The Florida Panthers 2019 season kicks off October 3rd with high expectations. Will this be the year the Cats break through?
With all the talk of tanking consuming local sports media, the Florida Panthers quietly enter the 2019 season poised for a playoff run.
The Panthers could in fact be the most successful team in South Florida this year.
They look to build off a 2018 season which showed a lot of promise but spiraled in the wrong direction late.
A few major changes took place for the Panthers in the offseason, most notably the addition of three time Stanley Cup winning head coach Joel Quinneville.
Dale Tallon replaced Bob Boughner after two mediocre seasons which saw them miss the playoffs both years.
Quinneville obviously brings a proven track record of success to the organization which was much needed after the team plateaued under Boughner.
Swan Song for the Great Strombone
Injuries played a factor for Luongo and trying to rehab and get into shape for another season was not in the plans for the Great Strombone.
To fill the void in net the Panthers swung for the fences, signing two time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky to a 7-year deal in July.
Despite his success, Bobrovsky is still seeking his first Stanley Cup and is excited for the potential of his new team.
“It’s all about the Cup. That’s my main goal,” he said July 2. “That’s what I want to do, so that’s why I am here now. I believe in this team, I believe in this group, and I really think that we can do something special in here.” From NHL.com
Bobrovsky led the NHL with nine shutouts last year with Columbus and his 2.46 career goals-against-average (GAA) is a huge improvement over the 3.16 GAA the Panthers goalies put up last year. That mark ranked them 28th in the league, simply not good enough.
Where the Panthers really struggled last year was on the blue line, ranking 28th in the NHL with 273 goals allowed. Communication was a huge problem for the Cats defense last year, look for that area to improve under the structure of Quenneville.
Even an average defense should be enough for Florida to have a successful season due to an elite forward group led by superstar center Aleksander Barkov.
Casual fans may not recognize Barkov on the street, but he may be the best athlete in his respective sport locally.
Keep the Power on
One area of the team that should continue to be a bright spot is the power play, a unit that ranked second in the NHL with the man advantage last year.
Barkov led the Panthers with 96 points (35 goals, 61 assists) and his fellow forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman also eclipsed 30 goals on the year. Florida ranked in the top ten in both total goals (264) and goals per game (3.22) and the main core on the front line returns in 2019.
These three top forwards along with Evgenii Davodov played in all 82 games last year, hopefully they can stay close to that level of health this season. Davodov had a breakout season in his second year back from the KHL with 28 goals and 42 assists.
It may take time for the power play unit to click with a new coaching system in place, but the continuity and chemistry in that group should make the transition much easier.
Frank Vatrano was another spark for the Florida offense and finished fifth on the team with 24 goals.
Defend at all Costs
On the flip side of the coin for the Panthers is their defensive group which struggled mightily last year. As mentioned the Panthers were quite generous to the opponent on defense, allowing odd man rushes and missing assignments in their own zone at an alarming rate.
Despite an elite power play that unit had their own warts, allowing 13 shorthanded goals which was tied for the second-worst mark league wide. They also converted only three short handed goals of their own, tied for worst in the NHL.
The penalty kill (81.3%) was a top 10 group however, so special teams is an area of the team that could carry them in stretches throughout the year.
NHL Ironman Keith Yandle returns along with Aaron Ekblad as the top defense pairing, Yandle was especially effective on the power play and led the Panthers with 32 assists with an extra attacker. Ekblad was consistent again with 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) and has hit double digits in goals in each of his five seasons. He was also one of only four Panthers with a positive +/- for the year, Florida will need more players on the right side of that stat to make it anywhere this season.
With upgrades on the bench and in net the Panthers are in a great position to make a playoff push, perhaps even win a few series. They have to start fast, Florida lost eight out of their first ten games last year and could not overcome that early deficit.
The Panthers must also avoid multiple long losing streaks, they suffered both a seven-game and six-game slide in the second half which essentially put them out of the playoff picture.
Quenneville should be a steadying influence for a young and talented team, as a proven winner he should earn immediate respect from his team.
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