NHL’s 30 in 30: Florida Panthers

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.

Today’s team: The Florida Panthers. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Florida Panthers

Finishing 20th overall, the Florida Panthers posted a record of 38-29-15 to end up with just 91 points. Their home record (21-15-7) accumulated for 49 points, making them the fourth best team in their own building among non-playoff teams, tied with the 21st ranked San Jose Sharks. Their away record (17-16-8) was a complete contrast, as they struggled to stay above .500. Their shoot-out record could have been better at 8-10, however their short-comings while on the road hurt their chances significantly and despite fighting for a final wild card spot until the very end, the wheels came undone at just the wrong time.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

Last season, the Florida Panthers were surprisingly competitive, battling it out against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins for a wild card spot. They even went as far as to acquire Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline, a move that paid off well. The 43-year-old winger slotted in on a line with youngsters Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and he put up 18 points in 20 games with the Panthers. 6’6 forward Nick Bjugstad mixes a combination of size and skill and his 17 even-strength goals put him in the same group as offensive greats like Ryan Johansen, Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk. Veterans Jussi Jokinen and Brad Boyes served as complimentary players and did well. Jokinen isn’t playing with Evgeni Malkin anymore, but his shooting percentage of 6.0% was rather low and should improve, while Boyes has a year left on his contract which could make him tradeable if needed.

The youngsters on the team have also developed well, helping the team’s progress of last season. Huberdeau rebounded superbly, as there had been doubt recently about his potential. The 21-year-old led the team in assists and points and put up 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists) in his final 20 games. Jimmy Hayes slumped late in the season, scoring only two goals in the final 25 games, but his big frame fills a big need in the top-nine and can also be used on the powerplay for net presence. Like Huberdeau, Barkov also had a tremendous finish to the season and both their offensive surges can be attributed to the addition of Jagr. Barkov scored 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in his final 16 games and is developing much quicker as a solid two-way payer.

While he was protected with more offensive zone starts and paired with veteran defenseman Brian Campbell, it is truly amazing to see how good Aaron Ekblad was. The common expression is that defensemen take longer to develop. Drafted first overall, that just wasn’t an option and Ekblad really held up his end of the bargain. What’s next for the young blue-liner is if he can continue to remain consistent next season. His defensive partner, Campbell, continues to be one of the most elite puck-moving defenseman in the game. At 35, he has aged well and as he heads into the final year of his contract, it will be interesting to see if a contract extension is in order or if he’ll become a huge trade asset, especially considering the trade market will become significantly weaker once two to three big names get signed.

Apart from Willie Mitchell, 37, the back-end for the Panthers after the Campbell-Ekblad pairing is extremely young. Dmitry Kulikov, 23, put up 22 points (3 goals, 19 assists) in 73 games and has progressed into a top-four defenseman, handling tougher assignments along with Mitchell. Mitchell averaged just over 21 minutes and was a stable presence for Florida, considering his high volume of defensive zone starts. Erik Gudbranson continued to play on a third-pairing, which can be concerning for a 23-year-old promising prospect, but he still has the potential to evolve. Steven Kampfer, a former Boston Bruins roster player, did well for himself as well. Providing stability and as a cheaper option, Kampfer is a good bet.

While Alex Petrovic played a career-high 33 games last season, he’s still trying to establish himself as an NHL regular. He’ll be in tough competition, as prospect Mike Matheson will be competing for a job after training camp. After spending three years at Boston University, Matheson’s puck-handling abilities and smooth skating give him a good chance at cracking the line-up or becoming an eventual call-up later in the season.

Posting a 28-19-12 record at the age of 35, Roberto Luongo was absolutely tremendous last season. His .921 save percentage continues to keep him among the best goaltenders in the last six years, who have played at least 200 games. Even in a loss, Luongo had a tendency of pulling out spectacular saves to keep his team in it. Unfortunately, the Panthers were offensively starved, and there’s only so much a goaltender can do. Back-up Al Montoya had a season to forget, posting a career-low save percentage (.892) but he’s signed for another year at a digestible contract, so he’s likely to stick around for the 2015-16 season.

General manager Dale Tallon made three more trades apart from the Jagr deal that sent a 2015 2nd-round pick and a conditional 2016 3rd-round pick to New Jersey. Center Drew Shore was sent to Calgary in exchange for Corbin Knight. Sean Bergenheim was packaged with a 2016 7th-round pick to Minnesota for a 2016 3rd-round pick, and Tomas Fleischmann was dealt to Anaheim for Dany Heatley and a 2015 3rd-round pick.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Florida Panthers have a total of six free agents to decide on. Of the six free agents, three are restricted to the team; Forwards Hayes and Huberdeau, and defenseman Petrovic. Forward Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky, and goaltender Dan Ellis are the upcoming unrestricted free agents. In terms of non-roster players, Tallon will have to decide on eight restricted free agents and two unrestricted free agents.

With a pinch over $54 million tied into 19 players, the Panthers have about $16 million left to spend on their free agents and any holes they may need to fill on July 1st. Don’t expect them to be too busy, as their biggest signing may have already happened with the one-year, $3.5 million deal given to Jagr. Both Huberdeau and Hayes are bound to get significant raises in salary, as will Petrovic. With those three signed, the Panthers will have 12 forwards and seven defensemen under contract.

The team may still need some help in the top-six and some better depth on defense. However, if Matheson can impress out of training camp, that may not be such a big issue. While that won’t help in terms of bringing more experience on the back-end, the Panthers still have great leadership from Mitchell and Campbell, and their youth is quite the talented bunch.

Being a budget team, it’s somewhat understandable that Tallon won’t be too active and instead choose to grow internally and raise up their high-end prospects, but if the option to spend some more money is there, potential additions could be Matt Beleskey or Justin Williams. Both players could be significant upgrades in their top-six and would push someone else down into a top-nine role, solidifying their bottom-six with more talent and grit.

The Draft Table

In this year’s draft, Tallon and his scouting team will have nine picks to work with, including the 11th overall selection. With no picks in the second round, the Panthers select twice in rounds 3, 5 and 7. Overall, they select 11th, 77th, 88th, 102nd, 132nd, 147th, 162nd, 192nd and 206th.

If you thought there was possibility of trading the 11th overall pick for a roster player ready to help the team now, think again. As noted on a trade rumors website, Tallon was quoted, saying: “We like drafting, we like developing. We might move back, but we’re not going to [be the ones to] move it. I’m not there to put on a show, I’m there to make our team better.”

It’s unlikely that Matthew Barzal and Pavel Zacha fall out of the top-10 but if either one does, Arizona will snatch them up in a heartbeat. Defenseman Mikko Rantanen is a safe bet at #11, while Tallon could reach for someone like Kyle Connor or Timo Meier. What will be interesting to watch out for, as noted in past 30 in 30 articles, is where Lawson Crouse will find himself. Some experts have him in the top-10 while others think he shouldn’t go higher than just outside the top-10. After a strong showing at the combine, perhaps a team takes a chance on him.

At the 77th pick, names like Nicolas Roy and Brendan Warren could still be available and both would be decent pick-ups in the third round. At the 88th pick, at the end of the third round, perhaps Denis Malgin and Michael Spacek will slip to that spot or go early in the fourth round, mostly due to being undersized. Whoever the Panthers end up taking, with proper scouting they’ll end up with some very promising prospects. This year’s draft is deeper than deep and from rounds one to three, there are some gems to be taken who, if developed properly, could become NHL regulars in a few years. Names like Robin Kovacs, Filip Ahl and Keegan Kolesar are all players to consider.

Main Photo: