After back-to-back lackluster seasons where the Florida Panthers missed the postseason, 2016 seems like forever ago, when the Panthers took on the New York Islanders in the first round. After a stellar 2015-16 season, the Panthers had home-ice advantage in the playoffs, which led many to believe that the team would dominate for years to come. While they have yet to see it through, perhaps next season is their year.
Panthers’ Youth Ready to Carry the Load
The most significant difference for the 2018-19 outlook is the step forward that Florida’s best players made this season. While the development of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck has been a common theme throughout the last few summers, unlike other years, the wait for the trio to become legitimate threats is over.
Injuries are bound to happen at times, but as long as all three forwards can stay relatively healthy, then the sky is the limit for the Panthers. The potential of Florida’s talented forwards has never been in question, but this season we finally saw the reason for the hype. Despite missing the playoffs, all three had career-high statistics, and there is no reason to think they would not continue to improve.
Perhaps even better is that all three are just entering their prime. Their best days are still ahead, but each has blossomed into a top-tier NHL talent already. Barkov and Trocheck, in particular, make up one of the best center duos in the NHL. They play a well-rounded game and are responsible at both ends of the ice — as we saw this season, they are difference-makers.
Comparing the 2015-16 Panthers to Next Season’s
When comparing the Panthers’ 2015-16 roster to next season’s, there are reasons to believe 2018-19 could be the organization’s best year. Following the 2015-16 season, in which Florida finished tied for fifth in the NHL with 103 points, their leading scorers were Jaromir Jagr (66 points), Jussi Jokinen (60), Barkov (59), Huberdeau (59) and Trocheck (53).
Heading into 2018-19, the top five scorers are Barkov (78 points), Trocheck (75), Huberdeau (69), Evgenii Dadonov (65) and Keith Yandle (56). Florida’s fourth-best scorer from this season would have ranked second on the team that finished fifth in 2015-16. Their fifth-leading scorer, Yandle, would have been just four points out of second. Scoring that season was down compared to this season, but nonetheless, this season’s roster was more talented than in years past.
Consistency Is Difficult for Older Players
Perhaps part of the reason the 2016-17 season was so forgettable was the expectations placed on veterans such as Jagr and Jokinen — specifically Jagr, who was impressive the season before. What wasn’t considered was that a veteran’s year-to-year production can vary greatly. Age matters in professional sports, and it is unreasonable to assume that players in their twilight years can repeat stellar seasons. Most wouldn’t have been surprised if both Jagr and Jokinen produced 60 points in 2016-17, but that was not how it played out.
Instead, the older guys had a difficult time maintaining a high level of play, and former head coach Gerard Gallant took the fall for it. When Gallant was relieved of his duties it seemed as if the organization was grasping at straws. Rather than simply recognizing their older players were declining, and their younger players were not yet ready for the next step, they fired a coach who had brought them to the playoffs the season before. The difference between then and now is that this time, their best players and top-point producers are rising rather than falling.
Younger Generation Pivotal
Now that their forwards are consistent producers, defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson are fully developed professionals, and top prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett are poised for full-time roles in the NHL next season. This could be the step forward Florida fans have been waiting for. Borgstrom, specifically, has the tools to be a force in the league.
While he may not hit Matthew Barzal-like rookie numbers, if given the opportunity, he could be a difference-maker for the club. For the Panthers to live up to the hype, after finishing 30-10-1 in the second half of the season, it’s players like Borgstrom that will need to put them over the edge.
Expectations Are High Once Again
Each of the past three summers, the Panthers seemed like a team ready to become a force in the NHL. Their talent level, combined with cap room to sign free agents, will once again make them a team in the spotlight going into next season. If they fall flat, then this may be the end of the hype. After all, a team that comes up short year after year only deserves so much patience.