Jaromir Jagr (Eliot J. Schechter/NHL)
The Panthers came closer to making the post-season in 2014-15 than anyone would have expected. The top-nine of the roster is solid and Aaron Ekblad’s play on the blueline is inspiring. Goaltending might be a question, though, as veteran netminder Roberto Luongo is in his late 30s. Florida could use a post-season berth, but this might not be the year.
2014-15 Record: 38-29-15 (91 Pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 5th, Atlantic Division
What To Expect: The long, slow rebuild orchestrated by GM Dale Tallon began bearing fruit last season. After two straight basement finishes, the Panthers took a major step forward, finishing within arm's length of a playoff spot. They added
Jaromir Jagr, who meshed well with young guns
Jonathan Huberdeau and
Aleksander Barkov on the top line. Jagr, 43, signed on for another season in Sunrise. Centered by
Nick Bjugstad, who broke out with 24 goals, the second line could feature
Brandon Pirri and newcomer
Reilly Smith. Sensational teenager
Aaron Ekblad is already the team's MVP. He played with the poise of a veteran, scoring 39 points and winning the Calder Trophy. The Panthers believe their young core of Ekblad, Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau will propel them to the playoffs. They might not quite make it this season, but the CAts are on the rise, and it won't be long before they contend for an Atlantic Division title. A low goal total and pitiful power play cost the Panthers a playoff spot, as they were bottom 10 in both. The natural progression of top youngsters will help on those fronts, as will a full year of Jagr, who clicked in the season's final weeks. The bottom six doesn't have much offense. Greater output from
Vincent Trocheck or a rookie surge from
Rocco Grimaldi will help secondary scoring. It's hard to imagine Ekblad doesn't up his point total to the mid-40 range. His contributions and a better power play will rescue Florida's offense. Tallon searched for a sniper this off-season but couldn't acquire one. Defense parirings of Ekblad and
Brian Campbell and
Dmitry Kulikov and
Willie Mitchell were steady. Kulikov enjoyed his best season since his 2009 rookie year. As expected,
Roberto Luongo solidified the crease. He posted his best numbers since 2010-11. He'll maintain his career standard of dependable play. If Florida defies projections and makes the playoffs, it will need to get both special teams units out of the basement. The Panthers have the personnel to be middle-tier on both fronts.
Best-Case Scenario: The Panthers were much closer to becoming a playoff team in 2014-15 than anyone could have expected, so it’s not beyond reason to believe this team can get close again in 2015-16. The roster hasn’t changed much and they’ll continue to have good goaltending from Luongo. They’ll play a lot of close games, but could surprise some people.
Worst-Case Scenario: Finishing just a few points out of a playoff spot would be awful for the Panthers. The team is making strides on-ice and could use the post-season to build a stronger fanbase. Finishing close to the playoffs but not quite in likely puts them out of the running for a top-five draft talent. The Panthers could use the playoffs or a good shot at the top selection. The space in between doesn’t help the franchise now or in the future.
Who To Watch: Eklbad’s rookie campaign was a thing of beauty and the pressure will be on for the 19-year-old to have another great season in 2015-16. He is likely to stay paired with Campbell, whose veteran presence helped usher Ekblad into the big league, and Ekblad could even see bigger minutes this season than the nearly 22 minutes he played per outing in 2014-15. The big thing for Ekblad, though, will be continuing to build his defensive game on top of his already stellar offensive ability. No one has ever questioned his talent with the puck on his stick, but if he improves his play away from the puck and in his own end he could become an all-star in Year 2. There will be talk of a dreaded sophomore slump, but Ekblad has all the tools to buck the down year.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. The Panthers are on the cusp of something very good, but they’re not quite there yet and this doesn’t look like it’ll be the year they realize it. The chances they make the playoffs this season are about 1-in-5, which isn’t very reassuring for a team that has only made it once in the new millennium. Still, the young talent on the team looks capable of getting there very soon. As mentioned above, the forward depth is a bit suspect, but it takes a major hit from two players alone. Dave Bolland and Shawn Thornton hurt the Panthers every time they hit the ice and they’re dragging the team down as a result. Say what you want about grit and toughness or whatever, but those intangibles are better served when the on-ice results aren’t actively hurting the team. Outside of those two, the top nine doesn’t look that bad. The defense is around average for the most part, thanks mostly to the play of Ekblad. Brian Campbell’s steady play as a partner was the perfect fit for Ekblad who exceeded all expectations during his rookie season. He’ll only get better too. On the other end of the blueline depth chart is a former highly touted D prospect in Erik Gudbranson. It’s not too late for him to turn it around, but his play so far hasn’t lived up to the high draft billing. The biggest concern for the Panthers this season will be goaltending. Luongo has had a resurgence since coming to Florida, but there are some worrying signs of aging over the past few years. Even if everything goes right for the Panthers skaters this season, it won’t matter if Luongo starts to fade. At 36, it looks like a likely scenario.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.