The quietly improved Florida Panthers have a young core that could power the team to the playoffs.
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.
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