Florida Panthers Season Previewby Christopher Gallagher October 6, 2021 0 comments
Littered with young offensive firepower, the Florida Panthers finished second in the Central Division a year ago. Winners of 37 games during the NHL’s COVID-19 shortened season, they finished inside the league’s top five in goals for, scoring 189. Star center Aleksander Barkov racked up 26 tallies in 50 games. Jonathan Huberdeau maintained his strong play from the past few seasons, as the longtime winger paced the group with 61 points. Providing a backbone in the net after being hindered by ongoing goaltending issues, Chris Driedger led the Panthers. The second-year netminder posted a .927 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average in 23 starts.
Despite missing out on the top names on the market like Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall, general manager Bill Zito made multiple moves. He acquired defenseman Brandon Montour from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2021 third-round pick, bolstering the blue line. The long time executive also struck a deal with the Calgary Flames to land disgruntled forward Sam Bennett. Sending back a 2022 second-round pick and forward Emil Heineman (former fourth-overall pick) remained one of the best deadline acquisitions across the league. Bennett amassed 15 points in 10 games to close out the regular season.
Rounding out their list of offseason moves, the team made one more minor transaction; they inked Nikita Gusev after the New Jersey Devils bought out the 29-year-old.
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Guided upfront by their two stars in Barkov and Huberdeau, the team will feature a new face on their first line in 2021. Acquiring winger Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres, the group will hope to continue to get production from the former second overall pick after he racked up 25 goals and 15 assists in 50 games a year ago. Looking to get back to the playoffs in the ultra-competitive in the Atlantic Division, the team will also need both Bennet and Carter Verhaeghe to build off their strong 2021 campaigns.
An unknown at the start of the last season, Verhaeghe recorded a career-high 18 goals playing alongside Barkov on the Panther’s top line. Rounding out their bottom-six, all three members of their fourth line from a year ago return in Patric Hornqvist, Noel Acciari, and Frank Vatrano. Furthermore, after spending just one year in Toronto with the Maple Leafs, longtime center Joe Thornton will look to slide into the bottom six after agreeing to terms on a one-year deal.
One of the more underrated defensive cores across the NHL, Florida will once again lean on number one defenseman Aaron Ekblad to log significant minutes next season after he missed time with a broken leg. Leading the group with over 25 minutes played a night in 2020, the former number one overall pick racked up 22 points in 35 games. Behind Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar will look to build off a breakout 2021 campaign.
Finishing eighth in Norris Trophy voting, the Ottawa, ON native posted a career-high 30 assists in 54 games while finishing at a plus-29. Concluding their blue line, Montour joins Gustav Forsling on their second pairing after the 26-year-old was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres. Lastly, veteran Radko Gudas returns for his 10th NHL season as the veteran defenseman remains in the penultimate year of a three-year $7.5 million contract.
Turning things over to Driedger last season with Sergei Bobrovsky struggling to remain consistent in the middle of his seven-year deal, the 26-year-old net minder was rock solid in goal for the group. Leading the team with 23 victories, he also finished inside the top 10 in the league in both save percentage and goals-against average. Setting a career-high in stops and shutouts, the Calgary Hitman alum was claimed by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft after being left unprotected.
Left with young goaltender Spencer Knight, look for the 20-year-old to challenge for the number one job next year. Strong in his four starts with Florida in 2020, the United States National Development Program product amassed a .919 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average. Along with this, he also started two playoff games for the team while stopping 56 of 60 shots, making him an easy replacement for Bobrovsky if the former Vezina Trophy winner continues to struggle.
Spending two seasons in college hockey with the Boston College Eagles, Knight was one of the best net minders in recent memory in the NCAA. Playing in 54 games with the team, he recorded a .931 save percentage and a 1.97 goals against average during his freshman season. This led him to capture the Mike Mitcher award as the best goaltender across the nation in division one. Bursting onto the scene for the Panthers in 2020 after they selected him with the 12th overall pick in 2019, he made five starts for the team during the regular season.
However, the 20-year-old would continue to be crucial during the team’s first-round series with the Lightning. Starting in two games for Florida after both Driedger and Bobrovsky struggled, he led them to a victory while stopping all but four of the shots he faced. Knight is one of the best young prospects in the league. If he continues his stellar play next season and provides the Panthers with a steady No. 1 option in goal, it will go a long way to ensuring they can advance out of the first round and go on a deep playoff run.
Unhappy with his role with the Calgary Flames early on last season, Bennett made his trade demands public. Racking up just 12 points in 38 games with the team, the 24-year-old was playing just over 13 minutes a night while being a minus-14. The Kingston Frotenacs alum would play a major role down the stretch for Florida after being acquired late in the season.
Spending time with both Hubderdeau and Anthony Duclair as he mixed into the team’s top two lines, Bennett set a franchise record with ten points in his first 15 regular-season games. He also appeared in five playoff games for the team. Rewarded with a four-year extension in the offseason, expect Bennet to continue to play a significant role for the franchise as their penciled-in second center.
Biggest Question Facing the Panthers
With the puck set to drop on the 2020-2021 NHL season, it remains to be seen who will be the No. 1 option in the net. Searching for a consistent option over the past few seasons, the franchise appeared to find their answer after locking Bobrovsky up to the largest contract for netminders across the league.
However, after posting careers lows across the board in his first season with the Panthers, the group elected to roll with Driedger a year ago, after the longtime Columbus Blue Jackets member continued to struggle. Choosing to leave Driedger unprotected during the expansion draft, the group will now have a tough decision to make after losing him to Seattle. Knight is pushing Bobrovsky for the job. With a heavy investment still placed in the 32-year-old, expect him to open up the year in goal for the team. However, if he struggles early on, Quenneville could go to Knight quickly.
With one of the youngest rosters across the league, Florida could still challenge for a top-three spot in the Atlantic. Loaded with offensive firepower up and down their lineup, expect the team to continue to score goals at a rapid pace next season. In one of the most competitive divisions in hockey, the Panther’s defensive core will need Ekblad back healthy. They will need stability with matchups against the high-flying Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Tampa Bay Lightning on deck. Looking to continue their momentum and qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season, a wild card berth remains the most likely option for the team.
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