Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Florida Panthers.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers are coming off an excellent 2015-16 campaign, one that ranks as arguably the all-time best in franchise history, with a record of 47-26-9 that earned them 103 points (their most ever) and an Atlantic Division title. While they lost a competitive series to the New York Islanders in the first round of the post-season, things are surely looking up for the Panthers. It was a season that saw both Aaron Ekblad and Roberto Luongo named to the All-Star Game and Vincent Trocheck explode as a legitimate offensive threat.
Both the Panthers offence and defence proved strong, ranking 8th in goals per game (2.83) and 7th in goals against per game (2.44). That said, they boasted a weak special teams duo, with a 23rd ranking on the power play, with a 24th placement on the penalty kill. While that statistic certainly needs improving, the squad is otherwise well-rounded and generally effective.
Up front, veteran Jussi Jokinen posted a remarkable 18 goals and 60 points, just five points off his career high in 2009-10. Jokinen emerged as a true offensive force in Florida, and was a pleasant breakout for them. Another one of the more pleasant surprises of 2015-16 was netminder Luongo. The franchise leader in wins for both the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks, Luongo put up strong numbers, with a 2.35 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. The performance garnered him a fourth place finish in Vezina Trophy voting as the league’s best goaltender.
Who can forget the duo of Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov. It was a bit of a passing of the torch, as the long-time veteran Jagr (who turned 44 during the season) put up 27 goals and 66 points. Barkov who was just 20-years-old last season, wasn’t even born until Jagr was already a five-year NHL veteran. He had 28 goals and 59 points in just 66 games.
A lot of things went right for the Panthers last year, and for their sake, they better hope it wasn’t just a fluke.
The Panthers made a few big moves this off-season in regards to their blue line. In addition to losing Brian Campbell to free agency (he re-joined the Chicago Blackhawks), the Panthers traded Erik Gudbranson to the Canucks in exchange for Jared McCann (along with assorted picks going both ways), and sent Dmitry Kulikov to the Buffalo Sabres for Mark Pysyk (while swapping 2nd round picks as well). To address these losses, Keith Yandle, who scored 47 points with the New York Rangers last season, was signed to a seven-year deal worth $44.45 million (with a no movement clause for the first six of those years).
Yandle wasn’t the only big-name defense signing, however. Jason Demers, a former member of the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars, inked a $22.5 million, five-year contract. Despite never playing a full 82-game calendar, Demers has established himself a reliable top-four presence, and will undoubtedly help the Panthers’ blue line.
In net, James Reimer was signed to provide a strong backup presence to Luongo. The Panthers locked the 28-year-old up to a five-year contract with a $3.4 million AAV. Reto Berra, a former Colorado Avalanche backup, was acquired via trade in exchange for speedy depth forward Rocco Grimaldi. With Luongo expected to miss the start of the year, this insurance was needed.
Jussi Jokinen – Vincent Trocheck – Reilly Smith
Jared McCann – Nick Bjugstad – Jonathan Marchessault
The Panthers’ forward core is an intriguing one, to be certain. Jonathan Huberdeau, the 2013 Calder Trophy recipient, struggled in his sophomore year, but has put up progressively better numbers since, finishing with 59 points in 76 contests last season. One could easily see him putting up totals in the mid-60’s, potentially even flirting with 70, and forming a dynamic pairing with Aleksander Barkov. Meanwhile, Barkov could very well put up some exceptional numbers of his own. After 59 points in just 66 games in the last campaign, it is more than conceivable that Barkov pots 70 in a full season, and develops into a legitimate, full-fledged top line centreman.
Further down the lineup, Trocheck, the underrated centre who was recently named to Team North America’s roster at the World Cup of Hockey, fills in as a solid number two. (Though its a bit of a 2a/2b situation with Nick Bjustad better than your typical third line center). On Trocheck’s wing he finds veteran Jokinen, and the also under appreciated Reilly Smith, who put up a 25-25 season last year.
Michael Matheson – Aaron Ekblad
Keith Yandle – Jason Demers
Mark Pysyk – Alec Petrovic
The blue line promises to boast improvements over last season’s performance. Yandle will almost certainly anchor the top power play unit. Yandle, widely considered one of the top puck movers in hockey, will be relied on for heavy minutes, while significantly contributing to the club’s overall offence.
Ekblad, a former first overall pick, will be expected to continue to grow into an elite blue liner, while Mike Matheson is seen as another budding defense star. Demers and Pysyk, the new blood, will be reliable presences further down the depth chart. While it’s hardly what can be considered an extraordinary blue line, it is solid, and has the potential to be better than it looks on paper.
While Luongo is certainly on the downswing, he is still certainly capable of putting up W’s on a regular basis. Will he be a top-five Vezina finalist again? That doesn’t seem likely, especially with missing the start of the year, but he still ranks as one of the better netminders in hockey. Behind him, Reimer is one of the better second strings in the league, and is able to win games with relative regularity in a backup position. In the third string position, Berra is reliable, as far as number threes go, and has some NHL experience under his belt.
Players to Watch
Trocheck exploded last season for a 25-goal, 53-point campaign, destroying his previous career highs of seven and 22 in 2014-15. Trochek proved to be a key cog of the Panthers’ offence, and will be relied on to at least come close to matching his most recent total. His performance could be boosted by a strong outing at the World Cup of Hockey, as well as a strong pair of wingers on his sides (Jokinen, Smith). That said, there will be a lot of pressure on Trocheck to prove his breakout year wasn’t a fluke, and to continue to provide strong secondary offensive output for the Panthers. He’ll be a big key to their success, and his continued development is absolutely crucial.
Acquired from the Canucks, McCann will finely be given a real chance to shine in Florida. The question is, will he take advantage, and is he ready to take advantage? Many believe the answer to both may be yes. McCann demonstrated exceptional scoring upside with the Canucks last year, with a hard and accurate shot and a knack for finding high-probability scoring areas. The Panthers may afford him the opportunity to shine in a depth scoring role, and it seems very possible that McCann could come in and make a real impact next season.
On the Rise
As referenced above, there is real potential for Barkov to explode offensively this season. With a 0.89 points-per-game scoring rate now under his belt, he’s starting to look like a legitimate number-one centre. Could he hit 70 points next season? 80 points? The sky’s the limit for the talented two-way Finn.
Much like his teammate Barkov, Ekblad has a real opportunity to continue his trek into the upper echelon of NHL defencemen. An All-Star this past season, Ekblad built on his Calder-winning 2014-15 campaign and looks to make another leap into 2016-17. In addition to a stellar sophomore year that even garnered him some mild Norris Trophy discussion, Ekblad will sport an “A” for Team North America at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey. The tournament will be yet another great opportunity for Ekblad to demonstrate his tremendous upside to the hockey world, and should set him up for a season where he will anchor not only the Panthers blue line, but the entire squad. While his offensive numbers dropped from 39 to 36 points, Ekblad showed great maturity and a well-rounded game, which will almost surely continue to grow brighter, just as the rest of the team around him will.
On the Decline
The ageless wonder, Jagr just never seems to slow down. At age 44, Jagr put up a whopping 66 points this past season with the Panthers, after 47 and 67 point outings between the Panthers and the New Jersey Devils over the past two years. While he is more than capable of playing in an NHL top six, it seems unlikely that he’ll top 66 points this campaign (though it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility). In any case, look for at least a mild decline from Jagr this upcoming season.
While it’s possible that he can repeat his magic from last season, the chances of that seem relatively slim. Will he still be a quality starting goalie? Absolutely. Will he still win them games? Absolutely. But he’s certainly on the downside of his career, and that’s the reason behind the Reimer signing. He won’t fall off a cliff, far from it – but the single-handedly won games may start becoming a little rarer, and the urgency behind finding a new blue chip goaltending prospect has started to increase.
While they may not be described as Stanley Cup contenders, this is a Panthers squad that certainly has the potential to make some noise. It’s a team that boasts boatloads of upside, and could certainly challenge to become a power in the Eastern Conference.
A lot will depend on development. How will Barkov, Trocheck, and Ekblad develop? Can the likes of McCann and Matheson emerge as legitimate core members of this team? Likewise, the more experienced players, such as Yandle, Jagr and Luongo will have to not only serve as character leaders for the younger generation, but performance leaders as well.
We’ll see how everything works out, as they may be a high-risk, high-reward hockey club. That said, putting money on the Panthers to have at least some sort of impact seems like a pretty decent bet, and at the very least, they’re a team with a lot of intrigue that’s worth following.