The Florida Panthers endured a tumultuous season in 2016-2017, a difficult follow-up to a franchise-record 103-point season the year before.
Off-Season Game Plan looks into a Panthers team that still has a lot of talent from that 103-point team, but that may need to make some changes in order to get back into the playoff picture.
The first change for the Panthers is that they returned Dale Tallon to the GM position, and it will be interesting to see how that affects Florida’s personnel decisions.
For as much criticism as Florida’s Computer Boys received last season, they did pretty well in acquiring Jonathan Marchessault, Colton Sceviour, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk and James Reimer last summer. That isn’t to say that everything went smoothly.
Their firing of head coach Gerard Gallant was, at the very least, a p.r. fiasco, especially their front office was already in the crosshairs of mainstream media critics for pushing Tallon aside in the first place.
With Tallon calling the shots again, the Panthers still need a new head coach to replace Tom Rowe, who filled in for Gallant. Denver University’s Jim Montgomery appears to be a leading candidate at the moment.
Florida will also have some decisions to make when filling out the roster. Are they going to bring back Jaromir Jagr for another season? Is there any interest in Ilya Kovalchuk?
The upshot is that the Panthers went from being a 102.1 PDO (SH% + SV%) team in 2015-2016 to a 98.7 PDO team in 2016-2017. Average luck would land them somewhere in between and, provided they have better health than they did last season, that could easily have the Panthers back in the playoff mix.
Jonathan Marchessault – The 26-year-old had played a career-high 45 games for Tampa Bay in 2015-2016, but the Panthers inked him to a two-year, $1.5-million (total) deal. All they got out of it was 31 goals from a winger whose road to the Show was rockier because he’s not tall.
Vincent Trocheck – Followed up his breakout 2015-2016 season by taking the lead for the Panthers, scoring 54 points and playing 20:50 per game.
Aleksander Barkov – Florida’s best player missed 21 games with injuries, but was typically productive and drove play when he was in the lineup.
Nick Bjugstad – Depth down the middle was supposed to be one of Florida’s strengths, but it didn’t work out that way when Bjugstad suffered a broken wrist before the season started and never got on track, even once he returned, scoring just seven goals in 54 games.
Jussi Jokinen – The 34-year-old winger still had solid possession stats, but saw his point totals crash from 60 to 28.
Jared McCann – He didn’t need to make a major impact after coming over in a trade for defenceman Erik Gudbranson, but the 21-year-old forward could have delivered more than one goal in 29 games.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
Vincent Trocheck has quickly ascended from interesting prospect to team leader, capable of playing in all situations and continually moving the puck in the right direction. The 23-year-old probably isn’t fully appreciated by the public, but he’s a really solid core piece for the Panthers.
Even though Aleksander Barkov has four years of NHL experience, he doesn’t turn 22 until September. He’s become a significant scorer in the past couple of seasons, putting up 111 points in 127 games, and he was a possession force when he was healthy last season. He’s a complete player who could be on the verge of stardom if the Panthers achieve success.
The percentages weren’t as kind to Reilly Smith last season as they were in his standout 2015-2016 season, but he remains a valuable two-way winger, a two-time 20-goal scorer who is capable of playing in any situation.
The puck was still moving the right way with Jussi Jokinen on the ice, even though his point production was more than cut in half. His on-ice percentages dropped dramatically (his 97.4 PDO was his lowest in a full season since 2007-2008), so it’s not unreasonable to think that he can bounce back a little next season, even if he’s 34-years-old.
An Achilles injury limited Jonathan Huberdeau to only 31 games last season, but he was excellent upon returning to action. He created offence, had career-best puck possession stats and was generating more shots individually. If he could merely carry his play from last season into next then the Panthers should be thrilled.
Another inexpensive free agent signing from last summer, Colton Sceviour has ranged between 23 and 26 points in each of the past three seasons. He has good skill for the bottom half of the forward depth chart, which also allows him to move up when needed.
Team captain Derek MacKenzie is a 35-year-old gritty character guy, but also one who has surpassed 20 points in a season once in his career and he’s been consistently on the wrong end of shot differentials. That he’s signed for two more seasons is an odd evaluation of his contributions, especially from a team that has been pretty sharp with many of their evaluations in recent seasons.
If the Panthers are going to improve next season, the most obvious player to affect some of that change is Nick Bjugstad, who had a career-worst season after he recovered from a broken wrist. The 6-foot-6 centre could use some quality linemates to help bring the best out of him, because he does seem to have some untapped potential.
A fourth-round pick in 2015, Denis Malgin quickly ascended to the NHL and showed promise in a limited role. He’s not very big, but he can handle the puck and has potential worth exploring.
21-year-old Jared McCann didn’t have the most auspicious debut in Florida after coming over from Vancouver, managing three points in his first 20 games. He was demoted to the AHL, and that doesn’t have to be the end of the world, but it’s certainly a bump in the road after he had scored nine goals in 69 games for Vancouver as a rookie in 2015-2016.
Acquired from Anaheim in a trade for Logan Shaw, 24-year-old centre Michael Sgarbossa has some skill. He’s scored just two goals in 48 NHL games, but has enough of a track record in the AHL to suggest that he could produce more than that if given the opportunity. At the very least, though, he’s not a bad depth forward to have in the organization.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Panthers is what they will do with Jaromir Jagr, the 45-year-old right winger who remains productive, but saw his percentages crash after a wildly successful 2015-2016 season. If the Panthers choose to let Jagr leave as a free agent, would they look to an alternative like a trade with New Jersey for Ilya Kovalchuk? He has said that New York and Florida are his preferred destinations. If not, what about Patrick Sharp or Kris Versteeg, a couple of veteran free agent scoring wingers who have a history (from Chicago) with general manager Dale Tallon?
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
When it became apparent that the Panthers weren’t going to be able to retain Brian Campbell last summer, they acted proactively to acquire then sign Keith Yandle, a durable puck-mover who hasn’t missed a game in more than eight seasons. Yandle can create offence and quarterback the power play, but he does have some holes in his game defensively, which makes it challenging at times, because he’s typically facing high-quality opposition and that means his defensive play gets exposed.
A solid top-four right-shot defenceman, Jason Demers somehow lasted to July 2 as a free agent last summer, and that gave the Panthers an opportunity to bring him in at a reasonable cost. His possession stats weren’t great last season, but that may have as much to do with his partners (Yandle and Michael Matheson were most common) as anything else. The way the breakdown is going for the expansion draft, the Panthers may consider moving Demers, and if they do, it should’t be hard to find a taker for someone with his skills.
21-year-old Aaron Ekblad is the Panthers’ franchise defenceman and made real progress in the second half of the season, controlling better than 53% of shot attempts at even strength after January 1. He can still tighten up defensively, but he’s young and has the talent to be a difference-maker.
Michael Matheson stepped in and played more than 21 minutes per game as a rookie. That probably didn’t get enough widespread notice, but he’s a smart and skilled blueliner who has room to get better.
When the Panthers acquired Mark Pysyk for Dmitry Kulikov last summer, it appeared to be an analytically-savvy move and it worked out well for Florida. Pysyk saw his ice time jump more than three minutes per game compared to what he played for Buffalo the year before, and he held his own.
A 6-foot-4 bruiser, Alex Petrovic was sidelined for a couple of months last season due to an ankle injury, but he played pretty well when he was in the lineup. Heading towards the expansion draft, it looks like Pysyk and/or Petrovic may be available and both performed admirably for 18 minutes per game last season on inexpensive contracts.
The Panthers do have a number of prospects who should be pushing for time. Linus Hultstrom, Ian McCoshen, Mackenzie Weegar and Michael Downing could all compete for playing time next season, and it might be worthwhile to have at least one spot open for the best of that group.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP|
FREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2016-17 CAP||STATUS|
Roberto Luongo played just 40 games last season, his fewest in a full season since playing 24 games for the Islanders in 1999-2000, his first year in the league. The 38-year-old also had the lowest even-strength save percentage since it started getting measured in 2007-2008, so it’s quite possible that he’s declining – he’s held at a high level beyond any reasonable expectation for goaltenders – but if Luongo is really on the downswing now, it will be imperative that the Panthers have another quality option in goal.
Provided he’s not lost in the expansion draft, James Reimer ought to fill that role. He’s had some ups and down in his career, but Reimer has a .926 even-strength save percentage for his career, which is solidly above average. If he is the heir apparent to Luongo, the Panthers would seem to be set in net. Now, if he is lost to Vegas that could complicate matters.
EXPANSION DRAFT TARGETS
Alex Petrovic – A 6-foot-4, right-shot defenceman who plays a punishing physical game, will scrap if need be and is still relatively inexpensive.
Mark Pysyk – Which Panthers defenceman Vegas would take is basically like choosing a flavour of ice cream. Pysyk is a heady, right-shot defenceman whose style is quite different from Petrovic’s, but both would be easy additions for a Vegas team that is likely going to want a lot of defencemen as they acquire assets.
James Reimer – The Panthers might be able to avoid losing a defenceman, but it could cost them Reimer, a 29-year-old goaltender that they have signed for four more seasons.
PANTHERS TOP PROSPECTS
|Henrik Borgstrom||C||37||22||21||43||+23||Denver (NCHC)|
|Ian McCoshen||D||68||4||12||16||+23||Boston College (HE)|
|Jayce Hawryluk||RW||47||9||17||26||+5||Springfield (AHL)|
|Jared McCann||C||42||11||14||25||+5||Springfield (AHL)|
|Adam Mascherin||LW||65||35||65||100||-2||Kitchener (OHL)|
|Sam Montembeault||G||41||.907||Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL)|
|Michael Downing||D||67||2||11||13||-7||Springfield (AHL)|
|Mackenzie Weegar||D||60||14||22||36||+7||Springfield (AHL)|
|Maxim Mamin||RW||42||12||13||25||+17||CSKA Moscow (KHL)|
|Jonathan Ang||C||67||7||32||59||+16||Peterborough (OHL)|
|Josh Brown||D||72||3||10||13||-5||Springfield (AHL)|
|Linus Hultstrom||D||44||7||13||20||-6||Djurgardens (SHL)|
|Kyle Rau||LW||48||10||14||24||-3||Portland (AHL)|
|Dryden Hunt||LW||70||13||18||31||+3||Moose Jaw (WHL)|
|Juho Lammikko||LW||47||6||5||11||+1||Springfield (AHL)|
Florida has done a nice job stocking cupboards that weren’t exactly overflowing, but the 10th pick this year will give them a chance to add a much-needed impact player. How soon will top prospect Henrik Borgstrom be ready to leave school? He ripped up college and won a National Championship as a freshman.
10th – Michael Rasmussen, Elias Pettersson, Martin Necas
The Panthers have approximately $60.6M committed to the 2017-2018 salary cap for 16 players.
Two top-nine forwards, one defenceman
WHAT I SAID THE PANTHERS NEEDED LAST YEAR
One top-nine forward, one top-pair defenceman, backup goaltender
Jonathan Marchessault, Colton Sceviour, Jared McCann, Jason Demers, Michael Matheson, James Reimer
Nick Bjugstad, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, Alex Petrovic
MY PROJECTED 2017-2018 PANTHERS DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Jonathan Huberdeau||Aleksander Barkov||Ilya Kovalchuk *|
|Jonathan Marchessault||Vincent Trocheck||Reilly Smith|
|Jussi Jokinen||Nick Bjugstad||Kris Versteeg *|
|Jared McCann||Derek MacKenzie||Colton Sceviour|
|Kyle Rau||Michael Sgarbossa||Jayce Hawryluk|
|Dryden Hunt||Chase Balisy||Kenny Agostino *|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Keith Yandle||Aaron Ekblad||Roberto Luongo|
|Michael Matheson||Jason Demers||James Reimer|
|Linus Hultstrom||Mark Pysyk||Adam Wilcox|
|Ian McCoshen||Taylor Fedun *|
|Mac Weegar||Michael Downing|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com