Can the Panthers crack the top-3 in the Atlantic?
The Panthers missed out on the playoffs by a single point, tying them for the most points scored by a team not to make the postseason. With a young roster starting to come into its own, the Panthers are starting to look like a team that could make a push for one of the top spots in a top-heavy Atlantic division.
Offensively, the Panthers performed well. The goaltending was more than adequate, finishing top-10 in save % and goals saved above average. The biggest issue for Florida was its play defensively. Despite having two of the top defensive forwards in the game (Alex Barkov & Vincent Trocheck), the Panthers were middle of the pack in goals against and 6th worst in expected goals against.
What went right:
Florida went on an absolute tear to finish the season, going 25-8-2 over its last 35 games. Over that span, they allowed the 4th fewest goals-per-game while scoring the 8th most, led by Barkov’s near point-per-game season. Speaking of Barkov, he may be one of the most underappreciated two-way players in the league right now. He didn’t make it as a Selke trophy finalist despite leading all forwards in total defensive plays and stick checks. Offensively, his 56 even-strength points were tied with Alex Ovechkin and Eric Staal for 14th in the NHL. He’s a proven playmaker, racking up 51 assists and finishing 17th in passes to the slot and 15th in completion rate on his attempts.
What Went Wrong:
The Panthers late-season push ultimately wasn’t enough to overcome a poor start to the season that saw them go 20-22-6 and face a 12-point deficit at the All-Star break. During that time, their offense lacked bite, ranking 28th in scoring chances and 24th in goals. Florida also struggled defensively, allowing the 7th most scoring chances and the 9th most passes to the slot. Roberto Luongo had another solid year at age 38, but injuries limited him to only 35 appearances.
Florida also came under fire for its decision to give up both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. The two forwards combined for 135 points with the Vegas Golden Knights and were part of one of the NHL’s most dangerous lines with William Karlsson.
Key Additions: Mike Hoffman, Michael Hutchinson, Troy Brouwer
Key Departures: Radim Vrbata (retired)
Other Key moves: Re-signed Frank Vatrano, Alex Petrovic and Jared McCann, PTO for Mark Letestu
With the troubles it faced in net last season, Florida was proactive, signing former Jet Michael Hutchinson to add some extra insurance behind their injury-prone starter. They also traded for former Senator Mike Hoffman via the Sharks. Hoffman comes with some baggage but his skill set is unique. On a struggling Ottawa team, he was able to finish 24th in the league in possession driving plays and posted 22 goals, his fourth straight season reaching the 20-goal mark. Hoffman solidifies what is now an upper echelon top-6.
Frank Vatrano played well for Florida after being acquired from Boston, scoring 8 points in 16 games. The Panthers rewarded him with a new one-year deal. They also awarded new one-year deals to Alex Petrovic and Jared McCann.
Next season preview
What could go right?
If the Panthers can perform anywhere close to the way they did to close out last season, they will be in the playoff mix. They retained their core and added another potent scorer in Hoffman. Alexander Barkov will look to build on a career-best season to firmly establish himself as one of the top centers in the NHL and a perennial Selke candidate. He was also named the new captain of the Florida Panthers early in training camp, taking the title from veteran Derek MacKenzie. If Luongo can have a healthier season and play at least 50 games at his usual level, the Panthers could reach the playoffs and maybe even win their first playoff series since 1996.
What could go wrong?
Relying heavily on a 38-year old goalie with a history of injuries is never an ideal scenario. James Reimer is a good backup who can fill in for an injured starter here and there, but he isn’t someone you want as your number one for extended periods of time and neither is Michael Hutchinson. Florida is also bringing back the same defensive corps that allowed the 3rd most inner slot shots and the most deflected shots of any team last season. Keeping opponents out of the middle of the ice was a battle for this team last year. Those struggles to limit point-blank shots will make life even harder on whoever is between the pipes for them.