Florida Panthers: How Competitive Can the Cats be?

SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 5: Aleksander Barkov
SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 5: Aleksander Barkov /

With draft picks selected, free agents signed, and contracts being tendered, all heads turn towards October for season 25 for the Florida Panthers.

To recap the offseason, the Panthers traded for Ottawa Senators’ forward Mike Hoffman in a trade process that was, to say the least, confusing. Hoffman was originally dealt to the San Jose Sharks to keep him away from rivals like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Boston Bruins.

To the dismay of Senators’ GM Pierre Dorion, Hoffman wound up being in the Atlantic just two hours later, as the Panthers shipped a package of draft picks highlighted by a 2019 2nd round pick.

Florida lost three players from last season’s team in free agency, as Radim Vrbata threw in the towel after a 16-year career, finishing with 623 points in 1,057 career NHL games. Vrbata finished with 5 goals and 9 assists in 42 games for the Cats last season.

Connor Brickley’s second stint in South Florida finished with the forward moving to the Nashville Predators, and surprise signing Harri Sateri sought out a bigger role than what was offered in Florida, signing with division rivals Detroit Red Wings.

The Panthers replace a combined 26 points of Brickley and Vrbata with Hoffman’s 56 points, likely slotting Hoffman into the second line alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck.

The Panthers finished with a record of 44-30-8, 96 points, just one point shy of the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils for a playoff spot. With that said, the Panthers mostly kept the same team from last season, which means the team shouldn’t struggle out of the gates as much as last season, following losing pieces like Reilly Smith, Jason Demers, and Jonathan Marchessault. Not to mention, last season was Bob Boughner’s first year as head coach, both for the Panthers and the NHL, so finding the winning formula took some time.

Now, the Cats look to have a winning formula laid out for them, as the blueprints of a playoff team are laid out with potentially one of the best top-six in the NHL: a defense meshed with grit, youth, veterans, scoring, and a stud in goal. Everything seems primed and ready for the Florida Panthers to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, but the East has only become stronger since then.

Since 2016, the Atlantic Division has gone through some major flip-flopping, as the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens have been Sparta-kicked into the basement of the NHL, while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins have revitalized themselves as model organizations. To go along with those two, in-state rivals Tampa Bay Lightning managed to stay healthy, and displayed what their core could do, winning the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

As challenging as those three teams are, the Panthers line up well with all three of those teams. The Lightning remain largely unchanged from free agency, other than seasoned veteran Chris Kunitz joining the Chicago Blackhawks.

Like Tampa Bay, the Panthers are a young team that has great center depth and hot and cold defense, with the potential of multiple all-stars on both rosters. The questions of health are also up there for both teams, as Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, and Andre Vasilevskiy all have missed big portions of time over the past two seasons.

Similarly, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Roberto Luongo have also missed a lot of time these past two years, with Huberdeau almost missing more than half of the 2016/17 season. The Bolts and Cats played a lot of solid games last year, with Florida going 1-2-1, including a thrilling 5-4 overtime defeat against Tampa Bay in March, with Nick Bjugstad picking up his first NHL hat trick, and Vincent Trocheck scoring his 25th of the season that saw the Panthers come back from being down 3 different times.

To say that the Panthers will compete with the Lightning this season may be stretching the faith and expectations that the Panthers have and deserve, but the Cats proved multiple times they can play with the big guns of Tampa Bay. It should make for a healthy rivalry this season, with the Panthers hosting the Lightning on December 1st and February 10th.

A team highly expected to be shooting for Lord Stanley this season is the Toronto Maple Leafs, and why shouldn’t they? Their squad has changed a lot from last season’s 105 points, saying goodbyes to Matt Martin, Roman Polak, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk; depth players who helped make the Leafs a consistent scoring machine.

They went all-in, and got their reward in all-star center John Tavares on a 7-year deal, bringing together a lethal top-six of him, Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Auston Matthews. For those of you counting at home, that’s 388 points combined last season, and that still leaves out 57 of Nazem Kadri’s points.

The Leafs, like the Lightning, are a mess to defend against, with each pass organized to perfection by Mike Babcock and co. Despite this, their defense looks like a mess and was completely exposed by Boston in last year’s first round. For their team to be successful, defenders like Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick need to show their worth to limit the work of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Frederik Andersen.

The Panthers were solid against the Leafs last season, posting a 2-2-0 record, with both wins coming beyond regulation. The series was also split evenly at home, as the Panthers took both games in Sunrise, but went winless in Toronto.

For as unbelievable as it sounds, those original Leafs that will be apart of their top-six actually struggled mightily against the Panthers last season, with 4 goals scored in 3 games between the 5 of them. Van Riemsdyk was the top scorer against the Panthers with 2 goals in 3 games.

The games were very low scoring, including a 2-1 shootout win for Florida and a 1-0 Leafs win. A very fun game was during the Panthers’ February surge when the Panthers and Leafs played a tough, intense game that took overtime to seek a victor, thanks to Jared McCann.

Whereas last season’s four meetings were lower-scoring defensive battles, it’s looking like this season might be the complete opposite, to see Vincent Trocheck and John Tavares, two all-star candidates, as second-line forwards for their respective sides means one thing: a lot of scoring.

The one thing the Panthers may significantly edge the Leafs on is wing depth, with players such as Frank Vatrano, Maxim Mamin, Denis Malgin, and Colton Sceviour outranking less-experienced Leafs bottom liners like Josh Leivo and Connor Brown.

For the Panthers to beat Toronto next season, the keys will have to be keeping the Leafs in check to less than 3 goals, which is harder than it sounds, and the bottom lines might step into bigger light than in other games. The Panthers host Toronto on December 15th and January 18th, two weekend games which should have the crowd and intensity of a playoff game.

A mild surprise last season in the Atlantic was the transformation of the Boston Bruins into a much deeper team. The Bruins were exposed by the Senators in the playoffs the season before as their top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak were shut down, leaving the B’s without a lot of scoring and an easy exit.

It was the key problem with Boston in seasons prior, the lack of scoring depth was hindering them from becoming that team that could dominate the East. The Bruins found the key to that locked secret of scoring depth through turning over the team to their youth.

Head coach Bruce Cassidy had spent 10 years in the Bruins organization trying to revitalize his coaching career after taking a major blow with the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks.

In his first full year as head coach after taking over from the caretaker role after the firing of Claude Julien, he called to the youth he spent 8 years with in Boston’s AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins. Players like Jake Debrusk, Charlie McAvoy, and Danton Heinen blossomed and the Bruins finished just 1 point shy of Eastern Conference Champions.

The Bruins added Joakim Nordstrom, John Moore, and Jaroslav Halak to continue to add to the depth in the offseason, looking to become top dogs once again. This, however, lies in a lot of uncertainty, as the rookies mentioned above have to keep up their pace as they did last season.
Tuukka Rask must remain as solid as he was last season and not go through the experience that Edmonton’s netminder Cam Talbot went through this past year.

The Panthers might actually be better than the Bruins going forward, and arguably become more reliable than their backline. The Cats really flexed their muscle against the Bruins in the second half of last season, finishing with a 3-1-0 record against the Bruins, with Frank Vatrano showing out with 2 goals in 3 games against his former side, as well as Evgeni Dadonov totaling 4 points in 4 games.

The Bruins are going to have a lot of doubters doubting whether they can keep it up, and for the Panthers to be able to sling their way into one of the 3 Atlantic spots, this is the team they have to beat this year. The Cats host the Bruins on December 4th and March 23rd, with the March game looking to be an intense 3rd meeting between these two sides down the stretch.

The Panthers match up well with the Atlantic’s top-tier talent, as all 3 opponents have unbelievable top-six forward cores, defensive stars, yet at the same time are leaky at the back, and inconsistent goaltending.

If the Panthers are to make a serious run at the top three spots, the most important thing is to not fall behind the eight ball early. If Florida continued at the pace they played at during the second half of last season, the Panthers were projected at around 106 points, with the slump from the beginning of the season causing the team to not have enough time to catch up.

These division rivals aren’t going to wait around, as all three are fixated on the Stanley Cup this season, and while there isn’t much reason for the Panthers to have the same goals this season, the Cats need to take this process bit by bit. That being said, the Panthers should focus on grabbing the first wild card spot.

There’s a few teams in the Atlantic the Panthers shouldn’t have to worry about, as teams like the Habs, Senators, and Red Wings should be rebuilding this season (whatever rebuilding is for Ken Holland).

The Buffalo Sabres have picked up some good pieces with Rasmus Dahlin, Conor Sheary, and around half of the Blues roster with Tage Thompson, Carter Hutton, Patrik Berglund, and Vladimir Sobotka, but their team is still a year or two away from getting to where they want to be.

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In the Metropolitan, the New York Rangers will continue their rebuild after choosing not to pursue many of the top players on the market (Noah Hanifin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan O’Reilly), while the New York Islanders will struggle with losing their former franchise player in John Tavares, but with Mathew Barzal and new head coach Barry Trotz, they could surprise many.

While the Columbus Blue Jackets have been solid during the regular season, take away their massive win streaks over the last two seasons, and they are insanely pedestrian, which also is what happens to the Jackets when they hit the postseason. There’s also a lot of drama playing out with Artemi Panarin apparently wanting out after not wanting to sign an extension.

I see the top three in the Metro as the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers again (no specific order), with the Panthers having to beat the two teams who finish below the top three spots. With Columbus, Carolina, and New York Islanders looking to be somewhere mixed, the Panthers’ main rival for a wild card spot should be none other than the New Jersey Devils.

The Devils and Panthers are compatible in two things, speed and youth. The Devils played like speeding bullets last year, flooded with pace led by the Hart Memorial Trophy winner, Taylor Hall. Hall was complemented by young guns Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, and Pavel Zacha, playing on a blistering counterattacking strategy.

The Devils were also complemented with unbelievable special teams, top 10 in both power play (10th) and penalty kill (8th). Despite those, the Devils were moderately pedestrian, 15th in goals, 15th in goals against, and won 5 games in the shootout last season.

For the Devils to take the next step, they need more contribution from their depth players. Taylor Hall was 1st on the Devils in points with 99, then a 46 point drop-off to the next best player, as Hischier finished with 53.

That’s almost as many points behind Hall than points all season, and Hischier was only a rookie. Hall may have a ‘Cam Talbot season,’ in which he becomes exhausted from putting up over point per game numbers, or may have a Connor McDavid season, where he bounces back with even better numbers. If the depth can’t contribute a significant amount more, it could be a rude awakening in Providence Center.

The Panthers finished 2-1-0 against New Jersey this past season, with all three games finishing as one-goal games. The Panthers played twice in New Jersey, both times in November, finishing as 2-1 Devils and 3-2 Panthers later that month off a Jared McCann winner. One player who was the key against New Jersey last season was Aleksander Barkov, finishing with 3 goals against the Devils in 3 games, including a two-goal game in March for a vital Panthers win at the time.

The mixture of speed and strength was too much for the Devils, and these kinds of players really are a thorn in their backside. Nick Bjugstad is another one of these players, and he tallied against the Devils too, in the 2-1 defeat. Mike Hoffman should be a noble addition for when the Cats face off with New Jersey this season at home on November 26th and on the final day of the season, April 7th.

The expectations for the Panthers in 2018-19 should be nothing less than the top wild card spot. The Cats dominated the second half of last season without Hoffman, and with the new and revamped Cats roster which should feature Henrik Borgström, the Panthers can definitely bust through the gap and make the playoffs.

Next: Panthers Prospect Patrick Bajkov Has Untapped Potential

Where the Cats go from there is a bridge that Florida are yet to cross, but the Panthers should be on the prowl next season.