In an off-season where nearly every Eastern Conference team downgraded, both teams in the state of Florida managed to improve their clubs drastically. In the case of the Lightning, they upgraded from threat to contender, and the Panther have gone from a bottom-feeder to a potential playoff team. Here are the off-season summaries of the NHL’s two Floridian organizations.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Out: Sami Salo (D), Teddy Purcell (F), Anders Lindback (G), Nate Thompson (F), Ryan Malone (F), B.J. Crombeen (F)
In: Brenden Morrow (F), Brian Boyle (F), Anton Stralman (D), Evgeni Nabokov (G), Jason Garrison (D)
Perhaps the most improved Eastern team, the Lightning made some smart moves to solidify an already strong roster without giving up much at all. Up front, the Lightning have a good, young group of top-6 forwards. Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn are young, up and coming talents (though there is the risk of the sophomore slump in the case of Palat and Johnson), Valtteri Filppula has proved to be a good fit in Tampa, scoring 58 points in 75 games, Ryan Callahan has already adapted to the Lightning system, and a healthy Steven Stamkos makes a world of a difference.
They’ve only added support to that group with the additions of Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow solidifying their bottom-6. Boyle is a big, tough center who, for a guy his size, actually has a decent amount of skill and can chip in around 20 points. Morrow, while far from in his prime, is still a reliable veteran forward who adds some grit and can chip in 30-40 points. Morrow can also act as a mentor for the young talent on the Lightning roster.
Despite all the fire power the Lightning possess, I’ve always thought of their blueline as an Achilles heel of sorts. Yes, Victor Hedman’s a nice player and they had some solid vets in Sami Salo, Eric Brewer, and Matt Carle, but it was nothing special. General manager Steve Yzerman obviously realized this, and acquired the heavy shooting Jason Garrison by trading a 2nd round draft pick in 2014 for him, and signed the smooth skating Anton Stralman to a 5-year contract at 4.5 per season. Garrison had his issues last season in Vancouver (who didn’t?) but that may have been partially due to injuries, he’s still a solid top-4 defender. Stralman broke out last postseason in the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, proving that he can shutdown top offensive players while also providing puck movement from the back end. Considering the contracts that other defenders such as Brooks Orpik or Matt Niskanen got, Stralman’s deal looks like a steal.
The last addition is one that may have flown under the radar, but a solid one nonetheless. Veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov may not be a quality starting goaltender anymore, but he’s certainly still capable of winning games and isn’t a bad insurance policy to have if Bishop should falter or go down to injury.
1st round draft pick, defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, comes with baggage, but also comes with wicked upside. He has the talent to be a top tier offensive defenceman, whether or not he puts it all together is another question. The Lightning also recently extended Vezina nominee Ben Bishop to a two-year contract extension worth $5.95 million per season.
Watch out Bruins, you’re not the only Eastern powerhouse anymore. The Lightning have made major improvements and are only going to get better.
Out: Tom Gilbert (D), Jesse Winchester (F), Ed Jovanovski (D), Matt Gilroy (D)
In: Willie Mitchell (D), Dave Bolland (F), Shawn Thornton (F), Derek MacKenzie (F), Aaron Ekblad (D), Jussi Jokinen (F), Al Montoya (G)
Like the Lightning, the Panthers greatly improved without giving up anyone truly impactful. Their biggest loss was probably Tom Gilbert, who is at best a reliable #5 defenceman. The Panthers have an abundance of young talent up front, with the one-two punch of Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov, 2013 Calder Trophy recipient Jonathan Huberdeau, and former Chicago Blackhawk Brandon Pirri. Throw in underrated youngsters Quinton Howden, Vincent Trochek and Jimmy Hayes, along with reliable veterans like Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Brad Boyes and Scottie Upshall and you have a pretty damn solid group of forwards.
They only improved this crop via free agency, signing forwards Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton, Jussi Jokinen and Derek MacKenzie. Jokinen proved to be a capable scorer in Pittsburgh, and will likely be heavily relied upon this upcoming season to supply offence. Whether he can match what he put up in Pittsburgh remains to be seen. Dave Bolland will add some grit and a veteran presence to a young Panthers squad, while Thornton and MacKenzie help form a solid 4th line for Florida. Yes, the Panthers overpaid for these guys, but they had the money and they got four guys who can help them.
On defence, they added two-time Stanley Cup Champion Willie Mitchell. Mitchell, even at 37 years of age, is still an effective presence on the back end, the type of shutdown guy you don’t want to play against. Yes, he has skating issues, but if paired with a strong skater like Brian Campbell he should do just fine. The other big addition is 1st overall pick Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad is clearly NHL ready, he has the size, he has the shot, and he’s a strong skater. The one concern might be his recently suffered upper body injury, but he should be good to go for the start of the season. The additions of Mitchell and Ekblad will most certainly make the Panthers a tougher team to play against.
The one other free agent signing the Panthers made was a good one. They signed goaltender Al Montoya to a two year deal with a $1.05 AAV. Montoya posted a 2.30 GAA and a 0.920 save percentage last season with the Jets, which are very solid numbers. Montoya has established himself as one of the better backup goalies in the National Hockey League, and should form a wonderful tandem with Roberto Luongo.
Florida also hired former Montreal Canadiens assistant Gerard Gallant to be their new bench boss, a very solid move for the franchise. Gallant has been a head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as an assistant for the New York Islanders and aforementioned Blue Jackets.
New ownership isn’t afraid to open their wallets, and it’s for the best. It allowed the Panthers to acquire Luongo, as well as sign 6 free agents. I’m going to go ahead and predict the Panthers make the playoffs next season. Yes, it costed a lot, but the Panthers are one of the most improved teams in the Eastern Conference.