South Florida. It seems likely that at least one of them will have to be let go.

The Time Is Now For The Panthers

 

The time is now.

For the Panthers, that has two different meanings. But both of the meanings are just as important as each other.

After months of delays because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL season had been sidelined. When play stopped back in March, the Panthers were 10th place in the East and 3 points back of a playoff spot with a game in hand. It had been an overall disappointing season for the Panthers, since it was met with high expectations with the big off-season signing of Sergei Bobrovsky. However, the Panthers were coming off a big win and looked ready to make a final push.

Now after the delay, the NHL scrapped the regular season and decided to do a two city, NBA-like bubble. One in Toronto and one in Edmonton.

The top 12 teams in each conference made it to the bubble. The top 4 teams made it as a for sure playoff team while the other 8, including the Panthers, will play in a best of 5 Stanley Cup Qualifier round. 

For the Panthers, they drew the New York Islanders. If you remember, just a few years back, the Islanders beat the Panthers in a gut-wrenching 6 games series. That series, which was mostly dominated by the Panthers, was suppose to be their warning message to the rest of the NHL. Dale Talon’s blueprint had arrived.

Except, it hadn’t.

Since then, the Panthers have just mounted consecutive losing seasons and are on their 3rd coach since. Which is why now is so important. Now is so important for Dale Talon. For Sasha Barkov. For Jonathan Huberdeau. All these guys that have been here and have promised dominant South Florida hockey. This is a telling opportunity for this core to make some noise. If they don’t, you can start seeing some painful moves within the next couple seasons.

Now is also the time for the organization. It’s no secret the Panthers don’t have the best attendance numbers. It’s become a very annoying joke around hockey circles. However, the market has been craving sports. Inter Miami was bounced from the MLS Is Back Tournament and is an embarrassing 0-5, the Marlins season might be canceled since they’re in the middle of a team wide coronavirus outbreak and the Heat have a couple weeks of just meaningless regular season games before the post-season starts.

Meaning, the Panthers can be center of attention for the first since 1996 in South Florida. If they make a run here, people will notice because people WILL be watching. They get three afternoon playoff games, which should do well for their local ratings. They need to win these games and bring excitement to the average fan. They know what the stakes are here.

When the puck drops at 4pm on Saturday, the stakes will be high for the Panthers. A big series win or two can change the course of the organization for years to come, or, they lose and continue to be stuck in the middling mud, losing their little bit of shine they have left in South Florida.