A team on the bubble of contention when the season started, the Panthers exploded, finishing ahead of the Lightning of all teams in their division. Of course, they did not finish ahead of Tampa Bay in the playoffs, instead losing in six games while their rivals won a second consecutive Stanley Cup. Still, there are a ton of things to take from the 2020-21 season. The most important seems to be that Bill Zito is the guy at General Manager.
Offseason additions: F Sam Reinhart, F Joe Thornton, F Zac Dalpe.
Offseason subtractions: F Alex Wennberg, D Keith Yandle, D Anton Stralman, G Chris Dreidger, F Nikita Gusev.
Florida should and will do anything and everything in their power to keep Aleksander Barkov in Florida. Barkov’s bargain of a $5.9 million AAV ends after this season, making him a UFA. After many years of receiving votes, Barkov won his first Selke award in 2021-22. He scored 26 goals with 58 points in 50 games, averaging over a point-per-game for the second time in his career. The Panthers have split up Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, who has two seasons left at the same steal of a cap hit as Barkov. Huberdeau was also great last year, scoring 20 goals with 61 points. He has scored at a point-per-game rate in each of the past three seasons. Coming in from the tire fire that is the Sabres is Sam Reinhart. With Jack Eichel out, Reinhart took control of the team, scoring 25 goals with 40 points in 54 games. He scored ten goals on the power play, and will benefit Florida in that area. Carter Verhaeghe went from extra forward in Tampa Bay to elite first liner for the Panthers. He was extended this offseason for three more seasons following 2021-22. The Panthers took what looked like a pretty easy bet on Anthony Duclair, and they won on it. Duclair scored 10 goals in 22 assists in 43 games. He also had a dip in his shooting percentage. That is very good production for a middle-six winger. Florida took a big bet on Sam Bennett, both when they acquired him from Calgary at the trade deadline, and when they extended him as a restricted free agent. There was at least basis for the second instance, as the former fourth overall pick exploded after the trade. He scored six goals with 15 points in 10 games, then added five more points in five playoff games. Of course, Bennett is not a point-per-game or better player. For the sixth season in a row, Bennett also reached triple-digit hits, so there is grit to his game. For the third consecutive season, Frank Vatrano scored at a rate perfect for the third line. He may have only recorded eight assists, but Vatrano played in every game and scored 18 goals. Because of the shortened season, his pace was 26 goals over 82 games. Veteran Patric Hornqvist proved to be a great power play specialist once again, as eight of his 14 goals came on the man advantage. At even strength, he is a good middle-six winger, but will fall into the bottom-six this year. There is a ton of hype about the debut of Anton Lundell, the 12th overall pick in the 2020 draft. Lundell had an amazing first season after being drafted, scoring 16 goals with 25 points in 26 games in Finland playing professionally. He does not turn 20 until October, and could easily become the team’s third line center. Owen Tippett, a 2017 top pick of the Panthers, is yet to really make his mark on the league. 2020-21 was his rookie season, as he scored seven goals with 18 points in 45 games. He was heavily touted for his shot as a prospect but that has not exactly been prevalent yet. After riding an 18.5 percent shooting rate to a career-high 20 goal season, Noel Acciari understandably regressed last year. He scored just four goals, with 11 points in 41 games. His game has always been defensive, so his production drop-off is nothing more than a tad unfortunate. In two seasons for the club, Acciari has blocked 166 shots. 42-year-old Joe Thornton signed with the Panthers this offseason, which was a surprise to many. Thornton played the wing last year whiling chasing the Stanley Cup with Toronto, and will likely do the same with Florida. Thornton oddly played top line minutes for the Maple Leafs, but still had just 20 points in 44 games. That’s still not bad for a guy who will at best be a fourth liner. After former Leaf, Mason Marchment, got into 33 games for the Panthers last year. His 10 points were solid, but by no means has the 26-year-old guaranteed himself a spot. Eetu Luostarinen, a product of the Vincent Trocheck trade, played in 44 games himself, with eight points. Juho Lammikko played in the same amount of games, but with less points. Ryan Lomberg was mostly on the team for his physical presence; he had 67 penalty minutes and 90 hits in 34 games last year. Marchment, Luostarinen, Lammikko, and Lomberg are all fighting for the one-or-two extra spots.
The gut punch to the Panthers last year was really the loss of Aaron Ekblad for the season with a gruesome fractured leg. In the 35 games prior, Ekblad was playing amazing hockey, with 11 goals and 11 assists. He was succeeding on both ends of the ice, despite not being an overly physical guy. His partner, MacKenzie Weegar, is starting to break free of his underrated title, but still goes ignored. Weegar is mainly an elite defensive defenseman, but he also chipped in offensively last season, with 36 points. For the first time in his career, he received Norris votes, finishing in eighth place for the illustrious award. While he only got into 30 games last year, Markus Nutivaara was a decent bottom-four defender. He had ten assists with 35 hits despite averaging under 16 minutes a game. Like Bennett, Brandon Montour was extended after performing surprisingly well in a short stint. The right-handed shot had four points in 12 games, although he did have none in the playoffs versus Tampa Bay. Montour really struggled in Buffalo so this is a risky bet for the Panthers. A fringe defender for years in Chicago, Gustav Forsling emerged to become a legitimate option for the Panthers. He blocked 42 shots with 17 points while averaging nearly 20 minutes a night over 43 games. He is also just 25, so there is reason to think that Forsling could grow into a serious NHL player. Physical specimen Radko Gudas returns for his second year as a Panther. In his first, he had 11 points in 54 games. But the important part was really his 250 hits, which led defensemen. He also blocked 72 shots, and is 87 away from 1000 blocks in his career. A first round pick by Montreal back in 2015, Noah Juulsen played in four games for the Panthers last year. He spent most of the year with the team, only playing in five AHL games. Undrafted Matt Kierstad is an option after playing in seven games post-graduation from North Dakota, where he had 22 points in 29 games. As is veteran Kevin Connauton, who got into seven games as well last season.
With Chris Dreidger out of the mix, the Panthers are back to a standard two goalie mix. They have to do something with Sergei Bobrovsky. Getting paid $10 million a season, Bobrovsky had a second consecutive bad year. He had a weak .906 save percentage with a 2.91 GAA. Inconsistency was often his thing in Columbus, so there is hope that he can be good. But time is running out for that. Especially with Spencer Knight coming fast. Knight, the league’s top goaltending prospect, got into four games last year, winning all of them with a .919 save percentage. He was great in his two playoff games, saving 56 of 60 shots faced for a .933 percentage.
Carter Verhaeghe – Aleksander Barkov – Sam Reinhart
Jonathan Huberdeau – Sam Bennett – Anthony Duclair
Frank Vatrano – Anton Lundell – Patric Hornqvist
Joe Thornton – Noel Acciari – Owen Tippett
Extras: Ryan Lomberg, Mason Marchment
MacKenzie Weegar – Aaron Ekblad
Markus Nutivaara – Brandon Montour
Gustav Forsling – Radko Gudas
Extras: Noah Juulsen, Kevin Connauton
Not only do the Panthers have stars like Barkov, Huberdeau, and Weegar. Where they really excel is their depth. Perhaps no other team is as deep as Florida. That comes in the clutch over a long season. Plus, they do have that front-heavy talent to be a good team. The Panthers will make the playoffs. They may not be better than the Lightning, but should capture a divisional spot.