After missing the playoffs for the third straight year in 2014-15 the Florida Panthers rebounded by rocketing to the top of the Atlantic Division and heading back to the postseason.
The Florida Panthers were one of the great surprises from the 2015-16 season finishing with a 47-26-9 record and winning the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 2011-12 season (then the Southeast Division). Despite such a successful regular season, the Panthers were knocked out of the first round by the New York Islanders in 6 games. Panthers’ management has made quite a few additions to help the team go deeper in 2017.
The main forward concerns of the Panthers this offseason were re-signing all of their free agents to long term, cap friendly deals. Vincent Trocheck in particular was signed to a six year contract extension with an annual average value of $4.75 million. Trocheck, 23, registered 53 points in 76 games last season consisting of 25 goals and 28 assists. 2016 also saw forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov take the next step in their development. Huberdeau, 23, previously won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2012-13 for the league’s best rookie and set new career highs in goals and points last season. In 2015-16, Huberdeau tallied 59 points in 76 games consisting of 20 goals and 39 assists. Barkov, 20, was selected second overall in the 2013 and took his game to an entirely new level last season. In 66 games played Barkov amassed 59 points consisting of 28 goals and 31 assists. Not only did this set career highs in goals, assists and points, but it led all Panthers in goal scoring.
Lastly, the Panthers have the living legend himself, Jaromir Jagr. Jagr has been and still currently is one of the greatest hockey player to lace up the skates and was re-signed to a one year contract worth $4 million. Despite being 44 years old, Jagr led the Panthers in scoring last season with 66 points in 79 games and reached an impressive milestone scoring the third most goals in NHL history only behind Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky.
Defense is where the Panthers really bulked up. Florida went out and traded defensemen Dmitri Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson to then sign big free agent names such as Keith Yandle and Jason Demers. Yandle, 29, spent last season playing for the New York Rangers where he totaled 47 points in 82 games. Demers, 28, spent the past two seasons playing for the Dallas Stars and recorded 23 points in 62 games last season and finishing with a +15. Yandle will certainly be an immediate upgrade and can bring a ton of offense from the backend. Demers will also be a steady, reliable defenseman for the team. Along with these new additions players like Jakub Kindl, Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk will round out the team’s defense while allowing young defensemen like Michael Matheson to potentially make the lineup as well. However, just like last season the Panthers’ defense will be led by Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad has dominanted since entering the league in 2014 and plays at such a high-intensity, mature level it’s difficult to remember that he’s only 20 years old. Last season Ekblad led all defensemen with 36 points in 76 games and as the next potential captain of the Panthers, he’ll certainly dominate again in 2017.
With news that starting goalie Roberto Luongo will likely miss the start of the season, the Panthers newly signed goaltender, James Reimer, will likely get the nod for however long Luongo is out. Reimer had previously played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks and gathered a 6-2-0 record with a GAA of 1.62 and save percentage of .938 in his 8 games played with the Sharks. Despite being a small sample size, Reimer should put up good numbers with a solid Panthers defense in front of him. When Luongo does return from injury he is likely to also have a good season. In 2015-16, Luongo accumulated a record of 35-19-4 with a GAA of 2.35 and a save percentage of .922%. Although it will be hard to replicate these numbers at 37, Luongo still has plenty left in the tank and can compete at a high level.
PREDICTION: The Florida Panthers greatly improved in the past year and I see them as a team fighting to win the Atlantic Division next season.