Florida Panthers 2015-16 preview
COACH: Gerard Gallant
2014-15 RECORD: 38-29-15, 91 points (sixth in Atlantic, missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.4 goals per game (25th); 2.6 goals-against (16th), 16.3 power play pct (24th); 80.0 penalty kill pct (24nd); PDO: 991.5 (26th); Corsi For pct.: 50.7 (18th); Fenwick For pct.: 50.5 (17th); face-off pct.: 48.6 (23rd)
NOTABLE ARRIVALS: F Reilly Smith
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Jonathan Huberdeau – Aleksander Barkov – Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen – Nick Bjugstad – Reilly Smith
Brandon Pirri – Dave Bolland – Vincent Trochek
Martin Havlat – Derek MacKenzie – Shawn Thornton
Quinton Howden/Rocco Grimaldi (injured)
Aaron Ekblad – Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov – Erik Gudbranson
Willie Mitchell – Alex Petrovic
Steven Kampfer/Dylan Olsen
OUTLOOK: The Panthers quietly established themselves as the league’s most improved team of 2014-15, picking up a solid 25 points more than the season before. While that didn’t boost them into the Eastern Conference playoffs, it brought them to the doorstep. To cross the threshold, they’ll need their promising young core to take a step forward and also pray that a pair of aging veterans can stay the course—and stay healthy.
Jaromir Jagr was brilliant for the Panthers after being acquired at the deadline. He didn’t simply rejuvenate the offense with his own production (6-12-18 in 20 games). His presence energized his young teammates, imbuing them with a swagger that was missing earlier in the season. Forwards Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in particular benefited from his presence. Neither is a legit first-line player just yet, but both are poised to take another step this season and each should reach 60 points. Nick Bjugstad, healthy after missing the end of last season with a back injury, gives Florida a hulking presence in the middle. His challenge will be to help his wingers, Brandon Pirri and Reilly Smith, get past their chronic inconsistency.
The defense will rely heavily on Calder winner Aaron Ekblad—already mature beyond his years—and slick veteran Brian Campbell. The other two pairs are workmanlike at best, forcing the top duo to handle an inordinately heavy workload. They can’t afford a letdown. Neither can Roberto Luongo, who last season gave Florida better goaltending than it’s had in years. The 36-year-old posted a 28-19-12 record, along with a .921 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average. He has to maintain that level of play to keep the Panthers in the playoff mix—and he’ll likely have to do it while managing a heavier schedule. That’s a lot to ask of a netminder who will be 37 before the year is out.
Ultimately, Florida’s success may be measured by the performance of its special teams. Both the power play and the penalty kill ranked 24th last season, nowhere near good enough for a club that’s harboring playoff aspirations. Highly skilled defender Dmitry Kulikov sees time on both units, but rarely plays up to expectations. Keep an eye on him to raise his level this season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Aleksander Barkov
This will be his third full season as a pro, meaning we could see a substantial bump in production from the 20-year-old Finnish center. Barkov has been good—24 points his first year, 36 his second—but the Panthers have to be itching for more from the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, especially considering the success of Sean Monahan, who went sixth to Calgary. Barkov will get a chance to play a full season with Jaromir Jagr, which will help. Is 50 points asking too much? Perhaps, but that type of season could propel the Panthers into the postseason.
PREDICTION: 95 points, fifth in Atlantic