This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the Florida Panthers.
What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?
After finally getting his long-awaited trade out of Vancouver, goaltender Roberto Luongo managed to pick where he left off when he was starring for the Panthers 10 years ago. Despite facing nearly 31 shots per game in his 14 games, he finished with a .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against-average.
While the Panthers didn’t score very much, Brad Boyes still managed to put up 21 goals to lead the team. It was his first 20-goal season since 2008-09 and earned him a two-year contract extension in Florida.
Brandon Pirri came over from Dale Tallon’s former organization, the Chicago Blackhawks. The former AHL scoring champion played in 21 games for the Panthers, posting 7 goals and 7 assists in just under 14 minutes per game.
Pirri’s former teammate in Chicago and in Rockford of the AHL Jimmy Hayes also joined the Panthers in the Kris Versteeg trade. Despite only playing 10:56 per game, the 6’6″ winger scored 11 goals to go along with 109 hits in 53 games.
What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?
Only Buffalo scored fewer goals than the Panthers last season, while only the Oilers allowed more.
What’s more, Florida had the worst special teams units in the NHL by wide margins, finishing with a 10% conversion rate on the powerplay, while only killing 76% of their penalties. It’s the first time an NHL team has finished below 11% with the man advantage since the Hurricanes in 2003-04 (10.6%).
After winning the Calder Trophy in 2012-13, former 3rd overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau suffered a very severe sophomore jinx. Despite playing in 21 more games this past season, he scored 5 fewer goals and 3 fewer points than in his rookie season. He also missed 11 games with a concussion.
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has not only had trouble staying healthy so far in his career, but he’s also found it difficult to build on some early offensive success. Last season, the first time in his career he’s played more than 72 games, he posted just 19 points to go with his team-low -26. Now entering his 6th NHL season, one has to wonder if he’ll ever become the player many thought he would be when he went 14th overall in the 2009 draft.
So what did they do to get better?
The Panthers were one of the more active teams this summer, although the results are mixed.
Jussi Jokinen was signed to a very reasonable 4-year deal with an annual cap hit of 4 million dollars. He scored 21 goals and 57 points with the Penguins last season before adding 7 goals in 13 playoff games.
As good of a deal that was, Dave Bolland’s 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal may come back to haunt the Panthers. While he was an important part of both Stanley Cup wins in Chicago, Bolland has never scored more than 19 goals or 47 points in a season. In addition, he’s only played more than 70 games twice in the last 7 seasons.
Willie Mitchell also signed as an unrestricted free agent for 2 years at 4.24 per. While the price may initially seem high for a defenseman clearly on the back nine of his career, consider this: in 13 NHL seasons, Mitchell has only been a negative player once. This despite the fact that his career high for points is only 24. He was also a +10 during the Kings’ most recent Stanley Cup run.
Florida also had some luck, winning the draft lottery and getting the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. After a lot of speculation that they might trade the pick, they used it to select defenseman Aaron Ekblad. He scored 23 goals and 53 points for the OHL’s Barrie Colts last year and has all the tools to be a solid two-way blueliner in the NHL; a heavy shot, a 6’3″, 216 pound frame that he uses smartly and very good positioning.
Player to watch
Aleksander Barkov played just over 17 minutes per game last year as an 18 year-old rookie. He provided some offense (24 points in 54 games) and was very responsible defensively considering his age finishing with 30 takeaways and only 17 giveaways.
He’s still just a “kid”, but he has good size and is good enough at both ends to relied upon in every situation. The additional veteran presence up front will take some pressure off him this season, which will translate into better match-ups and more production.
He’s an elite young talent who will only get better.
The young core of talent in Florida is probably the most impressive in the NHL.
They will make the playoffs if…
They find some way to be more effective on special teams. There’s enough talent on this roster to assume that if the powerplay and penalty kill improve enough, they’ll be right there in terms of the playoff race.
They will miss the playoffs if…
The young players don’t make major strides forward. Huberdeau, Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Kulikov, Ekblad and Erik Gudbranson are the core this team will build around. If they’re going to be in the NHL at such young ages, they need to find a way to be more consistent.
What should we expect this season?
Florida is a very intriguing team. They remind me a little of the Blackhawks in 2007-08 who just missed the playoffs, but had most of the pieces in place that would turn them into the powerhouse we know today.
The young core of talent in Florida is probably the most impressive in the NHL. Now, they have a stable goaltender behind and a group of veterans that is experienced and knows how to win.
This will be an exciting team to watch and will give many of the top teams in the East fits on most nights. In the end, I think they’re perhaps one more season away from making a serious run at the post-season, and perhaps beyond.
38-33-11 87 points, 5th in the Atlantic Division, 11th in Eastern Conference