After setting franchise records for wins and points, the Florida Panthers came up just short in the first round of the playoffs, bowing out in six tough games to the New York Islanders. A busy offseason, which included a uniform redesign, saw a host of moves made both on and off the ice, with the most noteworthy of the flurry being team architect Dale Tallon kicked upstairs in favor of new GM Tom Rowe and a drastic reshuffling of the blueline corps.
For a franchise coming off its most successful regular season and second-ever division title, is that too much change in too short a time or will the addition of speed and skill be just what the doctor ordered and result in a lengthy playoff run?
- At age 44, can Jaromir Jagr keep delivering in the regular season and end his playoff slump?
- Was the overhaul of the blueline really necessary?
- Is this year’s edition of the Florida Panthers better than last year’s?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Donny Rivette
As with any team in any given year no matter the sport, Florida's band of Scrappy Cats are no different: the kids are maturing, but staying healthy is the primary key to success down the stretch. Generally speaking all of the pieces are in place for a deep run into the 2017 playoffs if collective organizational maturity is in play, but the modern Blackhawks didn't achieve icon status -- even with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the fold -- until Marian Hossa was made the centerpiece acquisition of that franchise's recent run of incredible success. Florida's rise so far is undoubtedly a tremendous story; whether the team is a Hossa away from elite-status is certainly fair game for debate, but we'll know a lot more in February to continue that discussion.
Until then, good health is the Big Deal. Jaromir Jagr (staring down 45) returns on an incentive-laden one-year deal, and every hockey fan across the globe applauds it. As we should. My own concern is how does the coaching staff keep him fresh come January -- or April, which was a significant issue just months ago -- without a solid Plan B to keep Aleksander Barkov & Jonathan Huberdeau rolling when Jags needs to sit? And he will need to sit; dude was out of ammo before Game One. Not piling on here but that 6-game exit at the hands of the Islanders -- who ultimately went nowhere -- was a tough pill for the organization to swallow, which resulted in a multitude of longtime on- and off-ice folks getting the axe. New day indeed. And much as we loved those folks, it was time for a massive change in culture. Perhaps that says it best: a culture change which has been in the pipeline for 3 or so years. Players and fans carry a certain pride now which wasn't evident only a few years ago. Oh, and stay healthy please.
Best case? Florida's prospects exceed expectations while providing above-average depth when called upon, making for headaches as the expansion draft approaches.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by JC Smith
Any nightmare scenario involving the Panthers in 2016-17 starts with the revamped defense. Worst case is Aaron Ekblad suffers another concussion that takes him out of the lineup for a lengthier period of time, or Michael Matheson is exposed as needing more time to learn on a team seeking to win now. Alex Petrovic shows that his issues from last season, which had him in the press box for a few games later in the season and limited his playing time in the playoffs, have not ironed themselves out. No matter the issues, the defense is unable to suppress high probability scoring chances against Roberto Luongo like they did last season, and Lu's numbers suffer as a consequence. Roberto, another year older, returning from off-season hip surgery, and not as well protected, is no longer a top-10 in the league goaltender and James Reimer proves that his excellent numbers in San Jose were the result of few games played and the excellent team in front of him.
With more goals against, Florida's notoriously low-scoring offense is required to put more pucks in the net. The problems on the offensive end begin on the third line, where the new wings do not add any more offensive punch than last year's mash-up. Age and wear-and-tear reveal themselves in Jussi Jokinen and Jaromir Jagr's production, and Jagr's scoring slumps along with his regression to the mean in shooting percentage. Aleksander Barkov shows that his lack of production at the World Cup and in the playoff series with the Islanders was not an outlier and struggles to return to his point totals from last season. Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith return to earth and fail to meet last year's point totals that got each a healthy contract this summer. With an inability to counter more goals against, and even fewer goals for, the Panthers narrowly miss the playoffs in a more competitive Eastern Conference sporting a healthy Carey Price, slightly revamped Rangers squad, revitalized Carolina Hurricanes and resurgent Flyers.