Even though the Florida Panthers crumbled to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, this year was still a massive achievement. In only his first season, general manager Bill Zito got the team closer to long-term success and has shown the direction is on the right track. In addition, with the help of experienced head coach Joel Quenneville, the team has found a new sense of toughness that was a massive part towards their playoff run. Furthermore, their offense got better with increased goal scoring and speed and their defense took a new step in development with a special ability to provide offensive success as well.
Although for Panther fans, this phrase makes writers and insiders sound like broken records as the following season after a playoff berth usually has resulted in playoff droughts and constant failure. But this time, fans should take it to heart as the Panthers have a great future ahead if management plays their cards right. With Zito at the helm, it’s clear his vision for the future of the organization is giving him the winning hand.
Verhaeghe Is Here for Another Go
Forward Carter Verhaeghe emerged as one of the top goalscorers for the Florida Panthers this season with 18 goals and 18 assists in the regular season, and two goals with an assist in the postseason. In addition, he played on the top line for Florida with Aleksander Barkov and Anthony Duclair that wreaked havoc throughout the Central Division.
After winning the Stanley Cup in his rookie season with the Lightning, Verhaeghe was signed to a two-year deal worth $1 million per year by Zito and the Cats last offseason. He is entering the second year that they’re getting arguably elite talent for pennies on the dollar. If his second year goes well, he might just earn his first real NHL contract from Zito. Although, his performance this season is more than enough to warrant it sooner rather than later.
Knight Is Bringing Excitement Between the Pipes
In the small number of appearances he had, goaltending prospect Spencer Knight showed he could play at the NHL level, becoming the youngest goaltender in NHL history to win his first four appearances. In addition, he had great stats in his first four games, with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.32 and a save percentage (SV%) of .919. He even got his first taste of NHL playoff action against Tampa in Games 5 and 6 of the series and handled it like a Vezina Trophy winner. He became the youngest goaltender to win a playoff game facing elimination at only 20 years old.
The 13th overall selection in 2019 will more than likely receive a bigger role come next season as current backup goaltender Chris Driedger is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and his plans to return are currently unknown. With the way he handled himself this past season, it looks like Knight won’t have too much of an issue being between the pipes as a backup next season and potentially a starter in the distant future.
Bennett Is an RFA
Ever since he was acquired at the trade deadline, forward Sam Bennett was nothing short of incredible. He had more points in his first 10 games as a Panther than the legendary Pavel Bure with 15 (six goals, nine assists). In addition, he had more points in his short amount of time with Florida than he did with the Calgary Flames through 38 games, where he only registered 12 points (four goals, eight assists).
In the playoffs this past season, he was an absolute enigma, tallying four points (a goal and three assists) through three games. This is sort of his domain, as he’s now totaled 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) through 33 playoff games in his career. The only thing he has to watch is his discipline, as he was suspended for a game and took foolish penalties during the series with Tampa.
Bennett is going to be a restricted free agent during the offseason. This means Zito will have his rights to negotiate a contract. What Bennett did for the organization was fix their center depth that has been struggling since the departure of Vincent Trocheck last season. How much he could ask for is unknown, but more than likely its going to be for more than $2.55 million. However, Zito should make the necessary cap room to keep him around.
Ekblad Will Be Back Stronger Than Ever
During the regular season, defenseman Aaron Ekblad suffered a season-ending leg fracture. It was a shame because he was putting up Norris caliber numbers, with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) through 35 games. In addition, he had 11 power-play points (six goals, five assists), which makes for fifth on the team overall.
It’s evident that this past season, he truly blossomed into a true top-pairing defenseman. He is one of the main pieces of the core of this squad that has led the team to where they are now. With him back at full strength, Florida could be back into the playoff picture, even with the divisions put back the way they were.
Barkov and Huberdeau Are Still in Their Primes
Despite their first-round exit, forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are both still in their primes, and their fantastic seasons are proof of such.
The captain led the team in goals this past regular season with 26 and was second on the team in points with 58 through 50 games. In the playoffs, he was second on the team in points with seven (one goal, six assists) through six games, including five assists in his last five games. In the faceoff circle, he was a phenom as he won 54.9% of all his faceoffs this regular season.
The only thing that is alarming and should be looked at is that his contract is set to expire at the end of next season. His performance is absolutely worthy of a new deal and he should be getting paid handsomely this upcoming offseason. At only 25 years old, he’s still got plenty of time to go and he’s on the upswing.
Huberdeau was arguably the MVP this year in both the regular season and the playoffs as his stats were nothing short of fantastic. The St. Jerome native led the team with points in both the regular season with 61 (20 goals, 41 assists) through 55 games and the playoffs with 10 (two goals, eight assists). For contract negotiations, he has a bit more time to get his next deal as he’s only got two years left on his current one at 27 years old. With the heart he’s put into this franchise throughout his career, Zito probably is working on his extension right now.
Weegar Gets Valuable Playoff Experience for Next Season
This past season, defenseman MacKenzie Weegar still established himself as a top-pairing defenseman during the regular season in the absence of his partner in Ekblad. He was second in the NHL and led the team in even-strength rating with a plus-29. He finished his regular season tying the franchise record for longest point streak by a defenseman at seven games, and had 36 points (six goals, 30 assists) through 54 games. In his postseason, he only had three points through six games (a goal and two assists) and a minus-1 rating.
Even though the playoffs may have been a lot on Weegar, he will take this lesson in the future to hone his game to perfection. As a seventh-round selection back in 2013, his game is as good as a first-round selection, and he’s hitting his best days at the start of his new deal.
What Is Zito’s Plan?
The new general manager goes into the offseason with a lot of promise and questions on his shoulders. Who is he going to bring in? How is he gonna settle Barkov’s new deal? Who is he exposing in the expansion draft? Who is he moving? As mentioned, in just his first year, Zito has turned this team around. He still has a lot of work to do to perfect this team for a potential deep playoff run. But it seems like he knows what he’s doing, and this is a much different blueprint than what was promised from Dale Tallon for years on end. With Zito steering the ship, anything is possible for these Cats in Sunrise.