The Florida Panthers made it to the expanded playoffs but lost to the New York Islanders in the ‘qualifying round.’
Florida still hasn’t won a playoff rounds since 1995-96, when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals and were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. They dumped a ton of money into the team last summer, signing Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and Noel Acciari for a combined $105.5 million ($20.67M AAV). It didn’t work out as planned, especially the Bobrovsky deal. He ranked 51st out of 54 qualified netminders in GAA (3.23) and 46th in SV% (.900).
They took the total opposite approach this offseason, letting Evgeni Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, and Erik Haula walk in free agency, trading Josh Brown, Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour for salary savings. As it stands now, the Panthers have ≈$6.493 million in cap-space [per PuckPedia.com].
Projected Forward Lines
There may not be a team in the NHL with a more difficult lineup to project. They lost three top-6 forwards, have a lot of new faces, and a couple of prospects expected to make the leap to the NHL. Additionally, most of their forwards are probably best suited as third-liners but they need to concoct a top-6.
With Dadonov now in Ottawa, head coach Joel Quenneville needs to find a right-winger for Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Last season, Huberdeau, Barkov and Dadonov were one of 16 trios to play at least 400 5v5 minutes together. Of those 16, they ranked fourth in GoalsFor/60 (3.78) and sixth in GoalsFor% (54.4)
So who replaces Dadonov? The Panthers have a couple of options. The first would be Patric Hornqvist, who was acquired from the Pittsbrugh Penguins. However, Hornqvist is more of a crash the crease, power-play net-front type of player than a shooter. Quenneville will also consider Frank Vatrano. He’s played there before but the results haven’t been great–48.6 CorsiFor%, 48.2 GF% in 306:18 5v5 TOI with Barkov. In an ideal world, Owen Tippett starts the year there and makes it work. Tippett dominated the OHL in 2019 and led Springfield (AHL) in points (40) as a rookie in 2020. Tippett is a pure shooter with great size (6-foot-1, 207 lbs) that would complement Barkov and Huberdeau perfectly.
If we are pencilling Tippett in on the top-line, Hornqvist makes perfect sense with fellow newcomer Alexander Wennberg. The 26-year-old centre is a great playmaker but has struggled in his last two seasons. However, he had a career-high 59 points in 2017, and the Panthers signed him to a team-friendly $2.25M AAV. A duo of Wennberg and Hornqvist is far from ideal on your second line, but rookie Grigori Denisenko has the wow factor that could elevate this line. The 20-year-old has consistently dominated his age group and had 12 points (6G / 6A) in 38 KHL games in 2020. He loves to have the puck on his stick, and his high-end puck-handling skills should allow him to drive offence on this line.
Their bottom-6 is just as big of a mystery as their top-6. Noel Acciari has played anywhere from 4C to the top-line. Carter Verhaeghe was a fourth-liner in Tampa Bay but is one year moved from leading the AHL in goal (34) and points (82). They figure to be the third and fourth line centres with some combination of Vatrano, Conolly, Vinnie Hinostroza, Aleksi Saarela and Ryan Lomberg around them. Of all of them, Saarela is the most intriguing. He could be a factor in the top-6 at some point in 2021. The 23-year-old is a former third-round pick (2015) how had 31 points (12G / 19A) in 43 AHL games last year. Through 12 Liiga games during his Covid loan, Saarela has netted eight goals with two assists (10 points). He’s a high-energy skill player that could jump ahead of the rookies in the pecking order.
Projected Defensive Pairings
The Panthers’ blueline will look pretty similar to what it did last year. Markus Nutivaara was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets and is expected to replace Brown on the second pair with Keith Yandle. Radko Gudas was signed to a three-year contract and he’ll slide in for Matheson on the right-side.
There were trade rumblings surrounding Mackenzie Weegar this fall, but he remains in Florida and will be on the top-pair with Aaron Ekblad. They were outstanding together a season ago, ranking 11th out of 57 D-pairs (Min. 400 5v5 TOI) in GoalsFor% (58.8) and fifth in GoalsFor/60 (3.3).
Yandle and Brown were an effective second pairing. They were 28th in GF% (54.8) and gave up the 18th fewest GA/60 (2.04), so it will be interesting to see if Nutivaara can maintain those numbers. If so, the Panthers come into 2021 with one of the most underrated top-4s in the NHL.
Stralman and Gudas figure to handle most of the penalty-killing duties with limited usage and a ton of D-zone starts.