The 2019-20 season was another disappointment for the Florida Panthers. It is true, at least to some extent, that defense wins championships. While the Panthers’ offense thrived, their defense was poor and their star goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, had a career-worst season. The Panthers finished fourth in the Atlantic Division with a record of 35-26-8. In a standard 82-game season, the Panthers would have found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture yet again.
However, the Panthers ultimately got the opportunity to participate in the playoffs during the league’s Return To Play. Disappointing again, they lost to the New York Islanders during the play-in round, three games to one. The Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996 when they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final. In order to change their outlook and rebound from another lackluster season, the Panthers had to overhaul the team and they did just that.
A Busy Offseason Brings Hope
Perhaps the biggest win of the season for the Panthers was the hiring of their new general manager (GM), Bill Zito. In his first offseason with the organization, he turned over nearly a third of the Panthers’ roster.
Zito made it a point to shake up the defense ahead of next season. The most notable subtraction from the defense was Mike Matheson, who was sent away in a trade that brought in veteran forward Patric Hornqvist. This trade will prove to be very important moving forward, as it freed the Panthers of Matheson’s $4.8 million cap hit.
Furthermore, it has been clear for some time that the Panthers have lacked physicality on their blue line. To correct this, Zito brought in two defensive-minded players, Radko Gudas and Markus Nutivaara. Gudas finished 12th among defensemen with 164 hits during the regular season. This is more than double the highest hitting defenseman for the Panthers last season. It should be noted that Zito was also able to retain the services of defenseman Mackenzie Weegar, who is poised to have a breakout season.
Zito made several key changes to the offense, too. The Panthers traded away Vincent Trocheck at the trade deadline and lost Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov during free agency. Hoffman and Dadonov combined for 54 goals last season. Having lost several of their most productive forwards, their newly acquired offensive pieces will have big shoes to fill.
The acquisition of Hornqvist brings much-needed experience and grit to the Panthers’ lineup. The two-time Stanley Cup champion will not only bring goals to the team but will also bring leadership for the Panthers’ young core. Anthony Duclair was another crucial signing this offseason. He finished the 2019-20 season with 23 goals and 17 assists. It is fair to pencil him in for 20 goals with some upside.
Zito also brought in forwards Alexander Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, and Vinnie Hinostroza. Wennberg and Hinostroza both tallied 22 points during the regular season. In addition, newly crowned Stanley Cup champion Verhaeghe notched 13 points in 52 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. These forwards, along with key prospects such as Owen Tippett, will have to step up during the 2020-21 season to make up for the loss of the Panthers’ top goal-scorers.
Looking Ahead to the 2020-21 Season
The Panthers dodged a bullet by joining the Central Division this season. The Boston Bruins, who have finished consistently ahead of the Panthers in recent years, will be in the East Division and the Toronto Maple Leafs will be joining the North Division. Although they find themselves in a division with both of the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Finalists, the Panthers will be able to fight for a playoff spot in their temporary division.
The Lightning and the Dallas Stars are the clear favorites to finish atop the Central Division. With the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks likely to finish at the bottom of the table, the Panthers will be battling the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and Nashville Predators for the final two playoff spots.
Although a third or fourth-place finish would result in a tough Round 1 playoff matchup, it would be largely considered a failure if the Panthers were left on the outside looking in again. The only way to win a playoff series is to make the playoffs in the first place.
A successful 2020-21 campaign for the Panthers will require several things: a bounce-back season for Bobrovsky, physical play from the defensemen, and a breakout year for at least two of their new forwards. With GM Zito leading the way, the Panthers will be looking toward the 2020-21 season with optimism.
Andrew is a freelance writer who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning at The Hockey Writers. He is a passionate hockey fan who grew up near Tampa, Florida. He is a husband, father to a Golden Retriever, and is studying to be a Physician Assistant. Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Mulville