After their first 25 seasons, the Florida Panthers have managed to make the playoffs only five times, and only once in their existence has the team won a playoff series. That victory was long ago, during the 1996 postseason, when they went to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Colorado Avalanche.
The Panthers’ fanbase has had little to excite them in recent years, however, the team has made significant moves this off-season in hopes of contending for a playoff spot immediately.
Quenneville Replaces Boughner
Hiring three-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach Joel Quenneville and inking him to a five-year contract was a huge commitment from the Panthers.
Quenneville, who is second on the NHL’s all-time victory list, worked previously with current Panthers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Dale Tallon in Chicago and was brought to South Florida with the expectation of building a playoff-caliber team.
“I believe this team is close to winning,” Quenneville said of coaching the Panthers. “I was fortunate, luckiest guy in the world when I walked into the Chicago situation there — a team ready, sitting on go to win. I feel the same here now.”
Quenneville replaces Bob Boughner, who was fired after posting an 80-62-22 record in just two seasons as the Panthers’ head coach but failed to make the postseason either season.
Bobrovsky Takes Over in Net
The Panthers’ most glaring weakness last season was allowing goals, as they surrendered the fourth-most goals in the league. To keep more pucks out of their net, they made a huge splash in free agency by signing Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70-million contract.
Bobrovsky, who turns 31 in September, posted a 37-24-1 record with a .913 save percentage, a 2.58 goals-against average, along with nine shutouts with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.
Over the past three seasons, Bobrovsky leads all NHL goalies with 115 wins and will be expected to start the majority of the games in net as Florida lacks NHL goaltending depth and has only one other goalie under contract with NHL experience in Sam Montembeault, who has played in just 11 NHL games.
After signing the richest free-agent contract for a goaltender in league history, will Bobrovsky continue to perform at the high level he has in recent seasons?
Can the Panthers Defense Hold Up?
In addition to adding Bobrovsky in goal, Florida bolstered its blue line with another free agent signing as Anton Stralman signed a three-year deal and should help solidify the Panthers’ defense.
Stralman, who averaged 73 games and over 20 minutes per game the past five seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, will give Quenneville quality minutes on defense and should help to mentor some of the Panthers young defensemen.
If Stralman pairs with 25-year-old Michael Matheson as the Panthers second defensive pairing, behind Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, Florida should see its goals against decrease.
The top four defensemen for the Panthers will be counted on to log a large portion of ice time and match up against their opponents’ top scorers, but how much will it improve a team that allowed 280 goals last season, and will they hold up over an 82-game season?
The answers may determine whether or not the Panthers make the playoffs.
Offensively, the Panthers were good last season as they ranked ninth in goals scored and they return their top nine scorers, led by the duo of Alexsander Barkov (96 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau (92 points).
Complementing Barkov and Huberdeau up front again will be Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov, who each racked up 70 points last season and the team hopes Vincent Trocheck returns to full health after breaking his right ankle and missing 27 games.
The Panthers added more scoring depth as they improved their bottom-six forwards considerably by signing free agents Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari.
Along with the free-agent signings at forward, Florida’s offensive depth may improve as Owen Tippett, the Panthers’ 2017 first-round draft pick, may be ready to play at the NHL level full time, perhaps slotting in on the second line with Hoffman and Trocheck.
Expectations for 2019-20
With a new coach along with a large group of free agents, it will be very interesting to see how the Panthers play with the expectation of making the playoffs.
After qualifying for the postseason in 2015-16, expectations were high the following season. However, the team got off to a mediocre 11-10-1 start, resulting in the firing of head coach Gerard Gallant, so we’ll see how this team fares with the highest level of expectations in recent history.