Once the 2018-19 National Hockey League season finally gets underway, the Florida Panthers have a real chance to make some noise.
Much of the Atlantic Division – the whole Eastern Conference, really – is in disarray, with only the Tampa Bay Lightning anywhere close to a lock for success. The Panthers have a tremendous opportunity to not just make the playoffs, but to do so as a divisional seed – and perhaps even win a round or two.
And, of course, once a team gets to that point, anything can happen.
However, the Panthers’ ability to pounce on the aforementioned confusion and uncertainty, and take their shot at the Stanley Cup, hinges on a number of significant X-factors.
Forwards: New Depth Needs Proof of Concept
There’s no question one of the Panthers’ primary failings in 2017-18 was a lack of depth at the forward position.
Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck all had 65 or more points. However, other than Nick Bjugstad, who registered a career-high 49, the next-highest point total by a Panthers forward was 29, courtesy Jamie McGinn.
There’s nothing wrong with being top-loaded; many teams are and manage to have success. It was the sharpness of the drop-off that was the Cats’ issue, embodied by such statistics as Derek MacKenzie and Micheal Haley, two staples within Florida’s forward corps, combining for just six goals and 23 points in 150 games last season.
That’s just not cutting it.
Panthers Add, but Can’t Afford Subtraction
For 2018-19, the Panthers will, at the very least, be icing three competitive lines, instead of just two.
Obviously, the addition of Mike Hoffman should help immensely. Also of note, centre Jared McCann, who showed flashes of brilliance but struggled overall during his first full season in South Florida, looks like he’ll finally be flanked by some offensively gifted wingers. Hobey Baker finalist Henrik Borgstrom and waterbug Denis Malgin, both projected to make the team full time, have been lining up alongside McCann during the preseason.
#FlaPanthers lineup tonight
Dadonov – Barkov – Bjugstad
Huberdeau – Trocheck – Hoffman
Borgstrom – McCann – Malgin
Mamin – MacKenzie – Sceviour
Yandle – MacDonald
Matheson – Pysyk
Kiselevich – Petrovic
— Jameson Olive (@JamesonCoop) September 29, 2018
While the establishment of a third offensively capable line will be critical to the Panthers succeeding this year, said line will likely be comprised of three unproven NHL talents. Additionally, if the Cats are to have any chance at holding their own in a run-and-gun division, Florida’s top forwards will have to, at the very least, replicate their exceptional outputs from last season.
If either of these things fails to come to fruition, the Panthers may find themselves on the outside looking in, yet again.
Defense: Quantity, but How About Quality?
As much as a lack of forward depth hindered the Panthers’ performance last year, what really killed them was a defense corps of which too much was expected.
A distinct lack of quality lower in the lineup, combined with having to adjust to the system of new head coach Bob Boughner, meant the Cats were frequently outclassed in their own end.
For 2018-19, the stylistic concerns should be resolved, thanks to some much-needed continuity behind the Panthers’ bench. However, that still leaves the matter of the personnel.
Panthers Need Defensive Depth to Step Up
Much like their Atlantic Division brethren the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Panthers spent all summer not really getting better in the area they needed it most.
Yes, they signed Kontinental Hockey League all star Bogdan Kiselevich, but how he’ll fit into the Panthers’ system – and into the NHL as a whole – is anyone’s guess. As with most imports from other leagues, he’s a wild card.
As for those already accustomed to South Florida, another wild card is Alex Petrovic, who lost his spot on the Cats’ third pairing at one point last season, before rebounding to have a strong second half.
Mike Matheson, for his part, has provided the Panthers with yet another lethal offensive weapon on the back end. His defensive game is still very much a work in progress, though, and he looked utterly lost in coverage at times last year.
And then there are the bubble defensemen, such as Ian McCoshen, MacKenzie Weegar and newcomer Jacob MacDonald, all fighting to prove their NHL worth.
Can Panthers’ Ekblad Get Back on Track?
It’s not just a matter of depth, either.
Aaron Ekblad’s development has stagnated. A coaching carousel, combined with a series of concussions, has left the 2014 first-overall pick in limbo.
Ekblad possesses great offensive instincts and is one of the league’s best rearguards in terms of goal-scoring. However, his game lacks instinct and polish at times, making him look all-world one shift and overwhelmed the next.
Here’s hoping his health problems are behind him and he can rejoin the trajectory that once made him a sure bet to be a number one defenseman in the NHL.
Panthers’ Defense a Great Unknown
So, really, outside of Keith Yandle – probably the Panthers’ best overall defenseman – and Mark Pysyk – a reasonably steady depth presence (and a right-handed one, at that), Florida might have the most unpredictable blue line in the NHL.
With stylistic stability and another year of development, the Panthers’ defense corps may indeed step into the realm of respectability.
If not, get ready for more bottom-clenching excruciation whenever the other team has the puck.
Goaltending: Will Health Hold Up?
On paper, the Panthers have one of the best one-two goaltending punches in the NHL.
At 39 years of age, Roberto Luongo is still putting up otherworldly numbers. Incredibly, though always an exceptionally consistent netminder, Luongo’s .929 save percentage in 2017-18 was the second-best of his 18-year career.
Make no mistake, the man is still a force to be reckoned with between the Panthers’ pipes.
And then there’s James Reimer, the lovable Robin to Luongo’s Batman. Reimer has consistently been a league-average or better goaltender, and has served several stretches shouldering a starter’s workload.
However, Luongo’s playing time has been severely limited the past couple seasons by a variety of ailments – most notably hip problems, but also groin, hand and rib injuries. (from “Roberto Luongo, 39, to return for 19th NHL season: ‘I’m not going anywhere,'” South Florida Sun Sentinel, – 4/10/18)
Meanwhile, Reimer has missed time nearly every season of his career, with concussions and groin injuries being his two main complications.
Apparently aware of their precarious puckstoppers, the Panthers acquired some experience over the summer in the form of former Winnipeg Jet Michael Hutchinson.
Hutchinson cleared waivers this past week so, should the Panthers lose one or both regulars to injury, they’ll have a third-string option with NHL experience to draw upon – at least in the short term (see: the “Exemptions” section of CapFriendly’s NHL Waivers FAQ).
If the absence of Luongo and or Reimer becomes protracted, however, this fragile last line of defense behind a shaky blue line may prove to be the Panthers’ undoing.
Honourable Mention: Panthers’ Dressing Room
It wouldn’t be a Panthers article without talking about off-ice distractions.
This past offseason saw MacKenzie relinquish his captaincy of the Panthers, with Barkov taking over the role. Unquestionably the Cats’ best player, Barkov has been with the organisation since 2013. With MacKenzie in the final year of his contract – and very possibly his career, it seems only fitting he’d want to pass the torch.
That said, it’s always a little weird when a captaincy is transferred before the incumbent moves on from the team. I mean, with only a year left on MacKenzie’s deal, why not just let him play it out as captain? Why the urgency?
That said, if MacKenzie still wants to play beyond 2018-19 and the Panthers don’t offer him – their captain – a contract, that’d look pretty weird, too.
How Will Hoffman Fit In?
More importantly, one of NHL’s the biggest distractions in recent memory has been added to the Panthers’ locker room. Hoffman arrives from the Ottawa Senators with significant baggage, that of his fiancée, Monika Caryk, allegedly having cyberbullied Melinda Karlsson, wife of then-Senators captain Erik Karlsson.
Given that Sens general manager Pierre Dorion described the Ottawa dressing room as “broken,” it will be interesting to see how well Hoffman and Caryk fit into the Panthers’ social circle, both initially, and as the Karlssons’ legal proceedings against Caryk – and vice versa – continue.
Honourable Mention: Unpredictable Ownership
Any prognostication regarding the Panthers wouldn’t be complete without mention of the team’s often-unpredictable owners, Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu.
Seemingly content to let GM Dale Tallon operate independently following the disaster that was 2016-17, the Panthers’ owners, nevertheless, have a reputation for knee-jerk decision-making.
If the Panthers stumble out of the gate and seem destined for yet another early summer, it’s entirely possible we see significant roster moves and or the removal of coach Boughner, as part of another wide-ranging organisational shakeup.
On the other hand, if the Cats are in serious contention in the lead-up to the trade deadline, the owners might just give Tallon the green light to go nuts for a run at the Cup. Artemi Panarin sure would look good in red…
Will Panthers Leap Through Open Window?
The 2018-19 Panthers have a glorious opportunity to take advantage of an unsettled Atlantic Division and storm up the NHL standings. I don’t think it would come as a huge surprise to anyone if the Panthers were to find themselves playing for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final come spring – if not in it.
On the other hand, there’s a large-enough body of evidence surrounding their concerns that it doesn’t take very much imagination to see the Panthers stumbling through an inconsistent, injury-plagued campaign.
The Panthers seem poised to pounce. Can they put it all together and go in for the kill?
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.