With less than a month before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Florida Panthers. Florida has finished near the bottom of the standings for two years in a row, grabbing what should be key cogs in their future from the draft. The Panthers have drafted highly talented prospects of late, and spent the offseason surrounding that talent with depth. With a new coach behind the bench, the Florida Panthers are hoping a combination of talent, depth, and a new leader in the lockerroom will lead the team back to a playoff berth.
Last Season – It can be argued that the Panthers should not have been as bad as they were last year. That is a hard argument to make, considering the leading scorer for the Panthers last year was Nick Bjugstad, a rookie with an underwhelming 38 points in 76 games. However, injuries struck the players that could (and probably should) have been leading the team, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov Jr.
Huberdeau was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, but hip surgery in the preseason derailed his hopes of repeating that performance this past season. Instead, he struggled to start the season off right, and the Florida Panthers followed suit. Huberdeau only put up 12 points in the first two months of the season, as the team won only seven of the 26 games in that time span. Barkov could have eased the loss of Huberdeau for the Panthers, but a knee injury while playing for Finland in the Sochi Olympics kept him out for the second half of the season.
Without the talent those two players bring to the ice, Florida struggled to produce goals with any consistency, leading to a 29th place finish and, after winning the draft lottery, the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The Panthers drafted defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the pick, joining other young talented defenseman on Florida Panthers’ roster, such as Erik Gudbrandson and Dmitri Kulikov.
The Offseason – With the dynamic young stars dotting their roster, the Panthers spent the offseason looking for veteran depth players to fill the holes. Though their production on the ice is expecting to be limited, their guidance both on and off the ice should help Florida in the long run. Players like Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton, Jussi Jokinen, and Willie Mitchell have been in the league for years, and between the four of them, they have faced just about every scenario that could come up in the NHL.
Dave Bolland was an interesting signing. The amount and length of his contract (Five years, $27.5 million) seems to indicate that he will play the second line center role for the team for the foreseeable future. However, up to this point in his career, he has rarely been used as anything but a defensive-minded third liner. It is unlikely he will produce the points needed to be a second line center for a playoff team, but stranger things have happened in the league.
Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason was the hiring of new head coach Gerard Gallant. Gallant is the third head coach hired by General Manager Dale Tallon since he took over the Florida Panthers, but the organization is hoping that the revolving door of coaches ends this year. Gallant knows for that to happen, the playoffs must be the goal.
“We have a lot of good young prospects in our organization, and I think Dale went out and got good veteran players on July 1. I think there’s a good core of players there and we just think we’re going to put it together and hopefully work hard together as a team and turn the organization around, because we don’t want to finish in the 27th, 28th or 29th spot next year,” said Gallant.
What to Watch for Next Season – Two major factors could lead the recent basement-dwelling Florida Panthers back into a playoff spot, or at least, in competition for one. The first was addressed at last year’s trade deadline, when Florida acquired Roberto Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks, and sent Tim Thomas to Dallas. Luongo played well for the Panthers in the 14 games after the trade deadline, putting up a respectable .924 save percentage. However, he will need to bring that kind of performance over 60 games in this upcoming season, which may be a difficult task, even for a goaltender as talented as he is.
What could help Luongo and the Panthers along is the team’s performance on special teams. After clicking in at around 20 percent during the 2012-2013 season, Florida’s powerplay plummeted to an embarrassing 10 percent last season. The injuries to Huberdeau and Barkov could account for some of that decline, but the powerplay requires confidence to work with any consistency, and the Panthers lacked that last season. The penalty kill did not rank any better, killing off only 76 percent of penalties taken. Both statistics ranked dead last in the league, giving the Florida Panthers an obvious target for improvement for next season.
In the end, the Panthers could finish just about anywhere in the Eastern Conference standings this upcoming year. Logically speaking, it is hard to justify putting them out of the basement after finishing the past two seasons as 30th and 29th, respectively. However, the organization did make a lot of moves in the offseason, many of which addressed an obvious weakness that plagued the team. A playoff berth may be a lot to hope for, but with a new coach, veteran depth players, and talented youth, the Florida Panthers have that goal in mind.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will take a look at the Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Edmonton Oilers.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner