We’re less than 31 days away from the beginning of the 2017/18 season. Today we continue to dive into the 31 NHL teams in alphabetical order, take a look at their previous standings and upcoming season predictions, as well as their key additions and subtractions. Yesterday we looked at the Edmonton Oilers, today we head south to Florida and see what the Panthers’ season has in store for them.
2016/17 record: 35-36-11
2017/18 prediction: 41-30-11= 93 points. Playoff bubble team
Heading into the 2016-17 NHL season, the Florida Panthers had very high hopes and expectations. They finished the previous season atop the Atlantic Division, with 103 points, despite being bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by the New York Islanders in six games. Aaron Ekblad, their Calder Trophy winning defenseman, had another solid season, and the ultra-talented young duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau looked to be on the verge of breaking out and having huge seasons. That, combined with a deep and talented roster and an excellent head coach in Gerard Gallant, had the Panthers looking poised to build upon their previous year’s success…but that was not to be the case.
With ownership/management going through an apparent power-struggle, Gallant was inexplicably fired just 21 games into the season, despite having a winning record. Barkov and Huberdeau were plagued with injuries and ended up playing only 61 and 31 games respectively. Ekblad had his poorest season as a professional, posting only 21 points with a -23 plus/minus rating. The Panthers finished last season with a very underwhelming 35-36-11 record and missing the playoffs by 14 points.
Fortunately, things are looking a little brighter for this upcoming season. The ownership and management seem to be back on track, putting Dale Tallon back in the General Manager’s office and hiring former NHL’er Bob Boughner as their new head coach. Boughner was a successful and respected head coach in the OHL for several seasons, along with serving as an assistant coach for the San Jose Sharks the previous two years.
Barkov and Huberdeau are entering the season healthy and ready to live up to their very high expectations and will likely have an exciting new line mate, as well. Russian sniper and Panthers draft pick (2007, third round), Evgeni Dadonov has returned from a five year stint in the KHL, where he averaged 0.83 points per game. Last year was his best as a professional, posting 66 points in 53 games (30 G, 36 A) for an impressive 1.25 PPG average with SKA St. Petersburg. Dadonov is currently penciled in alongside Barkov and Huberdeau on the Panthers’ top line, replacing the legend, Jaromir Jagr.
Centerman, Vincent Trocheck has emerged as a very good #2 center, behind Barkov and the towering and talented third line center, Nick Bjugstad (6’6”, 220lbs), who was also plagued by injuries last season, making this Florida Panthers team very solid down the middle. Veteran winger, Radim Vrbata was also brought in to provide more scoring depth on the second line and power play.
The back end should return to being the strength of the team this season, with talented puck-movers such as Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and the promising Michael Matheson, playing in front of the ageless Roberto Luongo. Entering his 18th year in the NHL, Luongo continues to be a very good goalie (and the most entertaining Twitter follow in the NHL), in spite of his age (38 years old) and is backed up by the very competent James Reimer.
Given their offensive potential, goaltending, and solid D corps, they should give their team a chance to win on any given night. However, the biggest challenge the Florida Panthers will face this season is the fact that the rest of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, is as strong as it has been in years. Aside from the Detroit Red Wings and maybe the Boston Bruins, the other five teams in the Atlantic, have all improved their teams in the offseason and with the continued strength of the Metropolitan Division, the Panthers will have themselves an uphill battle just to get themselves into a wild card spot, come March. If they can stay healthy and head coach Bob Boughner can get his team to unlock their potential, look for the Panthers to be either the second wild card team or just barely missing out on the playoffs.