THN’s 2014-15 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

Can the Florida Panthers actually make the playoffs? We think so. Check out our season preview in which we predict the young and emerging team to finish fourth in the Atlantic and end up in the post-season.
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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

2013-14 record: 29-45-8

Acquisitions: Greg Zanon, Willie Mitchell, Al Montoya, Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton, Derek MacKenzie

Departures: Peter Mueller, Scott Clemmensen, Tom Gilbert, Jesse Winchester, Matt Gilroy

Top five fantasy players: Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, Brian Campbell, Jonathan Huberdeau

Boom, Bust and Bottom Line: The best, worst and most likely scenario
Boom: The Panthers will have a full season with Roberto Luongo as their starter and Al Montoya as their backup, which alone will give them a huge boost. Last season’s combination of Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom was awful and cost the Panthers plenty of games and goals against.

But the offense was also a problem, as only one player, Brad Boyes, reached the 20-goal mark and no one hit 40 points. Expect a bounce-back year from Jonathan Huberdeau, who suffered a sophomore slump in 2013-14. The Panthers are also banking on growth from Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, last season’s leading scorer. The two big centers are crucial to the future.

Florida also acquired some depth in free agency, adding veterans Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland to help take some of the pressure off the kids. If the roster meshes and all the youngsters take a step forward, the Panthers will be in the playoff conversation come April.

Bust: Only one Eastern Conference team finished with fewer points than the Panthers last season, so for them to reach the playoffs, they need to pass at least seven teams that finished above them. That’s a tall order.

And although having a new, more capable combination of goalies is nice, Florida still has to make up a ton of goals. Consider that the only East playoff team that allowed more goals than it scored last season was Detroit, who had a minus-8 differential. Florida was a minus-72.

And what kind of a role will Dave Bolland play? Will he be the third-liner he should be, or did the team pay him $5.5 million to install him as a top-six forward? That would be a mistake. Playing Shawn Thornton with any regularity also would be unwise. All eyes will be on 2014 No. 1 pick Aaron Ekblad, but where the real improvement on ‘D’ must come from is Erik Gudbranson, who needs to take the next step in his fourth year.

Bottom Line: No matter how you cut it, this team has to improve quite a bit to make the playoffs. But the potential and skill is there. Bjugstad and Barkov may be young, but they’re two huge bodies who can be puck-protecting forces. The blueline is a solid unit. When it comes down to it, the Panthers have more depth to draw from this season and better goalies to back it up. Improvement is inevitable. They’ll be on the playoff bubble or even higher in a weak East.

Prospect To Watch: The obvious player to watch at camp is No. 1 overall pick Ekblad who has an excellent chance to make the club a little more than three months after being drafted. A little less obvious is Rocco Grimaldi. The 5-foot-6 forward is moving on from the University of North Dakota after signing an entry-level deal with the Panthers this summer. Grimaldi scored 17 goals and 39 points in 42 games in the NCAA last season, but may find it tough to make the team out of camp after all the additions the Panthers made in the off-season combined with the players they already had in place.

THN's Prediction: Fourth in Atlantic Division and in the playoffs

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