Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Florida Panthers.
2021-22 Florida Panthers
During the 2020-21 season, the Florida Panthers put themselves on the map! For Panthers’ fans, it cannot be emphasized enough how crucial Bill Zito has been to this organization. For a first-time general manager to come in and ultimately turn around an organization… kudos to him. The “Cats” are lucky to have him. Nonetheless, no matter how many players a general manager trades, signs, or anything, it means nothing until the guys on the ice follow through.
That is precisely what the team did. Between Aleksander Barkov‘s Selke Trophy-winning season, Carter Verhaeghe and MacKenzie Weegar‘s breakout seasons, Patric Hornqvist‘s veteran leadership, and some hidden talent coming into their own. The Florida Panthers finished the season fourth in league with 79 points, only three back from the President’s Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche. Adding more players at the deadline, Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour helped boost the Panthers even more. After a challenging ride in Calgary, Bennett came in and reinvented himself. Maybe it’s the sun and warm weather, who knows?
Even Sergei Bobrovsky improved from his first season in Florida. While it was slight, going from a 23-19-6 record and .900 save percentage to a .906 save percentage and a 19-8-2 record. That is a significant improvement, indicating that a lighter workload may be the solution to his problems. Oh, and Jonathan Huberdeau continues to improve, even in his later years, by leading the team in points for the second year in a row. Overall, the Florida Panthers had arguably the best season in their franchise history. With no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The Panthers made it to the playoffs, officially, for the first time since 2015-16. The Panthers put up a fight against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite losing in six games, the Panthers gave the “Bolts” their most challenging playoffs battle.
Even better than that, Spencer Knight burst onto the scene, stealing the spotlight from the team. He started in Games 5 and 6 of the first round. Knight was stellar in net. For a rookie with only two NHL games worth of experience prior, it is pretty incredible that he went 1-1 with a .933 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average. Even though the Panthers lost in the first round, they have begun the very vital process of becoming champions. It would be best to learn how to lose in the playoffs before you can win in them. Just look at any “Dynasty” team from the past 10 years. It took them years and years of playoff losses to finally win the whole thing.
While the team was not as active as the last offseason, they still had many big-time acquisitions and departures. First off, the group bought out veteran Keith Yandle, and they traded away Anton Stralman. Both resulted in freeing up enough cap space to do a lot. Many Panthers’ fans are happy about the departure of Yandle, given his age and lack of speed. The guys in the locker room will genuinely miss his presence. Then again, this is a business at the end of the day. You do not make decisions based on feelings; you make them based on improving your own business. Anywho, because of the departure of the two veteran defencemen, the Panthers brought in some pieces that make the team better.
The most significant move of the offseason was the addition of Sam Reinhart. Trading for and signing him to a solid three-year contract was great. Reinhart instantly makes the Panther’s top-six even better than before. He’s a guy that has scored at least 22 goals in the past four seasons. Joining a team like the Panthers, who were fourth in the league for Goals For, will do wonders for him and his production. Next, the Panthers brought in future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton. Considering Thornton is cup chasing at this point in his career, for him to choose the Florida Panthers means a lot. While it is possible, there were others ahead of the Panthers, and it most likely came down to who had the room in their salary cap. It is still an honour for someone of that calibre to choose this team.
With that, there were also a ton of offseason signings and extensions for the Panthers. Re-signings included Bennett, Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour. The Panthers also signed Zac Dalpe and Maxim Mamin. Most likely they will use them as competitive pieces in practice. Overall, a good offseason that will be an improvement for the 2021-22 Florida Panthers.
Carter Verhaeghe – Aleksander Barkov – Sam Reinhart
Jonathan Huberdeau – Sam Bennett – Anthony Duclair
If we are honest, the top-six for the 2021-22 Florida Panthers are pretty straight and narrow. They have a lot of high-end talent who are playing some exceptional hockey. These six forwards bring speed skill. They are going to do some damage this season. It is possible during this 82-game season that head coach Joel Quenneville plays around with the lineup. Especially if Tippett or Lundell prove something of themselves, even Hornqvist and Thornton may get into the mix here and there. Both players very obviously can still produce for their teams. Either way, there is a lot to be excited about with this forward group.
Now, this is where things will get a little blurry. The team’s top-six is arguably one of the best in the league right now. Their bottom-six is lacking comparatively. And we all know how vital depth can be. This is where we will most likely see the lines being thrown into a blender. With that, the team still has viable pieces. It will come down to the chemistry of these guys.
Many fans and analysts are expecting Lundell to crack a lineup spot right out of training camp. While it is possible, we cannot get too excited about the unproven rookie. Do not get me wrong, he has shown tremendous skill and hockey IQ playing overseas, and there is an extremely high ceiling there. Things will change once he gets here. He will have to adapt to a different style of game, smaller ice, and overall better skill.
But is it worth rushing him at this time? Unless he comes in with Kirill Kaprizov vibes, it may be best to let him adapt to the North American game in the minors for a little. He will get some time with the NHL club for sure. When that happens, worse comes to worst; some guys can fill in and teach him. At the same time, he has Bennett and Barkov in front of him. Thornton can also play centre and guide the rookie more than anyone else in that room. Look for Thornton, or even Acciari, to help cushion Lundell’s step into the centre position.
Another thing to watch would be Owen Tippett’s development. Entering into this third NHL season, this is a make-or-break year for the young winger. Last but not least. What to do with Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari? Both are older players entering the last years of their contracts. While they will contribute to the team, one must wonder if they would be trade pieces come time for the deadline. Yet, for the time being, they are critical pieces that will come to compete every single day. As well as bring energy and grit to the room.
MacKenzie Weegar – Aaron Ekblad
Brandon Montour – Markus Nutivaara
The Panther’s defensive core has a lot of good pieces that are ready to improve. This is still one of the weaker areas of the team. With Weegar and Aaron Ekblad leading the charge, the others will surely follow their path. Starting with the top two, Weegar and Ekblad may be a top 10 duo in the league. They both received Norris recognition this past season, when these two were on the ice. A lot of good things happened. Now that Ekblad is back from the injured reserve look for these two to continue their dominance. Weegar finished this past season as one of the best defencemen 5-on-5. Ekblad surged on the power-play and played better on the defensive side of things compared to seasons past.
Next, the pairing of Forsling and Gudas brings a one-two punch that will surprise a lot of teams this season—between Gudas commanding physical style of play and Forsling’s offensive skill paired with his underrated defensive skill. These two together will bring a sense of security and consistency to the defensive group. Finally, the bottom pairing of Montour and Nutivaara. Do not read too much into this. With all of the skill at the defensive position within the Panthers’ organization, it would be a shock not to see Kiersted and either John Ludvig, Max Gildon, Chase Priskie, or even Noah Juulsen get some time with the big club.
The most critical piece of it all, the netminders; With that, the Panthers’ goalie duo is a big question mark this season. It starts with who is the number-one guy. Training camp starts this week, and there will surely be news on that front soon enough. But it all comes down to who wants to show up on any given night. Bobrovsky improved from his first season in Florida. It may be because he had less of a workload, but this writer believes that will change.
The last time the Panthers had a goalie prospect even close to this calibre, they rushed him into the net, and he could not step up to the plate that soon. After some time, the Panthers shipped him up to Canada, where they took their time with him. Now Jacob Markstrom is the number-one goaltender in the NHL, worth what he is being paid. The 2021-22 Florida Panthers should be extremely cautious not to rush Knight’s development. Unless an injury of some sort happens, leave Knight to prove himself and adapt to the NHL before throwing him into a starting position. If he steps up and takes over, then let him do it on his own time.
Players to Watch
Two players to watch going into the 2021-22 season are Sam Reinhart and Spencer Knight.
If Knight can come in and play how he did against Tampa Bay in the playoffs, then he will take this team to new levels. But as mentioned above, it is premature to shove him into a starting role at this time. If he steals the job, then so be it. Give him some games, 10-15 max, at the start of the season to prove himself as well as adjust and go from there. Bobrovsky can still hold down the fort in the meantime. While he is not what he used to be, you aren’t asking him to win the Vezina Trophy. You are asking him to compete and win your games. If Knight can get rolling, then the two goaltenders can share the net-like last season with Chris Driedger. Well, sorry to the rest of the league. The Panthers will even be harder to play against.
Next, we have Sam Reinhart. He’s been averaging 49 points per season over the last six seasons. Reinhart was able to do that while playing in Buffalo of all places. Now that he is surrounded by not only better, but more talent. Reinhart will score 30 goals this season with 70 total points, and he will be a menace on the powerplay against the opposition. Once Reinhart gets going in South Florida, watch out for his most productive season yet.
Predictions for the 2021-22 Florida Panthers
Heading into training camp the 2021-22 Florida Panthers are considered a contender for the Cup. This is a big ask of these guys considering most players in the room have never made it past the first round. Nonetheless, this season is different. As a favourite in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers still have to overcome teams like the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs. And that is in their own division. It will not be easy, but the Panthers will finish in the second or third spot of the Atlantic Division, with a playoff run all the way to the Eastern Conference Final.