Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Florida Panthers.
The 2023-2024 Florida Panthers
This team was lukewarm at best to watch during the regular season. The postseason was absolutely electric. The Florida Panthers look to continue their winning ways. Last season proved to be something that this team can build on to take their game to the next level.
The 2022-2023 season for the Florida Panthers was a wild ride. It was a season with ups and down, twists and turns, followed by a meteoric rise in the postseason. The season began with a few question marks. The team was without favorites Jonathan Huberdeau, Mason Marchment, and MacKenzie Weeger. It was also Paul Maurice’s debut season for the Panthers as their new head coach. There was also the addition of star forward Matthew Thachuk to the roster. A ton of movement in the offseason that left many fans wondering how the pieces would fall.
The Florida Panthers finished the regular season 42-32-8 with 92 total points. They snuck into the playoff picture finishing 4th in the Atlantic Division. Halfway through the season, they were sitting around .500 and it left people wondering if they were even capable of making the playoffs. Matthew Tkachuk was the star of the show finishing the season with 109 points and making his mark on this organization. Sergei Bobrovsky was inconsistent throughout the season. Carter Verhaeghe’s production continued to improve and shine in clutch moments. It was enough to get them through, but not enough to make fans feel confident as they limped into the postseason.
Now let’s discuss the postseason. A “Cinderella Story” performance that landed them in the Stanley Cup final. Not only getting through each round but defeating heavily favored opponents in huge moments. Stunning the seemingly unstoppable Boston Bruins in seven games, upsetting the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, and cake-walking through the Carolina Hurricanes in four games. Just unbelievable postseason success that wouldn’t have been on anybody’s bingo card. They would let their collective feet completely off the gas in the Stanley Cup final losing in 5 games to the Vegas Golden Knights. Either way, the postseason was so unexpected and awesome that it left a lot to be excited for as we head into the 2023-2024 season.
Panthers General Manager (GM) Bill Zito made a few moves heading into Free Agency. They added some forward depth with the acquisition of forward Evan Rodrigues to a four year contract. They then made the trade of Anthony Duclair to San Jose for Steven Lorentz and a draft pick. The Panthers focused on defensive depth with the additions of veterans Dmitry Kulikov and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Young goaltender Spencer Knight completed the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program this offseason and would look to get back into his groove. With Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour expected to miss the beginning of this coming season, a few moves needed to be made. Otherwise, it feels as though the Panthers will ultimately run it back with the same squad as last year.
The biggest offseason loss would have been Anthony Duclair. Ultimately, Duclair held a lot of promise in Florida but was plagued with injuries that would keep him out for extended periods of time. He is young enough that he still held enough promise for another team to bite. For the purposes of continuing on a winning trajectory, shopping Duclair wouldn’t be a devastating loss. The Panthers will roll on without him just fine.
Carter Verhaeghe – Aleksander Barkov – Matthew Tkachuk
The top three for the Florida Panthers is lights out. Matthew Tkachuk can take over a game on his own without any help. You have the consistent production of Verhaeghe and your solid center with Barkov. That line just clicks and there would be little to no reason to deviate from what is working.
The second line has also been consistent for the squad. Sam Bennett brings that physicality to the line and Sam Reinhart brings the production. Eetu Luostarinen plays a solid supporting role on the left wing. If Luostarinen and Bennett improve offensively, it will bolster that line even more. Sam Reinhart must also continue his level of production as he finished last season as a 30 goal scorer on this second line. Rodrigues could even be swapped in there on the second line to see how he fits in with Bennett and Reinhart.
The bottom six really shined in the postseason last year. Ryan Lomberg was a definite bright spot as he brought a physical game and some clutch scoring in moments. Lomberg can be swapped in the third line every now and then but would remain a very solid fourth line player. Anthon Lundell is capable of putting up decent minutes and playing a supportive role at centre on the third line. Again, this isn’t necessarily the line that you’re going to mix up.
It will be interesting to see how the offseason additions of Lorentz and Rodrigues mesh into this bottom six. Rodrigues is now with his third team in three years and Lorentz is still a young player in this league looking to find his footing. Lorentz played 80 games with the Sharks last season putting in solid minutes. If he can look to develop in the Panthers system, he might be a solid bottom 6 player for years to come.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Dmitry Kulikov
Top Four/Bottom Pair
Now this defence for the Florida Panthers is suspect until Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad come back from injury. Gustav Forsling on the top pairing is a work horse for this Florida Panthers team. It would be fair to say that he would remain on the top pairing throughout the season. Josh Mahura is a solid defenseman with plenty of time for further improvement. It seems as though if it wasn’t for injuries, he wouldn’t be in this top pairing. Mahura can be kept as a solid bottom pairing defensemen.
Now, the second pairing brings veteran presence but also age. Ekman-Larsson and Kulikov are both 32 years old respectively. They have also had their struggles in the league. Ekman-Larsson seems to have left his productive years behind him. Kulikov has never really been able to find his footing in the league. Again, it feels as though this pairing is together to keep the boat afloat as injuries continue to improve.
The bottom pairing is one that doesn’t have much history to speak of. Matt Kiersted is a young player with 3 years in the NHL. Room for development but belongs on the bottom pairing for this team. Bill Zito brought in Niko Mikkola to fill in a defensive hole. He can get the job done on the bottom pairing. It can be expected that this pairing is also one that won’t make it through the majority of the season.
Bobrovsky is going to be the Panthers starting goalie. He was inconsistent this past year. With help from backup Alex Lyon, it was enough to get the Panthers into the postseason. Sometimes, that’s all you need to make a run: just make it in. Bobrovsky stepped up to the plate in a big way in the postseason leading them to the Stanley Cup Final.
Bill Zito signed a goalie in the offseason Anthony Stolarz who has been dealing with injuries over the past few seasons. This move was made in case Spencer Knight wasn’t ready to go. Now that Knight has indicated that he is ready to get back to form, he will ultimately beat out Stolarz for the backup position. Even if it takes a little bit more time, I think Knight gets back to his consistent ways.
Players to Watch
Matthew Tkachuk is simply one of the most entertaining players to watch in the NHL. He has proven to be the face of this organization with just one season under his belt in South Florida. Do FANS think this will change? No. It can be expected that Tkachuk shines even brighter, lifting this team to another level.
The biggest factor that Florida showed at the end of the last season was the importance of the backup goalie position. Without Alex Lyon’s stellar play, the Panthers might not have even made the playoffs. Knight has shown his skill for the Panthers in the past. However, we have not experienced him making a comeback in this way. Knight might need to put up a consistent performance for this team to keep them in a playoff conversation.
Prediction for 2023-24 Florida Panthers
When push comes to shove, the Florida Panthers will remain a playoff contender. Will they make it? That might be a different story. It seemed like the stars aligned for the Panthers last season. The Buffalo Sabres would be the Panther’s biggest threat to taking that 4th playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. If the Panthers play as inconsistently as they did last year, lightning might not be able to strike twice. It will be interesting. When the machine is firing on all cylinders, the Panthers proved they can be a scary team. Let’s hope they make it back to that level.