The Florida Panthers 2021-22 season marked a year of massive changes and progression for the franchise. They trail the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Just a week ago, the team celebrated their first playoff series victory in 26 years. And just a couple of weeks before that, they celebrated their first President’s Trophy in franchise history. They led the league with 337 goals this season, 25 clear of the second-best Toronto Maple Leafs.
Beyond team accomplishments, the league nominated Aleksander Barkov as a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. (That’s the award he won last year, and hopes to retain for a second-consecutive season.) Perhaps most notably, Jonathan Huberdeau set an NHL record for most assists in a single season by a left wing, with 85 (and he broke the record way back at 71). That assist total helped him become the first Panther to break the 100-point plateau in franchise history, on his way to setting the new team record at 115.
But, despite all of the above, if they don’t come back and defeat the Lightning, 2021-22 could be seen as a waste.
Florida Panthers 2021-22 Season Success Rides On Beating Lightning
At the trade deadline this year, general manager Bill Zito went all in. He acquired Robert Hagg to provide depth on the blueline. He also snagged Ben Chiarot to bolster the defence in their top four. But most notably, he completed a blockbuster to add longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Without those moves, the team may not have gotten out of the first round. Giroux played phenomenally and factored in on some game-deciding plays against the Washington Capitals. That included a primary assist on the series-clinching overtime goal by Carter Verhaeghe in game six.
So, maybe fans take solace in that feat alone. After all, their last series win came in 1996, when they went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Then, the Avalanche promptly swept them to win the Stanley Cup in four games from there.
They cleared that first hurdle, but this team’s build screams “deep playoff run”. And Zito, as well as head coach Andrew Brunette, would also say that a second-round exit wasn’t the goal this season. Granted, only one team hoists the Cup at the end of the year. And this year in particular, quite a few teams claimed to be in “Cup or bust” mode. Besides Florida and Tampa, the Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, and maybe more teams all considered themselves poised to make a serious run. Unfortunately for Toronto, they met Tampa in round one, while all those other teams mentioned won their opening-round matchups. Now in round two, Colorado and Calgary are in separate series they remain expected to win. But out east, Florida and Tampa meet now rather than later, forcing the issue earlier for them than for the other favourites.
If the Panthers Lose This Series, What Happens in the Offseason?
Of all players available at the deadline this year, the biggest name was Giroux. On defence, Chiarot was a top-three target. Both of them (as well as Hagg) carry that “rental” label, as they become UFA’s this summer. The fact they both landed in Florida told the entire story. The Panthers viewed this year as a prime opportunity at winning the Stanley Cup. Teams don’t acquire expensive UFA’s in exchange for their best draft picks and high-end prospects otherwise.
So, once this summer hits, Florida likely loses Giroux, Chiarot and Hagg. The earlier they lose, the less they achieved with those rentals. Sure, maybe the team attempts to re-sign one, two, or all three of these players. However, they have a handful of other free agents (some RFA’s, but mostly UFA’s) to visit with too. Giroux could retire, or he could command a solid pay increase for a short-term deal. Chiarot will most definitely expect a raise from his $1.75 million cap hit today. Mason Marchment absolutely deserves a significant pay bump, as he earns less than $1 million annually and scored nearly 20 goals this season. Markus Nutivaara, Joe Thornton, Noel Acciari, Eetu Luostarinen, and Maxim Mamin all expire this year, too.
Roster Changes Unavoidable, Plus Potential Coaching Moves?
With all those lineup holes, the team undoubtedly won’t retain every piece. They don’t own a first-round pick in any of the next three years now, either, and won’t select until the third round this summer. With Barkov’s pay raise kicking in next year, the team possesses little to no cap space to work with, putting a lot of pressure on the current roster to get the job done.
To add to that pressure, there’s the situation with the team’s boss behind the bench. Brunette took over just eight games into the season as interim head coach, a promotion from his usual role as the assistant coach. This occurred in light of the Chicago Blackhawks’ horrendous Kyle Beach fallout, which cost Joel Quenneville his job in Florida. He obviously found plenty of success, though the team was 7-0-0 under Quenneville. So, finishing 58-18-6 remains a phenomenal accomplishment, though how much of that was already put in place before Brunette took the reigns? And how much will Zito and his staff look at Brunette and judge him for falling short, should they get eliminated?
So far, Florida has no powerplay goals in the playoffs. After finishing in the top five during the regular season, the sudden complete absence of special teams ability can be largely blamed for the hole they find themselves in now. Brunette tried a couple of different groupings of players but hasn’t changed the scheme or overall look much, if at all. With names like Barry Trotz, John Tortorella, and Rick Tocchet available, with perhaps more on the way depending on what else transpires this postseason, it is hard to say Brunette’s job is secure going forward. A Cup win would obviously quell any talks of change, but anything short of that leaves the door open. That is especially true if the powerplay continues to fail, and even more so if they lose this series too.
Florida Panthers 2021-22 Season Hanging in the Balance
With all that said, the Lightning entered the series looking to “three-peat” and win a third consecutive Stanley Cup. They just knocked out the best iteration of the Leafs since the mid-2000s in round one. Tampa continues rolling, even as the third seed in a top-heavy Atlantic Division.
Losing to Tampa doesn’t necessarily make Florida look awful. But, they spent too much to fall short this postseason. They lost in six in the opening round last year against this same Bolts squad. The moves Florida made this past summer and at the deadline could be viewed as ones specifically geared towards better-equipping them to best the Lightning. Winning round one took the franchise over an important hump. However, the team won’t look the same next year due to cap constraints. Because of that, expectations going forward next season remain uncertain, unless they make some other change.
In short, Florida is playing for their lives right now, both today and for their future. And the man with the most to lose is head coach Andrew Brunette.