(Photo Image Property of Kimberly Smith)
Entering the 2018-2019 season for the Florida Panthers, you’d be hard pressed to recall a time when there was so much optimism, promise, and well, pressure. All very good things to have for a team that is primed to take the next step in being a consistent playoff and Stanley Cup contender. The core made of draft picks Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad are ready to take the reins and be the leaders of this young and hungry team.
What we’ve been hearing all summer and training camp is one thing: avoid another slow start. That phrase has been beaten like a dead horse, but it’s true. The Panthers can ill afford another pedestrian beginning to the season, and will need to be in a playoff spot by Thanksgiving. Therefore starting out 5-5 or 10-10 is just not going to be acceptable and the players know it, and are out to make sure it doesn’t happen. Head coach Bob Boughner is determined to make sure the product on the ice is operating at 100% efficiency, 60 minutes per night. It was obvious last season, especially early on that many times a slow start in the opening frame, or sometimes two, was the culprit in the final outcome of games. No more.
What to keep your eyes on: First off, the health of goaltender Roberto Luongo. Everyone knows that Bobby Lu is the backbone of this team, and how much confidence he gives the players in front of him. But at 39 years old, the drain of playing 60 plus regular season games for so long has forced him to be more aware of his body. Luongo came into camp for the first time in a couple of years healthy and not recovering from any injuries. If the Panthers can get a solid 40-45 games from him, things will be on track. James Reimer will need to be just as solid when called upon. A difficult and challenging role for him, as any goaltender who’s not a number one, is staying fresh and playing at peak performance. Reimer will have to steal some games, especially when the team is tired on back to back nights, of which there are 17. His play along with Luongo’s health will have a tremendous affect on where this team is come April.
The top six: The addition of Mike Hoffman makes the top two lines among the best in the NHL. The second line with Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau could be a top line for many teams. That speaks volumes for the Panthers who’ve never been able to assemble two scoring lines of this caliber in the same season. If each player in the top six pockets at minimum 20 goals each, there won’t be too many games the Panthers will be on the wrong side of. Health is a concern, as well as consistency, and having their ice time managed better than last season. Aleksander Barkov, the newly named captain cannot play 24 minutes per night. Neither can Trocheck. Boughner knows this, and with better support around each player, and a better bottom six, this problem shouldn’t resurface.
Speaking of the bottom six, Jared McCann will be centering the third line. This will be his opportunity to prove his potential as well. He too showed flashes of brilliance last season, but also hit a rut as well. Very common at times for younger players who are thrust into the rigors of an NHL season, and a playoff hunt. With the grind of last season under his belt, including some time missed for injury, McCann has the opportunity to establish himself. He came into camp ready to challenge, and knowing that he has to be consistent. How the rest of the bottom six fills out remains to be seen. It was announced on Monday that Henrik Borgstrom will not be starting with the big club, and has been sent to the AHL. Not really all that surprising as Borgstrom needs to work on his game, add some weight and develop some strength. Many are upset about this, but if you take a step back and think about the player and his future, and how not rushing him will help him, you’ll realize that this was the right decision. The third line is likely Frank Vatrano, Jared McCann and Denis Malgin. The fourth line is made up of Colton Sceviour, Troy Brouwer, Maxim Mamin, Derek MacKenzie and Michael Haley. Those players will be pushing each other for ice time. Should any one of these players not perform to the expectations of the coaching staff, the phone will be ringing in Springfield for help.
Special teams: There will need to be some improvement on both the power play and the penalty killing units. Last year’s power play finished with an 18.88 success rate, good enough for only 21st in the league. With the addition of Hoffman alone, that should be worth a few additional goals. On the other hand the penalty kill was at 80.18 efficiency, which placed them in the middle of the pack at 16th. A former NHL coach once said that the combined numbers of the special teams needs to be at 100% or better for a team to have success. Hoffman being on the power play likely improves these numbers. Taking advantage of the “man advantage” will be another item to watch closely.
Keys to the season: As we’ve said 100 times, a slow start is not acceptable. Moving on from that, good health across the roster is imperative for success. In goal the good thing is, Michael Hutchinson is in the AHL and can provide NHL caliber goaltending if and when needed. That’s why he was signed. Reimer’s GAA of 2.99, and save percentage of .913 from last season need to improve by at least half a goal, and .10 percentage points respectively. Luongo needs to listen to his body and rest when it needs it. If the Panthers are to make the playoffs he’s going to need to be not only healthy, but rested. The defence will have to tighten up from what we saw at the beginning of the season last year. The tandem of Yandle and Ekblad which was rumored to be split up, doesn’t appear to be happening. If that holds true, we know we can count on numerous offensive chances from them, however there will need to be less times when they are caught giving up odd man rushes. They’re aware of it, and we can rest assured that they’ve addressed that between each other. The bottom four of the defence needs to cut down mistakes, and be reliable. For once in their existence, scoring isn’t a problem for the Panthers provided they can “close”. The success of this years team hinges on goaltending and the blue line.
The Atlantic Division on paper looks to be a very strong one. Tampa, Toronto and Boston are the teams to beat. The Panthers while maybe not being able to have a lock on a top three position, should have no problem getting into a wild card spot. However, if, Boston can’t stay healthy, and the age of some of their veteran players rears it’s ugly head, a third place finish in the division is not out of the question. Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Tuukka Rask are all getting up in years. On the other side, Buffalo has improved, and Montreal always gives the Panthers a run for their money. Beating the teams ahead of the Panthers is important. Not playing to the level of competition to the teams below them is crucial.
Where do they finish? Playoffs! Did you say playoffs?! Yes, the Florida Panthers will make the playoffs, and you read it here first. Now, after that bold prediction, understand that they may not be a top three team within their division, but a wild card spot is where they end up. Anything less will mean that something went terribly wrong. However with a very strong top six, the core of players now a year older, and with the sour taste of missing extra hockey by one point last season, his “rookie” year behind an NHL bench as head coach, Bob Boughner will get this team to the next level. Adding his commitment to dressing a bit more conservatively (much to my approval), Bob has the team primed and focused on the task at hand.
A fun and exciting season is ahead. You can rely on Panther Parkway to bring you all the news, details and more all season long. Like our Facebook page, listen to our podcasts, and sign up for email to get all our articles delivered to your in box so you don’t miss anything!
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