by Shane O’Donnell
1. Elite first line.
The Panthers haven’t really had a top-tier forward unit since the line of Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss combined for 174 points during the 2011-12 season. That year, Florida made the playoffs for the first time since 2000, getting bounced in the opening round by the New Jersey Devils.
Heading into the 2015-16 campaign, the Panthers have a first line that could not only rack up the points, but also dominate the possession game. When put together toward the end of the last season, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr combined for 54 points in just 20 games. They also had a score-adjusted shot attempts percentage of 55 percent and a goals for percentage of 62. The Panthers have a legitimate shot at the playoffs for the first time since their run in 2012, and the elite play of the team’s top line will play a huge role in getting them there.
NHL players peak, on average, around the age of 25, so successful teams usually have a wealth of talented players in the 22-to-27 range. The Panthers currently have seven players falling within that group, and younger, star-caliber players like Barkov and Aaron Ekblad getting ready to reach their prime. With so many players prepared to play some of the best hockey of their careers, the team should improve on last season’s 91-point performance.
Forwards like Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri will consistently dent the twine, while young playmakers such as Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Huberdeau could pile up the assists. On defense, offensively-gifted Dmitry Kulikov and defensively sound Erik Gudbranson are ready to have breakout seasons. Overall, the continuing development of its youth will make the Cats that much better in 2015-16, and could propel them to a playoff spot.
3. Organizational depth.
Injuries are bound to happen over the course of the season, and if there aren’t players ready to jump in and play at a respectable level, things can go down the toilet pretty quickly. This year, the Panthers have an impressive number who could jump into the lineup if needed, as their prospect cupboard is stocked with players who are close to NHL-ready. The intense battles for roster spots at training camp are really heating up. At forward, only two or three of Rocco Grimaldi, David Booth, Connor Brickley, Garrett Wilson, Martin Havlat and Quinton Howden will make the big-league roster.
Even if Booth and/or Havlat’s pro tryout contract doesn’t result in a contract, the Cats could still wind up with Brickley, Howden and Wilson in the AHL. All three wouldn’t look out of place in a fourth line role with the parent club. On the blue line, Dylan Olsen, Alex Petrovic, Steven Kampfer and rookie Mike Matheson all could end up being the sixth or seventh defensemen. That leaves two very capable defenders waiting in the wings in Portland. For a team that has barely had enough NHL-caliber players on its roster in the recent past, having strong organizational depth will be beneficial as the Panthers make a postseason push this season.
by JC Smith
1. Goaltending depth.
Roberto Luongo put up fantastic numbers last season, playing in 61 games and posting a 2.35 GAA and .921 save percentage. His backup, Al Montoya, was nowhere near as effective. Montoya appeared in 20 games and posted a 3.01 GAA and .892 save percentage. Behind Montoya is newly acquired AHL veteran Mike McKenna, who has just 22 career NHL games to his credit, with an uninspiring .889 save percentage and 3.48 GAA (although he has put up very solid numbers in the "A").
Clearly Luongo must stay healthy and take on a heavy workload yet again, but consider this intimidating fact: Luongo is a 36-year-old who dealt with injuries last season. Historically speaking, only four goalies have played 60 or more games as a 36-year old in the NHL: Tony Esposito (in 1979-80), Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, and Ed Belfour (all in 2001-02). Two other goalies have played more than 55 games at 36: Tim Thomas (in 2010-11), and Johnny Bower (in 1960-61). There was just one 36-year old netminder in the league last season: Niklas Backstrom, who played a mere 19 games. Yikes.
2. Special teams.
Rinse and repeat, as we Panther prognosticators noted this as a team weakness coming into the 2014-15 season as well. The team did actually improve on its 2013-14 numbers, going from dead last in the league in both power play and penalty kill percentages, to 24th in the league in both categories last season. Interestingly, four NHL playoff teams were in the second tier of the league on penalty kill percentages, and nine playoff teams were in the lower half of the league in power play percentage. Nonetheless, the Panthers simply must improve special teams play if they hope to find the postseason in a highly-competitive Eastern Conference.
3. Goal scoring.
Only one team in the Atlantic scored fewer goals-per-game than the Panthers last season, and that team, the Buffalo Sabres, was too busy building its super-tank to concentrate on lighting the lamp. The toothless Cats averaged just 2.41 goals per game, falling behind other division rivals like Toronto, Boston and offensively challenged Montreal in that category. Florida finished 25th in the league in goals per game, which was a modest improvement from that noted weakness in 2013-14, when the team finished a dreadful 29th. Nick Bjugstad led the Panthers with 24 goals in 2014-15, despite missing 10 games to close the season with a back injury that required surgery. Sure, 24 is a respectable number, especially for a second-year player, but as a team-best mark it’s a pretty far cry from Alexander Ovechkin’s league-leading 53.
1. Did the Panthers do enough this summer to make the playoffs?
2. Can the line of Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau continue to dominate?
3. Does Roberto Luongo have another high quality, heavy workload season in him?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Donny Rivette
Assuming continued upward progression from the young core begins to cure last year's offensive woes, the Panthers will sink or thrive based upon a healthy roster. No matter the stellar shape in which the athletes arrive, Florida must have consistent lineup appearances from Jaromir Jagr (who sets the tone for the forward group in general and Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov in particular) and Luongo (because it's Lou in net and not much else, at least early). With that caveat out of the way, the best case scenario looks like this:
Bjugstad has completely recovered from the surgery that ended an otherwise terrific season in March and continues improving his two-way game. Brandon Pirri expectedly slows from a torrid pace he set down the stretch, but generates a below-the-radar threat each night. Smith proves a more consistent and creative offensive option than Jimmy Hayes in coach Gerard Gallant's system.
Dave Bolland rebounds from a disastrous first year with So. Much. To Prove. A happy Huberdeau nets 30 with his contract uncertainty now a distant memory. The Cats roll three true scoring lines for the first time in their existence, backed by tremendous young depth in Portland should the injury bug pay a (very modest) visit to Sunrise.
Lucky Lou remains healthy as Al Montoya -- or whoever swipes the backup role -- plays lights-out in relief (again, best case). Cap'n Mitchell continues to inspire his troops and build on a growing reputation as Mr. Panther Pride. Aaron Ekblad picks up a few more points than a season ago, but scoring is more evenly balanced among the rearguards; a steady, confident Dmitry Kulikov finally breaks out, solidifying his top-four status and silencing the doubters.
Sexy offensive stats may elude Erik Gudbranson, but his fearless Crash & Bash shutdown game is precisely what he's best at. Three-on-three overtime sessions prove a smashing success for a club desperate to avoid the shootout. Not-so-special teams finally click. A more efficient three-man coaching staff (and Robb Tallas) -- in contrast to last year’s four-headed monster -- does wonders in unifying the relationship between roster and bench bosses.
GM Dave Tallon becomes a buyer(!) at the trading deadline.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Todd Little
Dale Tallon is finally starting to reap the rewards of his long rebuild of the Panthers. With Florida’s best prospects already in the fold and starting to carry the club, it’s hard to imagine things could go far off the rails this season. That doesn’t mean the team will make the playoffs, mind you, just that its days of being a bottom-feeder seem to finally be behind. There are, however, a few things that can blow that thought to smithereens.
The first, and biggest, one is ye olde injury bug. While the Cats still have plenty of prospect depth, the best of it will be on the NHL roster, leaving them susceptible to regression if Roberto Luongo or any of the team’s few consistent goal scorers go down for a long period of time. There are plenty of warm bodies down on the farm, but no one with the NHL experience needed to fill key spots in case a major run of injuries occur. A healthy Panthers should contend for a wild card spot, an unhealthy Panthers might just end up picking at the top end of the draft again.
Speaking of those goal scorers, that brings us to point number two: they have to produce consistently. That aforementioned lack of NHL-seasoned depth on the third and fourth lines and in Portland (AHL) will also become an issue if players like Bjugstad, Pirri, Jagr, Barkov, or Huberdeau are firing blanks for all, or long-stretches, of the season.
And finally, there’s the special teams. The Cats’ power play and penalty kill showed slight improvement last season. If either one of those units slide back to the woeful performance level on display in 2013-14, they could find themselves tumbling right back down the standings.