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Scott Cullen

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The Florida Panthers were oh-so-close to a playoff spot last season, their 96 points counting as the third best total in franchise history.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Panthers squad that that has some strong core pieces, but may need some good fortune to get back to the postseason.

The Panthers have made the playoffs twice in the past 17 seasons, so coming within one point of reaching the postseason is a tough pill to swallow. For a team that operates on a budget, there may not be a lot of moves to be made this summer but, as close as they were last season, the Panthers probably feel like they were just a bounce or two away from a different outcome.

The question is: can they get over the hump? One thing that was obvious was that last season the Panthers were much healthier than the season before, when they started the season without Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, but it may not have been obvious just how healthy they were in 2017-2018.

It’s true, their 39-year-old goaltender missed time with injury, and that should be expected at this point, but Florida’s top four defencemen missed a total of one game between them. Their top five forwards, by average time on ice, combined to miss a total of 11 games. If the Panthers manage to stay that healthy in key spots again next season then they are, collectively, living their best life.

HOCKEY OPS/COACH

Dale Tallon/Bob Boughner

HEROES

Aleksander Barkov – In his fifth season, Florida’s star centre delivered a career-high 78 points. Oh, he’s also just 22-years-old.

Evgeni Dadonov – He left for Russia after the 2011-2012 season and, at that point, was a fringe player in the NHL. After a five-year hiatus in Russia, Dadonov returned to the NHL and was a first-line scorer with 65 points.

Vincent Trocheck – The 24-year-old centre had a career-high 31 goals and 75 points while playing a career-high 21:22 per game.

ZEROES

Radim Vrbata – There was obviously some risk when the Panthers signed the 36-year-old winger as a free agent, but he managed just five goals in 42 games and played in just seven games over the last two-and-a-half months.

Micheal Haley – He didn’t play a lot, but he dressed for 75 games and led the league with 22 fights and 212 penalty minutes. He was also outscored 28-14 during 5-on-5 play.

 

RETURNING FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Aleksander Barkov 79 27 51 78 51.5 3.0 100.6 39.7 22:04 $5.9M
Vincent Trocheck 82 31 44 75 48.3 -1.3 99.3 41.6 21:22 $4.75M
Jonathan Huberdeau 82 27 42 69 50.9 2.5 100.3 45.7 19:12 $5.9M
Evgeni Dadonov 74 28 37 65 53.3 5.9 101.5 43.7 18:42 $4.0M
Nick Bjugstad 82 19 30 49 51.9 3.7 100.9 46.6 15:07 $4.1M
Jamie McGinn 76 13 16 29 46.4 -3.8 100.9 46.1 13:27 $3.333M
Colton Sceviour 76 11 13 24 47.2 -2.9 100.3 46.6 13:26 $1.2M
Denis Malgin 51 11 11 22 50.9 2.0 100.9 50.1 13:51 $690K
Derek MacKenzie 75 3 11 14 47.4 -2.5 96.7 47.9 11:18 $1.375M
Micheal Haley 75 3 6 9 46.2 -3.5 96.8 56.4 7:47 $825K
 

 

FREE AGENT FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Jared McCann 68 9 19 28 48.6 -0.9 101.8 48.4 13:15 $894K RFA
Radim Vrbata 42 5 9 14 43.8 -5.6 99.3 40.7 12:54 $2.5M UFA
Connor Brickley 44 4 8 12 46.9 -3.1 97.9 48.9 11:53 $750K UFA
Frank Vatrano 41 7 3 10 54.2 2.5 101.2 57.1 10:50 $793K RFA
 

Everything came together for Aleksander Barkov in his fifth season. He stayed healthy, playing in a career-high 79 games; he averaged 22:04 of ice time per game, ranking second among forwards behind Anze Kopitar; he won 53.5% of his draws, a career-best; he had 78 points, beating his previous career-best by 19 points; he did all this while starting less than 40% of his shifts in the offensive zone.

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Florida's rising star, Aleksander Barkov.

One note on Barkov: while he was getting touted in spots for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward: he had the highest-rate of shots and goals against of his career – his big gains in this breakthrough season were on the offensive end.

24-year-old Vincent Trocheck has emerged as a big-time player, and while his possession numbers dipped last season, he also generated a career-high 3.5 shots on goal per game. With Barkov in the No. 1 centre slot, Trocheck is an outstanding second option down the middle.

Playmaking winger Jonathan Huberdeau stayed healthy, playing 82 games for the first time in his career, and recorded a career-high 27 goals and 69 points. He’s an integral part of the Panthers offence.

Evgeni Dadonov brought speed and creativity to the Panthers lineup, and was a tremendous complement to Barkov on the top line. He’s 29-years-old, so he’s no longer an up-and-comer, but when one considers that he effectively replaced Jaromir Jagr on the Florida depth chart, he’s plenty youthful in relative terms.

Coming off the worst season of his career, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed a productive year in 2017-2018, finishing with a career-high 49 points. The 6-foot-6 forward has spent more time on the wing in recent years, but his ability to play the middle could make him attractive as a trade candidate.

A physical winger who can chip in a bit offensively, Jamie McGinn also tends to be on the wrong side of shot differentials. He’s a tad pricey for where he fits on the Florida depth chart, so it wouldn’t come as a major surprise if he’s shopped if the Panthers feel that they have more economical options available to them.

You know what you’re getting from 29-year-old winger Colton Sceviour, a bit of a late bloomer who has nevertheless ranged between 23 and 26 points over the past four seasons. He’s a moderately-skilled and reasonably-priced depth forward.

He’s on the small side, but 21-year-old Denis Malgin has shown potential in his first two NHL seasons. After the progress that he made last season, he looks like he’ll be productive enough to be a middle six winger, but improved defensive performance would help stabilize his spot in the lineup.

The 36-year-old captain of the Panthers, Derek MacKenzie has surpassed 20 points in a season just once in his career, and Florida has been outscored with MacKenzie on the ice (at 5-on-5) 61-32 over the past two seasons. But, he seems to have a lock on the fourth-line centre job.  

A fearless and relentlessly aggressive forward, Micheal Haley was a minor leaguer who saw spot duty in the NHL until 2016-2017, when he was in San Jose. Then he joined the Panthers last season and the 32-year-old played in a career-high 75 games. For a team that missed the postseason by the slimmest of margins, might there be some consideration that the team could have easily found a more skilled player to fill that spot for 75 games?

It hasn’t been a direct path, but 22-year-old Jared McCann did get his career back to moving in the right direction last season, filling a third-line role. He has some offensive upside because of his heavy shot, but has scored a modest 19 goals in 166 career games.

Acquiring Frank Vatrano from Boston was a decent, low-cost move for the Panthers. Vatrano had a hard time sticking as a full-time player with the Bruins, but he as always been able to generate shots and that gives him a chance to stick as a complementary scorer.

The Panthers could look to some rookies for help next season. Henrik Borgstrom got into four games at the end of the season, after finishing his sophomore season at Denver University, and he’s the club’s top prospect.

Owen Tippett made the team out of camp last season and played seven games before getting sent back to junior. If the Panthers have room for both Borgstrom and Tippett, that would inject some talent into their lineup.

Additionally, it wouldn’t come as a big surprise if the Panthers looked into the free agent or trade markets. While the Panthers may not pay big money for a top free agent, a winger like Patrick Maroon might have some appeal there. In Montreal’s Off-Season Game Plan, I had the Panthers acquiring Max Pacioretty.

 

RETURNING DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Keith Yandle 82 8 48 56 48.0 -2.0 101.6 41.3 24:29 $6.35M
Aaron Ekblad 82 16 22 38 48.0 -1.9 101.1 41.6 23:23 $7.5M
Michael Matheson 81 10 17 27 49.3 0.1 99.5 40.0 21:20 $4.875M
Mark Pysyk 82 3 13 16 49.2 0.0 98.8 41.4 18:46 $2.733M
Ian McCoshen 38 3 1 4 46.3 -2.6 97.6 56.4 15:05 $925K
 

 

FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Alex Petrovic 67 2 11 13 51.5 2.1 98.8 60.3 14:39 $1.85M RFA
Mackenzie Weegar 60 2 6 8 51.8 4.1 100.5 56.9 14:34 $675K RFA
 

Veteran puck-moving blueliner Keith Yandle recorded 56 points last season, his most since 2010-2011, and he hasn’t missed a game since 2008-2009. His play without the puck is suspect but, at this point of his career, he’s a known quantity.

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Aaron Ekblad scored a career-high 16 goals.

The first overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Aaron Ekblad is supposed to be the Panthers’ franchise defenceman. He has scored 53 goals in four seasons and last season’s 16 was one off the league lead for defencemen. At the same time, last season’s possession stats dipped to the wrong side of the ledger in relative terms for the first time and that’s not typical for big-time No. 1 defencemen. He’s only 22, so he may still be on his way to that star status, but he’s not quite there yet.

Mike Matheson has been a steady top-four defenceman in his first two NHL seasons. He’s not particularly physical, but skates well and has some offensive instincts.

He was underused early in his career, in Buffalo, but Mark Pysyk has been a reliable contributor for a couple of seasons in Florida. He’s not flashy, but the 26-year-old keeps the puck moving in the right direction.

Rookie Ian McCoshen was a part-time player, dressing for 38 games. He has some limitations with the puck, but plays a physical game and managed to keep the front of the net relatively clear in his limited role.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon has taken quite a bit of heat for protecting Alex Petrovic (as opposed to Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault) in the expansion draft, and that criticism is justified, at least in part because Petrovic was playing a third-pair role in Florida while Smith and Marchessault were first liners in Vegas. Nevertheless, Petrovic was reasonably effective in his limited role last season.

Mackenzie Weegar battled his way into the lineup last season. The seventh-round pick in 2013 was a promising contributor in 60 games as a rookie.

It doesn’t look as though the Panthers need to make any dramatic moves on their blueline, unless they are moving out one of their established pieces for an upgrade. Otherwise, their depth players are relatively young and inexpensive, so maybe adding one more veteran depth option via free agency would be a consideration.

 

RETURNING GOALTENDERS

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2018-19 CAP
Roberto Luongo 35 18 11 2 .929 .933 $4.533M
James Reimer 44 22 14 6 .913 .915 $3.4M
 

 

FREE AGENT GOALTENDER

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Harri Sateri 9 4 4 0 .911 .922 $750K UFA
 

He’s 39-years-old, and his body won’t allow him to handle a heavy starter’s workload any longer, but when he did play last season, Roberto Luongo was still great. Even though he played just 35 games, Luongo’s 19.32 Goals Saved Above Average was his best since 2010-2011.

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Roberto Luongo was great, when healthy, last season.

With Luongo’s health in question, that means plenty of playing time for James Reimer, who wasn’t quite as effective last season as he was in 2016-2017. He’s a little bit above average over the course of his career, which is valuable to have at the ready when Luongo is injured.

 

 

TOP PROSPECTS

 
PLAYER POS. GP G A PTS +/- TEAM (LEAGUE)
Henrik Borgstrom C 40 23 29 52 +13 Denver (NCHC)
Owen Tippett RW 51 36 39 75 +1 Mississauga (OHL)
Aleksi Heponiemi C 57 28 90 118 +42 Swift Current (WHL)
Maxim Mamin RW 32 9 16 25 +3 Springfield (AHL)
Dryden Hunt LW 58 23 23 46 +4 Springfield (AHL)
Sam Montembeault G 41       .896 Springfield (AHL)
Max Gildon D 36 8 15 23 -5 New Hampshire (HE)
Jayce Hawryluk RW 64 10 26 36 -13 Springfield (AHL)
Jonathan Ang C 65 25 45 70 +3 Sarnia (OHL)
Josh Brown D 66 1 9 10 -10 Springfield (AHL)
Patrick Bajkov RW 72 33 67 100 +19 Everett (WHL)
Sebastian Repo RW 50 14 12 26 +2 Tappara (SML)
Riley Stillman D 62 5 29 34 +23 Hamilton (OHL)
Ludwig Bystrom D 51 3 23 26 +4 Springfield (AHL)
Thomas Schemitsch D 69 10 9 19 +3 Springfield (AHL)
Adam Mascherin LW 67 40 46 86 +14 Kitchener (OHL)
 

DRAFT

15th – Rasmus Kupari, Isac Lunderstrom, Jared McIsaac, Bode Wild

FREE AGENCY

The Panthers have approximately $66.0M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 19 players.

NEEDS

Two top-nine forwards, improved defence

WHAT I SAID THE PANTHERS NEEDED LAST YEAR

Two top-nine forwards, one defenceman

THEY ADDED

Evgeni Dadonov, Jamie McGinn, Radim Vrbata, Micheal Haley, Mackenzie Weegar, Ian McCoshen

TRADE MARKET

Nick Bjugstad, Jamie McGinn, Denis Malgin, Mark Pysyk

 

PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART

LEFT WING CENTRE RIGHT WING
Jonathan Huberdeau Aleksander Barkov Evgeni Dadonov
Max Pacioretty* Vincent Trocheck Owen Tippett
Jared McCann Henrik Borgstrom Denis Malgin
Frank Vatrano Derek MacKenzie Colton Sceviour
Micheal Haley Michael Latta* Maxim Mamin
Dryden Hunt Curtis Valk Jayce Hawryluk

 

LEFT DEFENCE RIGHT DEFENCE GOALTENDER
Keith Yandle Aaron Ekblad Roberto Luongo
Michael Matheson Mark Pysyk James Reimer
Mackenzie Weegar Alex Petrovic Sam Montembeault
Ian McCoshen Paul Postma*  
Ludwig Bystrom Josh Brown  

 

Many of the advanced stats used here come from Natural Stat TrickCorsicaHockey Viz, and Hockey Reference.

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca