Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Florida Panthers

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Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-18 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Florida Panthers.

Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Florida Panthers

Last Season

The Florida Panthers had high expectations for the 2016-17 season after they won the Atlantic Division the year prior. The club was looking to build off that division win and potentially start a run of success that had so far escaped the organization. With that goal in mind the summer of 2016 brought a lot of change. First off the club decided to promote general manager Dale Talon to be the teams president of hockey operations and then in the same move gave general manager duties to Tallon’s assistant, Tom Rowe.

From there the Panthers decided that they would reshape the roster to include players with a more analytical approach to the game. The shuffling started in late June when Rowe traded for the negotiating rights to veteran rear guard Keith YandleYandle was then signed to a seven year, $44.5 million contract. Yandle, a mobile puck moving defenceman made way for Rowe’s next move. On June 25, 2016 he traded defenceman Dmitri Kulikov to Buffalo for a stay at home and big bodied Mark Pysyk. Kulikov wasn’t considered an analytics darling and his $4.3 million cap hit was just a bit too much for Florida’s liking, and the Yandle signing made him a spare part.

Come the opening of free agency, Florida was very active. The Panthers signed former Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer to a five year deal worth $17 million. Other players added were: Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault, and Jason Demers. The team the gave long term and expensive extensions to two of its core players. Aaron Ekblad was signed to an eight year, $60 million extension and Jonathan Huberdeau was given a six year, $35.4 million contract extension. After all was said and done the Panthers spent over $200 million dollars on players, a big commitment from ownership after Florida’s best season in franchise history.

Needless to say the money didn’t help Florida. After a 11-10-1 start to the year. Rowe fired head coach Gerard Gallant. This turned out to be a fiasco for the Panthers. Not only was Gallant a favourite of the players but it’s how the firing was viewed. He was fired after a game in Carolina and presumably left behind by the team. Yes, the Panthers were struggling, but it’s not like they were getting blown out every night. At the end of the day Rowe made the decision to move on from Gallant and named himself the head coach for the remainder of the season. Rowe led the team to a 24-26-9 record the rest of the way and Florida ended up missing the playoffs by 14 points.

Off-Season

While the better part of the 2016 off-season was to revamp the blue line, much of 2017 has been dedicated to improving the forward group. A healthy Huberdeau and Barkov are the centre pieces in Florida’s offence. It was pretty clear that the Panthers wanted to shift to become a more well rounded team. With that right wing Jaromir Jagr wasn’t offered a new contract. When free agency opened on July 1, Tallon signed former draft pick and KHL stud Evgeny Dadonov to a three year deal worth $12 million. The hope is that he’ll translate his KHL scoring prowess over to NHL ice (224 points in 271 games).

The other big addition was that of 36-year-old right wing Radim Vrbata. Vrbata was Arizona’s top scorer last season potting 55 points (20 goals, 35 assists) in 81 games. Florida was fairly quiet during free agency signing mostly depth players and players that they drafted to low level contracts. The Panthers are clearly going for a ‘promote from within’ system.

2017-18 Predicted Line Combinations

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau – Aleksander Barkov – Evgeny Dadonov 

Jared McCann – Vincent Trocheck – Radim Vrbata 

Denis Malgin – Nick Bjugstad – Colton Sceviour 

Henrik Haapala Derek MacKenzieAlexandre Grenier 

Other Options: Connor Brickley, Michael Haley, Jayce Hawryluk 

The top line should come as no surprise here. When healthy both Huberdeau and Barkov have shown that they can be effective top line players. The key for them both is to take that next step. Huberdeau (the third overall draft choice in 2011) is now 24 years old and entering his prime years. Expect him to take a big step forward this season, again if he is healthy.

Barkov is in the same boat as his linemate. While he did put up respectable numbers last season (21 goals, 31 assisrs, 52 points in 61 games), Barkov has yet to truly develop into that elite level centre that most teams crave. He has the size and skill to do so and providing that he can gel with new right wing Dadonov, then he should be able to take the next step.

Secondary scoring will be a huge issue for Florida this season. Yes Dadonov is a good piece, but he’s spent the last five years playing in the KHL where there is a little more time and space for a player to be creative. If he can minimize the learning curve to 10 or less games than he should do fine at the NHL level. Veteran Vrbata can be counted on for 15-20 goals and about 50 points. He won’t be counted on as one of the go to scoring options, but he’ll be an effective power play piece for new head coach Bob Boughner.

The bottom six is fine, but won’t provide much offensive help. A bounce back year from Nick Bjugstad would be beneficial to him and Florida. You might get to see some youngsters like 2017 10th overall pick Owen Tippet and 21-year-old Jayce Hawryluk. Both these players are fine young forwards but only expect to see them if the Panthers are truly out of it.

Defensive Pairings

Keith Yandle – Aaron Ekblad 

Michael MathesonAlex Petrovic 

Mark Pysyk – Jason Demers 

Seventh Defenceman: Ian McCoshen 

When he was signed to an eight year extension in the summer of 2016, a lot was expected from 21-year-old Aaron Ekblad. He was supposed to take the next step in his development. A smooth skating defenceman with an excellent shot and outsanding vision, he has all the tools to make him an elite top pairing defenceman in the NHL. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, Ekblad’s expected step forward was actually three steps backward. He struggled mightily in 2016-17 scoring just 21 points in 68 games. He’s vowed to regain his elite form, and if he does then the Panthers could have a very good defence corps.

Yandle pretty much came as advertised. A pure offensive defenceman. He’ll be the linchpin on the Panthers powerplay and he should once again eclipse the 40 point mark. Expect to see him log heavy minutes with Ekblad as both conitnue to develop chemistry as a pairing.

Michael Matheson might be the most underrated young defender in the NHL. He may not light up the scoreboard every night but he has the potential to be a very good two-way defenceman. He once again starred for Team Canada at the 2017 World Hockey Championships and looks to translate that into sustained success in the NHL.

Demers, Pysyk, and Petrovic all struggled early into their Panthers tenures last season, but as the year went on they all improved. All three are perfectly situated into bottom pairing roles and should excel in those roles.

Rookie Ian McCoshen is our pick to be the seventh defenceman. He’s spent time in the AHL learning how to be more effective against players that are older and more mature. The success he’s had has given him the confidence to succeed in the NHL. Should one of the Panthers top six get hurt, expect McCoshen to get the first crack at replacing him.

Goalies

Roberto Luongo 

James Reimer

This was really tough to decide. Because, for the most part, Reimer outperformed Luongo in several goaltending categories. But you just can’t ignore what Bobby Lou has done in his career and for that he’s still the number one. However, if that lingering hip problem that forced him to miss the final weeks of the season is still a problem then it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boughner go with Reimer.

The Panthers could go with a 50/50 split all season long in net. With Luongo’s health a concern and Reimer’s inconsistency past 45 games started, Florida may be in the market for a goalie if they’re in the playoff conversation come the trade deadline.

Players To Watch

Vincent Trocheck

For the better part of his NHL career Trocheck has flown under the radar. But he’s turned into a very good second line centre that most teams crave. His point production has gone up in each of his four seasons (8, 22, 53, 54). He was arguably Florida’s best player in 2016-17, playing in all 82 games and was a regular contributor on both special teams. He sees a ton of ice time because of his strong two-way game. He is perfectly positioned behind Barkov as the number two centre.

Owen Tippett

Drafted this past summer 10th overall, Tippett has the right tools to be an NHLer. He’s shown he can dominate at the junior level scoring 44 goals and 31 assists in 60 games last season with the Mississauga Steelheads. While Tippett may think he’s ready for the next step, it ultimately comes down to if the team thinks he’s ready. Regardless of where he plays next season Panthers fans should keep a close eye on him.

Players On The Rise

Aleksander Barkov

It’s easy to forget that Barkov is only 22 years of age based on how long he’s been playing. As the teams top line centre he is the main cog in the engine that drives Florida’s offence. He uses his size and skill to create time and space for his teammates. An underrated value to his game is his vision, which with experience will get better. 2017-18 could be a make-or-break year for Barkov. It’s not beyond reason to expect him to score somewhere between 60-75 points and start to truly become an elite first line centre.

Players On The Decline

Radim Vrbata

For the most part of his 17-year NHL career Vrbata has been a consistent performer, relative to expectations. For the last six years he’s been considered a solid second liner that can play up and down the lineup if need be. But as we’ve seen in most players, father time becomes an issue. By the time the puck drops on the 2017-2018 season Vrbata will be 36 years old. In a game where younger and faster players are taking over it will be difficult for Vrbata to keep up. Concerns over his production might be a factor, especially considering the lack of depth on the Panthers roster.

2017-18 Season Prediction

Another off-season of change for general manager Dale Tallon‘s team. The problem that faces the 2017-18 edition of the Panthers is depth. After the top line the team is asking a lot from players that, at times, lack real attacking quality. The defence found its stride late in the season last year and should be Florida’s best quality this year. Question marks in goal could spell for a long season in Florida.

New head coach Bob Boughner has a tough task ahead of him. The Panthers have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, and based on the roster that they’ve assembled the they look like a prime candidate to be among the teams that miss the postseason. The departures of Jagr, Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and Jussi Jokinen will have a serious impact on the Florida’s goal production. It might be better for fans to expect a lottery pick instead of a playoff berth.

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