Despite a late season push, the 2017-18 Florida Panthers missed the playoffs by one point. Considering they started with a 17-18-5 record through 40 games, a remarkable second half was needed to be in contention at season’s end. They did just that by earning points in 30 of 42 games, including a 10-8-2 record against eventual playoff teams.
Ultimately, the season was a success as new head coach Bob Boughner brought stability one year after the team fired Gerard Gallant 21 games into the 2016-17 season. The Panthers missed the playoffs by 14 points that season and went 24-27-10 after the coaching change. Last season also marked the return of Dale Tallon as general manager after he had been replaced by Tom Rowe for one season.
On the ice, this stability showed as Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck provided the Panthers with production down the middle and Keith Yandle brought offense from the blue line. They also got surprising contribution from Evgenii Dadonov in his return to the NHL while rookie Henrik Borgström, in four games, showed flashes of what’s to come. In net, Roberto Luongo and James Reimer performed admirably while sharing starts, the result of injuries to Luongo which kept him fresher down the stretch than ever before.
Ultimately, they finished one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils for the last playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Overall, the Panthers had a 44-30-8 record along with 96 points and finished fourth in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the conference. These are great results considering they finished in the bottom half of the league in goals against, power play, penalty kill, and shooting percentages.
- Radim Vrbata – Retired
- Connor Brickley – Nashville Predators
- Alexandre Grenier – Laval Rocket (AHL)
- Harri Sateri – Detroit Red Wings
- Curtis Valk – Barys Astana (KHL)
- Ed Wittchow – KooKoo (Liiga)
- Gregory Chase – Wichita Thunder (ECHL)
- Mike Hoffman – Acquired from the San Jose Sharks along with a 2018 seventh round pick for a fourth and fifth round pick in 2018 and a second round pick in 2019
- Michael Hutchinson – One year, $1.3 million from the Winnipeg Jets
- Jacob MacDonald – Two years, $1.5 million from the Binghamton Devils (AHL)
- Paul Thompson – Two years, $1.35 million from the Vegas Golden Knights
- Julian Melchiori – One year, $700,000 from the Winnipeg Jets
- Troy Brouwer – One year, $850,000 from the Calgary Flames
- Frank Vatrano – One year, $925,000
- Jared McCann – Two years, $2.5 million
- Alex Petrovic – One year, $1.95 million
- MacKenzie Weegar – One year, $900,000
2018 Draft Results
- 1-15: Grigori Denisenko – Yaroslavl (Russia-Jr)
- 2-34: Serron Noel – Oshawa Generals (OHL)
- 3-89: Logan Hutsko – Boston College (Hockey East)
- 6-170: Justin Schutz – RB Hockey Akademia (Czech Jrs.)
- 7-201: Cole Krygier – Lincoln Stars (USHL)
- 7-207: Santtu Kinnunen – Pelicans-2 (Finland Jrs.)
Related: Florida Panthers 2018 Draft Recap
Up front, the Panthers look strikingly similar to how they did last season with one stark difference: Mike Hoffman. They acquired him on the cheap from the San Jose Sharks this summer after off-ice controversy forced him out of Ottawa. He will be asked to contribute as he always has and round out what figures to be a very good top-six. Dadonov and Barkov make up two-thirds of what could be a dynamic top line with Nick Bjugstad rounding out the trio. Bjugstad isn’t the ideal top line player, but playing alongside Barkov boosts his output.
One notable absence from the projected forward lines is Borgström, who was sent down to the AHL to start the season. However, that demotion should be temporary because his skillset will be needed if the Panthers seek a return to the postseason. Additionally, veterans Troy Brouwer and Micheal Haley are likely to be extra skaters while Jamie McGinn is out indefinitely with a back injury.
Barkov had a career year in 2017-18 with 51 assists, 78 points, and five shorthanded goals while playing in 79 games, all career highs. He generated more offense than ever before with 256 shots, won a career-high 53.5 percent of draws, and averaged 22:04 of ice time per game, second-highest among forwards behind Anze Kopitar. He was vital to Florida’s second half push as the team went 34-9-6 when he tallied a point and just 8-20-2 when kept off the scoresheet.
He also finished top-three in Lady Byng Trophy and top-five in Selke Trophy voting and cemented his status as one of the game’s best two-way centers. Still just 23 years old, Barkov was named captain of the Panthers this summer, exemplifying the transition to a younger crop of players who have emerged in recent seasons. He will be counted on to lead the Panthers this season, both on and off the ice, in the offensive zone and defensively. For the Panthers to get back to the postseason in 2019, he will have to build off last season.
Similar to Barkov, Trocheck also had a career year last season with personal bests in nearly every category, including his team-leading 31 goals. He also won a career-high 54.1 percent of faceoffs, a continuation of seasonal improvements that date back to his rookie year in 2013-14. He represents the perfect complement to Barkov and gives the Panthers a powerful one-two punch down the middle.
Also like Barkov, Trocheck averaged over 21 minutes per game, which made the Panthers the only team with two players in the top-10 in average ice time among forwards. They were also the only team with multiple forwards who averaged at least 21 minutes per game. This season, the Panthers are again likely to rely heavily on their dynamic one-two punch at center.
The Panthers originally drafted Dadonov in the third round of the 2007 Draft. He played in the NHL from the 2009 to 2012 and totaled 10 goals and 20 points in 55 games. After the 2011-12 season, he returned to his native Russia to play in the KHL, where he stayed for five seasons. Last season was his first back in North America and he finished the year with 28 goals, including six on the man advantage, and 65 points in 74 games.
Both his goal and point totals from last season were higher than all but one of his KHL seasons, quite a feat given the difference in quality of competition between the two leagues. How Dadonov follows up the productive campaign he had last season will be vital to Florida’s success this season. If he remains on Barkov’s line, it’s not unthinkable to predict that Dadonov surpasses the 30-goal, 70-point marks in 2018-19.
On defense, the Panthers return the same three pairs they used nearly every game last season. Aaron Ekblad and Yandle make up a strong top pair that scored 58 percent of all points scored by Florida defensemen last season. Yandle is the consistent, tried and true, veteran while Ekblad needs to step up and continue a development that has stagnated in recent seasons.
The second pair of Mike Matheson and Mark Pysyk was relied upon by Boughner last season as the duo played similar minutes on the penalty kill as Yandle and Ekblad but slightly fewer five-on-five minutes. However, the bottom pair of MacKenzie Weegar and Alex Petrovic was insulated, each with less than 15 minutes of average ice time and neither consistently tasked with killing penalties.
Last season, the Panthers blue line remained remarkably healthy with seven defensemen used all season. That is unlikely to be replicated this season given the natural occurrence of injuries over the course of 82 games. To protect against injuries, they signed Jacob MacDonald and Bogdan Kiselevich this offseason to provide depth. However, Kiselevich is expected to miss the start of the season with an upper body injury. They also have Ian McCoshen in the AHL and he could be called up as needed after he appeared in 38 NHL games last season.
The Panthers need more from Ekblad, the 2014 first overall pick. Last season was his first full year and the first time he eclipsed the 80-game mark since his rookie season. Here’s the good: he scored a career-high 16 goals last season and his 38 points were one shy of his personal best. He also had the highest shooting percentage and average ice time of his career at 8.5 percent and 23:23, respectively.
Now the bad: he played more than 23 minutes a game for the first time, but was only 29th in the league and second on the team among defensemen in average ice time last season. He’s also never finished top-20 in points for blueliners and has yet to hit the 40-point mark. And keep in mind, this is a player the Panthers gave an eight-year, $60 million contract to before his rookie deal expired. His $7.5 million cap hit is ninth-highest at his position and almost $2 million higher than any other Panther, regardless of position.
He has yet to prove that he’s the number one, puck-moving defenseman the Panthers projected him as when they drafted him or when they gave him his extension. Considering he’s just 22 years old, he could still develop, but the time to step up is now. This team is ready to compete now and will need Ekblad to lead their defense corps.
If Ekblad has been somewhat underwhelming in his career, Yandle has been the opposite. Although he’s only been in Florida for two seasons, he has led their defense in points both years, including last season’s eight goals and 56 points, second-most of his career. Unlike Ekblad, Yandle stays healthy and hasn’t missed missed a regular season game since 2008-09.
He’s also productive with at least 40 points in every non-lockout season since 2008-09 and has been among the top-20 in points for blueliners every year since 2010-11. Additionally, his 464 points since 2007-08, his first full season, are fourth-most at his position. In 2017-18, as a 31-year-old, he set a career high in ice time with 24:29 per game, his first time above 24 minutes since 2013-14.
Yandle has anchored the Panthers defense the past two seasons and while he doesn’t excel at the defensive aspects of the game, he’s still been a quality player for them. At 32 years old and entering his 13th season as a full-time player, his impact will begin lessening as he continues to age. That means it’s time to turn the reins of Florida’s blueline over to Ekblad. But for 2018-19, Yandle will still be plenty productive.
Last season, Luongo only appeared in 35 games, third-fewest of his career. He finished with a .929 save percentage (SV%), his second-highest, and a 2.47 goals against average (GAA). A lower body injury in December limited his starts, which was bad, but his freshness late in the season helped the Panthers climb back into the playoff race.
Luongo is 39 and will turn 40 before season’s end, so who knows how many starts he has left in his career. But if he can stay fresh throughout the season, either by splitting starts with Reimer or because of small, recoverable injuries, Luongo will remain an effective netminder who is capable of getting the Panthers back to the postseason.
Because of Luongo’s injury, Reimer played in a career-high 40 games last season. That led to a personal-best 22 wins and tied a career high with four shutouts. He finished the season with a .913 SV% and 2.99 GAA average and won seven of eight decisions between Feb. 12 and March 26, although only one win was against a playoff team.
While Reimer is not a starting netminder, he is a great complementary piece who can step in and play a starting role for periods of time. This season, with an aging Luongo in the twilight of his career, the Panthers ideal situation in net is close to an even share of starts so that both goaltenders are fresh for the postseason if they reach it.
Finnish phenom Henrik Borgström may have only appeared in four games and registered one point last season, but he proved capable of performing at the NHL level even in a limited sample size. He will likely enter this season as a Calder Trophy candidate after a stellar two-year career at the University of Denver.
With the Pioneers, he tallied 45 goals and 95 points in 77 games, won the 2017 NCAA Championship, was named the 2016-17 National College Hockey Conference (NCHC) Rookie of the Year, the 2017-18 NCHC Player of the Year, and was a 2018 Hobey Baker Award finalist.
Now 21 years old, the Panthers 2016 first round pick opens the season in the AHL. However, he should have a top-nine NHL role chiseled out before too long. Given his dynamic playmaking and scoring abilities, it should only be a matter of time before he’s back with the Panthers. Borgström excelling in his first full season could be the difference in the Panthers returning to the postseason or being on the outside looking in again.
Player With the Most to Prove
Given the controversy that surrounded Mike Hoffman the past four months, there’s no other Panther with more to prove. Hoffman needing to prove himself has very little to do with his on-ice performance. He’s a known commodity with four straight 20-goal seasons and three consecutive 50-point campaigns.
However, his goals have decreased two straight seasons and his 22 last season were his fewest in four seasons while his 56 points were his lowest total since 2014-15. Additionally, his shooting percentage was his lowest since 2013-14 and has dropped three straight years, all while averaging a career-high 18:24 of ice time. But how much of those declines were actual regression versus playing on a bad team? This season will prove that.
Hoffman needs to prove himself this season because he needs to separate himself from the off-ice controversy that surrounded him this offseason. The Panthers acquired him on the cheap and he needs to confirm their decision to take a chance on him. In Florida, Hoffman will be surrounded by the most offensive talent he’s ever played with, which sets up a situation that may allow him to eclipse the 30-goal plateau.
Players Who Could Be Called Up
Dryden Hunt is a 22-year-old winger who has been in the Panthers’ system the past two seasons. Last season, he appeared in 11 NHL games with one assist. Meanwhile, in 58 AHL games, he scored 23 goals alongside 23 assists. Winger Anthony Greco went undrafted after four years at Ohio State and has spent the last two seasons with Florida’s AHL team, the Springfield Thunderbirds. In 2017-18, he had 29 goals and 48 points in 75 games.
The Panthers signed Henrik Haapala as a free agent out of Finland and he played in North America for the first time last year. He finished the season with five NHL games and registered one assist. In 20 AHL games, he had three goals and eight points. Defenseman Ian McCoshen played 38 games with the Panthers last season and totaled three goals and four points. While there was a chance he would be their seventh defenseman this season, he will start the season in the AHL. However, an injury on the blue line could lead to him being the first defenseman called up.
2018-19 Season Outlook
The Panthers have been a disappointing franchise recently with just two playoff appearances the past 10 years, all while having five top-10 draft picks in that span. They enter this season with the best core they’ve had this century. They possess one of the deepest forward groups in the league with scoring potential on all four lines and have three solid defense pairs. In net, it’s more up in the air, but if Luongo and Reimer can share starter’s duties and both stay fresh, the Panthers should be fine.
They have star power with Barkov, young talent in Borgström, veteran leadership from Yandle and Luongo, and a stacked farm system that includes Grigori Denisenko, Serron Noel, Aleksi Heponiemi, and Owen Tippett. With all those parts in place, now is the time for the Panthers to become a consistent Stanley Cup contender.
Related: Panthers X-Factors for 2018-19
Unfortunately for them, they play in the Atlantic Division, with arguably the top three Eastern Conference teams in it, the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs. However the division also includes two of the league’s worst teams, the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, who the Panthers could beat up on all season. Assuming Boston, Tampa Bay, and Toronto grab the three divisional playoff slots, the Panthers will have to compete with Metro Division teams for a wild card spot. That means outplaying the Carolina Hurricanes, Devils, and Flyers.
Do the Panthers have it in them? I think so. A healthy Luongo, a motivated Hoffman, and further development from Barkov, Trocheck, Ekblad, and Jonathan Huberdeau can get this team back to the postseason. I predict they’ll have a 45-25-12 record for 102 points and grab the top wild card spot. That’s a six-point increase over last season, a decent-size jump, but one that’s possible given the bad teams they’ll consistently face along with the addition of Hoffman.
*All stats came from Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick
My name is Kyle, and although I’m from Pennsylvania and grew up a Penguins fan, I cover the Predators here at The Hockey Writers. And while I would consider myself a Predators fan, I really enjoy watching all hockey and try to always take an objective approach to things. In addition to covering the Preds, I write hockey history and some statistical analysis pieces as well as book reviews.