Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Florida Panthers.
2020-21 Florida Panthers
Heading into this season, the Florida Panthers made a big splash in free agency. Adding four experienced, veteran players with a decent amount of playoff experience. It seemed as if Dale Tallon knew this past season could have been his last in Sunrise if he fails to right the ship. Heading into the season, the Panthers are seen as a team ready to challenge for the playoffs. Despite having one of the best powerplays and being one of the higher scoring teams in the league, the ‘Cats’ could not find any real consistency over the season. Though, if it were not for COVID-19, they would not have made the qualifying round.
With everything said and done, the Panthers finished just about where you would expect them to. Not good enough for a lottery pick and not good enough to make the real playoffs, either—another disappointing yet familiar season with the Panthers. Ultimately leading to the organization parting ways with Tallon after 10 seasons with the team.
Arguably the most notable move before last season was the acquisition of Sergei Bobrovsky. After spending seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, ‘Bob’ decided it was time to take his talents down towards South Beach. The 32-year-old netminder received a massive payday from the Panthers. After winning two Vezina trophies and two all-star appearances, he was due for something big. Yet, it was quite unfortunate he could not live up to his new contract. While Bobrovsky should not get off easy, changing from Colombus’ defensive structure to Florida’s run and gun offence. There is bound to be some regression numbers-wise. While Bob still played pretty well, his team left him out to dry more than usual, and there are only so many saves a goalie can make in a game.
Circling back to Tallon’s last-ditch effort, during the 2019 trade deadline, he ended up moving one of the “core” pieces of the Panthers. To try and fix the holes on the back end, Tallon traded Centre Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for some depth players and prospects. In the trade for Trocheck, the Panthers received Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen, and South Florida native Chase Priskie. Many saw this as a fascinating trade, almost giving Carolina a blockbuster trade title along the way.
In receiving those players, Tallon was able to add some depth to the Panthers lineup, yet not much more than that. Considering that both Haula and Wallmark are no longer with the Panthers. It makes you wonder what Tallon thought when he made this trade. While sometimes general managers must swing for the fences and hope for the best, this was not the best example of a good return.
After another exciting offseason for the Panthers and their fans, there is reason to believe things will be different for the 2020-21 Florida Panthers. Hiring first-time general manager Bill Zito, formerly of the Blue Jackets, Zito took little to no time to make major changes. During a hectic offseason, not only did Zito re-sign MacKenzie Weegar, he did something that Tallon failed to do in all his years with the team. Zito made the team harder to play against. With Alexander Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, Vinnie Hinostroza, Ryan Lomberg, Radko Gudas, and Markus Nutivaara. Along with Trading for Patric Hornqvist, not only did they add tons of grit and depth, but they did it at a fairly low price as well.
1-way deals #FlaPanthers GM Bill Zito has handed out this offseason:
Gudas: 3 x $2.5 mil
Wennberg: 1 x $2.25 mil
Duclair: 1 x $1.7 mil
Hinostroza: 1 x $1 mil
Verhaeghe: 2 x $1 mil
Lomberg: 2 x $725k
— Jameson Olive (@JamesonCoop) December 17, 2020
The most exciting signing this offseason is the addition of Anthony Duclair. The 25-year-old speedy forward is coming off one of his most productive seasons yet. As a player who has that scoring touch, he will be a nice addition to make up for the loss of goal scoring from Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov. It’s a make-or-break season; Duclair is looking to prove his worthwhile finding a long-term home.
Owen Tippett – Alexander Wennberg – Patric Hornqvist
Brett Connolly – Carter Verhaeghe – Vinnie Hinostroza
This is where things become more interesting. With almost half the team consisting of new faces, it is hard to tell who will mould well together. On top of that, it is looking like it’s about time for Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko to get some ice time as well. Looking at the top six guys, it would come as no surprise to see Duclair, Tippett, and Hornqvist all could be juggled around depending on the night.
One player to watch would Wennberg, after a 59-point season during the 2016-17 campaign. Wennberg has not been able to live up to that season. Dealing with some injury problems never helps but look for Wennberg to have a sort of bounce-back season compared to last season’s 22-points. With greater depth on the team, this leaves reason to believe that Huberdeau and Barkov will be able to take off again, leading this team to what is hopefully a playoff appearance.
Even though Alexis Saarela is still unsigned, the bottom six group looks as if it is pretty set-in-stone. With a line combination of Lomberg, Acciari, and Vatrano, the Panthers have a true ‘grinding’ line that will play hard and physical for a full 60 minutes. With the 2020-21 season, Florida Panthers’ third line will be a nice complementary piece to the Panthers’ offence.
This is possibly the most depth and skill the team has had in quite a while. During the shortened season, this team could do some real damage within their new division. If the Panthers do bring back Saarela, he will be another guy who can step into the line-up and help produce in a big way. As we speak, Saarela is at a point-per-game in the Finnish Liiga league with 18 points for HC Lukko.
MacKenzie Weegar – Aaron Ekblad
Keith Yandle – Markus Nutivaara
Anton Stralman – Radko Gudas
Looking towards the back end for next season, the defence pairing is much easier to predict. After a great season together, the Panthers will have Weegar and Ekblad lead the charge on the blue-line. With both guys finishing in the top three for average time on ice, both players are also coming off their most productive seasons yet. Looking towards the future, these two will maintain the same role while taking that next step in the overall development.
The pairing of Yandle and Nutivaara gives Yandle more of a free-range to roam as he likes. As an offensive, puck-moving defenceman Yandle will not have to worry about covering him if and when the turnovers commences. Markus could also see a bump in ice-time given his defensive partner.
The pairing of Gudas and Stralman is an intriguing one. While both guys are older and have slowed down, they are still quite intelligent on the puck’s defensive side. Gudas, known for using his big body, adds an element to the Panthers’ defence that has not been seen in quite some time. A rough, unforgiving, big-bodied defensive player who is sound in front of the net. Taking some of the pressure off the ageing Stralman. With two years left on Stralman’s contract, it will be interesting to see if he finishes those out with the Panthers.
Extra: Sam Montembeault
One of the biggest issues the Panthers faced last season was keeping the puck out of the net. By the end of the season, the team allowed 228 goals. Placing them as 28th out of 31 in the NHL for goals-against. This led back to the fact that Bob’s’ numbers were bound to look worse than the 2019-20 season. Finishing with a .900 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average, Bobrovsky is bound for a bounce-back season for the 2020-21 Florida Panthers season. With that depth that keeps getting mentioned, all the goaltender’s numbers will improve. With Montembeault recently resigned and Driedger ready for an even better season. The Panthers are a different team than they were just four months ago.
Players To Watch
After an incredible season during the 2018-19 campaign where he scored 96 points, Barkov fell off tremendously last season. Regardless of some minor injury issues, he would finish with just 62 points through 66 games. With a different looking team and more assistance around him. Barkov is poised to bounce back during the 2020-21 Florida Panthers season. With the addition of Duclair and Huberdeau continuing to get better every season. “Sasha” should look back to form in no time.
Another guy to watch this upcoming season is goalie Chris Driedger. After a stellar first season with the Panthers, Driedger is ready to maintain his position as Bobrovsky back-up. Finishing last season with a 7-2-1 record, a .938 save percentage and allowing only 2.05 goals against. Driedger is a player on the squad that has a breakout candidate written all over him. If Bob continues his play from last season, the two-goalie tandem of Driedger and Bobrovsky could be in full effect during the shortened season.
Prediction for 2020-21
The 2020-21 Florida Panthers season will be quite interesting, to say the least. Not only does their new division give them new hope, but the shortened season could also be beneficial too as an organization that has historically been inconsistent throughout its seasons. The 56 game schedule could really benefit the Panthers if they take advantage of it early. Not to mention the lack of fans the Panthers will see, which is really the same regardless of Covid.
With that, it will not be easy, but the Panthers could find themselves as the fourth-place team in the division, with both the Detriot Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks openly rebuilding. Nashville, Columbus, and Florida all will look to battle for the final spot in the division. If they do, in fact, make the postseason, it will come down to the wire with the above teams mentioned. Leaving Carolina, Dallas, and of course, Tampa Bay to wrap up the top three. At the end of the day, everyone will be waiting and watching to see what Bill Zito has created down in Sunrise, Florida.