Puck Drop Preview: 2018-19 Florida Panthers

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word on Hockey 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 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Florida Panthers.

Puck Drop Preview: 2018-19 Florida Panthers

Previous Year

The Florida Panthers ended their 2017-18 season with the second-best record in the league after the all-star break. They went 25-8-2 down the stretch, yet failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To make matters worse, they only missed by one point. The team even recorded more wins than the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers got in ahead of the Panthers thanks to a high number of overtime losses. In the further disappointing news, the team tied the 2014-15 Boston Bruins for the record for most points by a team to miss the playoffs, with a whopping 96.

Not often does a 44-30-8 record result in a ninth-place finish. A good team, and one that was absolutely on fire for the previous three months headed home far too early last year.

All tragic language aside, the Panthers weren’t a quality team until January. There’s no doubt that they could have easily gotten themselves to the playoffs had they been a modest team earlier on. First-year head coach Bob Boughner knew it would take some time for his systems and style to become effective. Unfortunately, it kicked in just a game or two too late. Essentially, the Cats had to be nearly unbeatable for those last three months to even be on the bubble.

What the 2017-18 Florida Panthers Could Have Been…

By contrast, if they played all season at that 25-8-2 pace they ended with, they’d have earned 122 points. This isn’t a stretch to ponder, either, because they maintained that pace for 35 games. That’s only six games short of half the season. It is not like we are extrapolating a sample size of five to ten games, we’re talking about a team that rattled off 25 wins in 35 games.

With that in mind, falling short stung pretty bad. At least the Florida Panthers could hold their heads high going into the summer knowing they’d found their chemistry and confidence.

Off-Season

Because of the way they ended the year, General manager Dale Tallon hesitated to change too much. After all, they just witnessed how their over-tinkering destroyed the team one year earlier. A division championship in 2015-16 prompted a surprise front office and player overhaul, as the owners and managers wanted badly to turn their good fortunes into greater ones immediately. While some changes worked out and others at least looked good on paper, the large number of moves simply became too much to retain any chemistry and set the team back outside of the playoffs for 2016-17.

Staying the Course

With that recent memory in mind, Tallon made sure to keep his team in-tact. He only let two players who suited up for his Florida Panthers in 2017-18 go via free agency, one being their third-string goalie and the other a depth forward (Harri Sateri and Connor Brickley, respectively). All four of the team’s RFA’s re-signed with the club too, and all free agent additions came in the form of career AHL’ers and a new third string goalie (Michael Hutchinson).

One other notable addition came in the form of a KHL defenseman, Bogdan Kiselevich, who could actually factor in as a top-six defenseman right away. Kiselevich appeared in multiple KHL all-star games, and won a gold medal at the Olympics last year representing the Olympic Athletes of Russia. If he can transition to the North American style of play, he’ll immediately find his way into the lineup regularly.

Big Additions

Keeping the team together went about as smoothly as one could hope. But, Tallon did make one significant move for the Florida Panthers in the form of a trade. In exchange for a 2nd round pick in 2019, and a 4th and 5th round pick in 2018, Tallon landed star winger Mike Hoffman of the Ottawa Senators (technically, the trade was with the San Jose Sharks, who had acquired him from Ottawa about an hour earlier). This added a premiere scorer to a top-six group in need of another top flight winger. Tallon landed him without parting with any roster players, any prospects, or any first round picks. This will greatly benefit his club.

Then in late August, the Cats signed Troy Brouwer to add a veteran presence down the right wing. With the huge glut of forwards battling for bottom six minutes, Brouwer will have to be solid consistently to find regular minutes. He struggled last year in Calgary, but has three 20+ goal seasons on his resume. That plus the fact that he’s won a Stanley Cup (he’s the only champ on the team now) makes for an intriguing signing with a lot of potential. If he doesn’t play regularly, he’ll bring some leadership and experience to the locker room. Either way, for a one-year $850,000 deal, this is a low risk, high reward move.

Projected Lineup

Mike HoffmanAleksander BarkovEvgeni Dadonov

Jonathan HuberdeauVincent TrocheckNick Bjugstad

Frank Vatrano – Henrik Borgstrom – Troy Brouwer

Micheal HaleyDerek MacKenzieColton Sceviour

Keith YandleAaron Ekblad

Mike MathesonAlexander Petrovic

Bogdan Kiselevich – Mark Pysyk

Roberto Luongo

James Reimer

Players to Watch

Probably the most frustrating thing for Florida Panthers fans is the lack of coverage their players get in the NHL. For example, Barkov should absolutely be on everyone’s radars as arguably a top 10-15 center in the league right now. His vision and raw skill are unparalleled, and he compliments that with a massive and strong 6-foot-3, 213 pound frame. Everyone should be watching Barkov, who posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last year.

Then, there’s all the players not listed in the lineup but worthy of an opportunity. The Panthers have Jared McCannMaxim MaminDenis MalginJamie McGinnOwen Tippett, and Henrik Haapala all with professional experience as forwards. McCann, McGinn, Malgin and Mamin played most nights last season. Tippett received time as a rookie early in the season before heading back to juniors. Haapala is the only player in this list that can be comfortably assumed to spend the year in the AHL. He also has professional experience from time in Europe. Either way, that’s a whole lot of players fighting for ice time. The team can’t carry all of them either, as they’ve got two extras on defense fighting for games as well (that is, MacKenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen). A trade or two could come from all that, but for right now the bottom half of the roster is a real tough bunch to predict.

Henrik Borgstrom, Top Six Potential

As far as up-and-coming players go, there’s another easy choice in youngster Henrik Borgstrom. After his season ended with the Denver University Pioneers (NCAA DI), Borgstrom received a call-up at the end of the Panthers season. He posted one goal through four games. More importantly, he got some exposure to prepare for a full season in 2018-19. He scored 52 points in 40 games with the Pioneers last year. Those numbers are extremely impressive at the DI level where systems are extremely stingy and make scoring harder than ever. That knack for the net is what earned him the opportunity to play in the NHL.  If he puts on some weight this summer (he’s 6-foot-3, and currently just 185 pounds) he could do damage in his rookie season. He might even push Bjugstad for that final spot in the top six.

Goaltending

Lastly, people should watch the back half of this team too. Can Luongo stay healthy, and will Reimer rise to the challenge when necessary? That’s going to be a really important factor in Florida’s success, but the defense in front of those two appears to be settling in nicely. Weegar and McCoshen provide solid depth too, in case Kiselevich struggles to transition or one of the others fall to injury. Should the team face two goaltending injuries as they did for a week and a half last year, Michael Hutchinson is a more-than-capable third-string option.

Season Predictions

Again, the Panthers seem to consistently go unnoticed by the league. That should be changing this season. Their top six is undeniably strong, as all six have scored 24-31 goals in a single season before. In fact, five of the six broke the 20 goal plateau last year. Most of them close to 30 as well (Trocheck being the lone forward past that plateau with 31 last year). The depth up front is great too. With players like Mamin, McCann, McGinn, Malgin and Tippett all fighting to take time away from the other twelve. Because of that, there’s no guaranteeing others like Haley, Sceviour, Borgstrom, Vatrano, Brouwer or even the team’s captain MacKenzie play every night. This should create some great roster battles through training camp and pre-season, and keep the bottom six working to their max just to stay in the lineup.

Aside from massive injuries, there is absolutely no reason this team shouldn’t make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2018-19. Florida gelled with coach Boughner and put a product on the ice that proved extremely difficult to beat. They combine raw skill and vision with speed, and the rebuild that begun when Tallon first took over almost a decade ago is really coming to fruition right now. Most of the core was drafted by Tallon, and even the supplementary pieces now came from within. Their goaltending is sound, defense continuing to improve game-after-game, and offense bursting from the seems. This is going to be a fun year to watch.

As a final prediction, the Florida Panthers will qualify for the postseason by finishing third in their division. They’ll finish behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, but ahead of the Boston Bruins. That’s how good they are.

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