A year after recording a franchise-best 47 wins and 103 points, the Florida Panthers found themselves back out of the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Panthers struggled because they battled injuries from the get-go. Jonathan Huberdeau suffered an Achilles injury in the preseason and ended up missing the first 51 games of the season. Aleksander Barkov also missed 21 games with a number of injuries and Aaron Ekblad was sideline for 14 games due to concussions. Those are arguably the three most important players in the Panthers’ lineup, so it’s not surprising they struggled with the trio missing a combined 86 games.
On a positive front, both Huberdeau and Barkov come into 2017-18 with clean bills of health and hope to keep it that way. Up front the Panthers underwent numerous changes, starting with the Vegas Golden Knights Expansion Draft. In order to get Reilly Smith’s contract off of their books, they traded last year’s breakout star, Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas so that they would take Smith. With those two out of the picture, the Panthers brought in two players from overseas to replace them. The first was Evgeny Dadonov, who appeared in 55 games with the Panthers (2010-to-2012) before spending the last five years in the KHL. Dadonov was a third-round pick of the Panthers back in 2007, but comes over after posting 66 points (30G / 36A) in 53 games with St. Petersburg SKA (KHL). Dadonov is undersized but has a lot of skill and is a prime candidate to skate alongside Barkov and Huberdeau on the top-line. The second was Henrik Haapala, an undrafted free agent who comes over with 191 games of experience in the Finnish Elite League. Haapala had 15 goals and 45 assists (60 points) in 51 games with Tappara Tampere last season and brings an abundance of speed and playmaking ability over with him.
Among the other offseason moves was the signing of veteran winger Radim Vrbata, who spent last year collecting 55 points (20G / 35A) in Arizona and the acquisition of Jamie McGinn, who was brought in for defenseman Jason Demers on Sunday. It remains to be seen how all of the Panthers’ lines will shake out, but Vrbata is projected to play with 24-year-old pivot Vincent Trocheck. The 24-year-old is coming off of his best season yet and should have no trouble getting back to goals in the mid-20’s with 30-plus assists.
On the blueline, the aforementioned Ekblad is the Panthers’ best defenseman and comes into his fourth-year having averaged 13 goals and 21 assists (34 points) per 82 games in his first three seasons. The concussions are a concern for the young defenseman, but he is a safe bet for double-digit goals and 20-plus assists—and has oodles of upside. Keith Yandle was the Panthers’ prized offseason acquisition prior to last year and he continued his consistent production in 2016-17. Yandle has not missed a game in eight years and ranks third among defensemen in assists (169) and ninth in points (193) over the last four seasons.
With Demers now with the Arizona Coyotes, Michael Matheson is expected to see an expanded role in his second full season, particularly on the power-play—he averaged just 0:30 TOI/PP per game last season. The trade also opens the door for either Ian McCoshen or MacKenzie Weegar to claim the role of sixth defenseman. McCoshen, 22, was a second round pick in 2013 (No. 31 overall) and owns a massive point-shot and great defensive-zone ability. The American-born defenseman had 16 points (4G / 12A) in 68 games during his first AHL season. Weegar, 23, owns more offensive ability than McCoshen, but with Ekblad, Yandle and Matheson already on the blueline, they might steer towards the better defensive-defenseman.
Between the pipes, the Twitter sensation Roberto Luongo remains the No.1 with James Reimer nipping at his heels. Luongo was limited by injuries to 40 starts and posted a .915 SV%—his worst split since 2012-13. Reimer filled in admirably, finishing 2016-17 tied for 12th in the NHL in SV% (.920). Florida has a strong duo in goal and will likely roll with the hot hand, which limits both of their draft day stock.
Health wise, it would be tough for the Panthers to have worse luck than last year, so look for them to improve on their 35-36-11 record from a year ago. However, the Panthers did little to improve their roster this offseason and will have a tough time landing a playoff spot in an improving Atlantic Division.
Fantasy Rankings (Top 350)
- Jonathan Huberdeau-#57 (#11 LW)
- Aleksander Barkov-#79 (#22 C)
- Vincent Trocheck-#92 (#27 C)
- Aaron Ekblad-#95 (#18 D)
- Keith Yandle-#134 (#28 D)
- Roberto Luongo-#157 (#26 G)
- Evgeny Dadonov-#196 (#35 RW)
- Radim Vrbata-#209 (#39 RW)
- James Reimer-#246 (#38 G)
- Henrik Haapala-#278 (#53 LW)
- Michael Matheson-#331 (#84 D)
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