Atlantic Division 2014-15 Preview: Florida Panthers
COACH: Gerard Gallant
2013-14 RECORD: 29-45-8, 66 points (seventh in Atlantic; missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.39 goals-for per game (28th); 3.27 goals-against per game (29th); 10.04 power play pct. (30th); 75.9 penalty kill pct. (30th); shoot record: 8-6 (8th)
NOTABLE DEPARTURES: D Tom Gilbert
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Jonathan Huberdeau — Aleksander Barkov — Scottie Upshall
Jussi Jokinen — Nick Bjugstad — Brad Boyes
Tomas Fleischmann — Dave Bolland — Tomas Kopecky
Sean Bergenheim — Derek MacKenzie — Shawn Thornton
OUTLOOK: A busy offseason may not turn the Panthers into consistent winners, but Florida does have the potential to be one of the more interesting teams in the league. Roberto Luongo posted a .924 save percentage in 14 games after joining the Panthers at the trade deadline, so hopes are high that the superstar netminder can bring stability to a club that has four top-three picks that are 22 years old or younger (Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson) set to play key roles. The Cats also are counting on Nick Bjugstad, a late draft pick by comparison (19th in 2010), who had 38 points as a 21-year-old rookie last season. He has the size and temperament to mature into a solid No. 2 center. The Panthers also added three quality veterans this season, including Stanley Cup winners Shawn Thornton and Willie Mitchell, who Ekblad apparently likes skating with. But while there's more depth than Florida has had in years, all these additions give the Panthers a piecemeal feel. The pressure is on rookie coach Gerard Gallant to fit these mismatched parts together into a cohesive unit that helps this young core take a step toward reaching its full potential.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Aleksander Barkov
Barkov, perhaps the most talented member of Florida's kiddie corps, projects to be the team's long-term No. 1 center. Short term? We'll see. He had his rookie season cut short after suffering a knee injury while playing for Finland during the 2014 Winter Olympics and needs to prove that he can handle the responsibilities over a full NHL season. And there is an upside to playing for a team with low expectations. Barkov has the opportunity gain experience in a low-pressure environment.
PREDICTION: 77 points, seventh in Atlantic