Toronto Maple Leafs Eastern Conference Preview: A Look at the Florida Panthers


Toronto Maple Leafs Eastern Conference Preview: A Look at the Florida Panthers

The only thing the Panthers can claim to have done successfully last year was winning the draft lottery to get the first overall pick. Finishing with the second worst record in the NHL, the Panthers are in the middle of a rebuild as they try to put a playoff team together while drumming up fan interest. While they were terrible last year some key additions may make the playoffs closer than the average fan thinks.

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While they made changes this off-season it was really the deals at the trade deadline that helped define what the Panthers plan is going forward. Amid the dumps for picks was the deal that brought Roberto Luongo back to the sunshine state to solve the goaltending question for the team.

Another key player brought in at the deadline was Brandon Pirri, who had 14 points in 21 games for the Panthers. They also re-signed right winger Brad Boyes to a low risk two-year deal.

The Luongo move though really set the stage for the moves this off-season.

Sep 29, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) waits for play to resume against the Dallas Stars during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeated the Panthers 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

On the first day of free agency the Panthers signed Willie Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton, Al Montoya and Derek MacKenzie. They also re-signed key cogs Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Brandon Pirri.

They also drafted Aaron Ekblad first overall who by all accounts in NHL ready.

So while this team was very bad last year, with six new free agents and the debuting Ekblad, they’ll look a lot different going forward which is very important because believe it or not the Panthers need to make it back to the playoffs.

Having been sold last year to new owner Vincent Viola, chairman of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, they’ll undoubtedly want the extra revenue from playoff games considering the massive jump in salaries from last year to this year.

Last season the Panthers had the lowest payroll in the NHL at just over $50 million. This year the payroll currently sits at $64.5 million, just under $10 million above the last place Calgary Flames.

On top of that several key players are nearing the end of their contracts.

Brian Campbell, who was quietly one of the best defencemen last year, has only two years left on his contract. Luongo is 35 and has only a few years left as an average goalie, with no top-tier prospect to replace him. On top of that players like Willie Mitchell and Shawn Thornton are old, both 37, and expected to make an impact now and help lead the Panthers large youth movement going forward.

Panthers Team Stats (2013-14):

2013-14 Record: 29-45-8 (66 points, 7th in Atlantic Division, 15th in Eastern Conference)

Record against divisional opponents: 13-16-1

Panthers were outscored 196-268 (-72 differential, 29th in NHL)

Shootout record: 8-6 (tied for 6th in NHL)

Power Play Rank (NHL): 30th

Penalty Kill Rank (NHL): 30th

Panthers Player Stats (2013-14):

Bjugstad: 76GP, 16G, 22A, -14, 16:13 ATOI

Campbell: 82GP, 7G, 30A, -6, 26:57 ATOI

Upshall: 76GP, 15G, 22A, +1, 15:55 ATOI

Boyes: 78G, 21G, 15A, -6, 17:02 ATOI

Bergenheim: 62G, 16G, 13A, -16, 16:30 ATOI

Luongo: 56GP, 25-23-7, 2.40 GAA, .919 SV%, 4 SO (6-7-1, 2.46 GAA, .924 SV%, 1 SO with Florida)

Panthers Player Stats vs Leafs (Last Year):

Bergenheim: 2G 3A

Bjugstad: 3G 1A

Boyes: 2G 2A

Campbell: 3A

Fleischmann: 1G 1A

Kulikov: 1G 1A

Barkov: 2A

Last Season against the Leafs:

Panthers – 3 at Maple Leafs – 1

Panthers – 3 at Maple Leafs – 6

Maple Leafs – 1 at Panthers – 4

Maple Leafs – 2 at Panthers – 4

Schedule against the Leafs:

Sunday December 28th @ Panthers, 5:00 p.m.

Tuesday February 17 @ Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday March 3 @ Panthers, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday March 26 @ Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m.

The potential good: The Panthers have crazy depth at centre and it’s almost all young. After free agent signees Dave Bolland (28) and Derek MacKenzie (33), the Panthers have Aleksander Barkov (19), Vincent Trocheck (21), Nick Bjugstad (22), Brandon Pirri (23) and Drew Shore (23). The Panthers have so much depth that Jonathan Huberdeau (21) has been playing the wing for the first two years of his career and Pirri is likely to follow.

That depth should translate to three balanced attacking lines with similar ice time with Barkov, Bjugstad and Bolland as the top three centres.

Jan 20, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad (27) reaches for the puck as Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) defends during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Bjugstad led the team in points last year while showcasing his offensive abilities. Outside his scoring, Bjugstad is also responsible defensively and can be deployed in any situation. He’s a monster, standing 6’5″ and weighing around 220 pounds, who is very strong on the puck and in the corners.

Aleksander Barkov Jr. was the second overall selection in 2013 behind Nathan MacKinnon and ahead of Jonathan Drouin. Despite just turning 19 at the beginning of September, Barkov will be a key piece for the Panthers this year. He had 24 points in 58 games as a rookie, a 34-point pace over a full season. Barkov has elite offensive vision and holds the record for the youngest first goal in the NHL since the 1967 expansion at 18 years 31 days. He could be a candidate for a big offensive breakout, particularly if he plays with Jonathan Huberdeau.

The top four wingers in the organization prior to the signing of Jokinen, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Tomas Fleischmann are all in contract years and will be looking to earn new deals with good seasons. Should the Panthers fail to gel and continue to be cellar dwellers all four could find themselves as trade chips moving forward.

The Panthers also have a plethora of young defencemen. Along with the recently drafted Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers have Erik Gudbranson, Dimitry Kulikov, Dylan Olsen, Alex Petrovic, and Colby Robak all 24 years of age or younger. The young defence core is supplemented by experienced veterans like Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell.

While an injury to Roberto Luongo would be a major blow for the franchise, it wouldn’t be a deathblow like it would on other teams. Behind Luongo on the depth chart is Al Montoya, a proven backup with upside. The Panthers also have Dan Ellis in the system, likely splitting time in the AHL with their top goalie prospect Michael Houser, who is still years away.

The Panthers should have plenty of depth down the middle and on the back end this year, which should translate into strong competition right out of training camp.

Apr 10, 2014; Sunrise, FL, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) misses a shot as Florida Panthers left wing Tomas Fleischmann (14) and defenseman Brian Campbell (51) defend in the third period at BB&T Center. The Panthers won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s strange to consider injuries “good,” if Luongo or other important veterans miss a lot of time due to injury, the Panthers should be bad enough to be in the Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel conversation as one of the worst teams in the league. While it’s never good to be terrible, if you’re going to be terrible this is the year to do it as the top two prospects are considered can’t miss generational talents. McDavid already has 12 points in four games for the OHL’s Erie Otters.

The potential bad:

It’s one thing to be young and promising and it’s quite another to be good. The Panthers have plenty of youth but they all need to prove their ready to go. Barkov, Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Shore, Trocheck, Hayes and Pirri up front and Ekblad, Gudbranson, Robak, Petrovic and Olsen on defence all need to prove they belong – and there’s not enough spots for all of them. Shore, Trocheck and Petrovic will start the year in the minors.

After winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in the lockout shortened 2012-13, Jonathan Huberdeau regressed with 28 points in 69 games, far below his rookie season of 31 points in 48 games. He’ll need to get back on track to answer critics and provide needed winger depth.

If Luongo goes down Al Montoya will have to carry the load, but he’s never played more than 31 games in a season. Behind him the goalie depth is poor.

Oct 2, 2014; Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) battles Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan (24) in the third period at BB&T Center. The Lightning won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Ekblad runs the risk of looking far more ordinary in the NHL. Ekblad – 6’4″ and 216 pounds – was a man playing boys last year which won’t be the case in the NHL. While the Panthers depth at defence means they can bring him along slowly, he’s clearly got to play in the NHL this year as another season in junior wouldn’t help him much.

A warning for Ekblad will be fellow teammate Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson was taken third overall in 2010, ahead of NHL studs like Ryan Johansen and Jeff Skinner and has three years of NHL experience under his belt. Despite that he hasn’t panned out into the cornerstone defencemen they thought they drafted. While still effective defensively, Gudbranson has shown little to no offensive ability and is at best fourth on the Panthers depth chart.

Despite good depth on defence, only Gudbranson, Ekblad and Petrovic shoot right. The top three blue liners (Campbell, Kulikov, Mitchell) all shoot left so someone (likely Kulikov) will be forced to play the off side.


There’s an outside chance that the Panthers could be the surprise team of the East this year. If Luongo can provide solid goaltending and some of the young studs (Ekblad, Bjugstad, Huberdeau and Barkov) take the next step this team can make some noise in the much weaker East. However if the younger prospects don’t break out then this team lacks a true top end scorer, which should have them negative in the goals for/goal against category.

To make matters worse, with the Bruins, Canadiens and Lightning all expected to make the playoffs out of the Atlantic, the Panthers would have to slingshot past the Senators, Maple Leafs and Red Wings, far easier said than done. If the Panthers do fail to make a run here they can easily trade away several veterans on the end of their deals like Fleischmann, Bergenheim, Kopecky, Upshall and Brad Boyes to bring in picks or prospects and make a run for the bottom of the standings to try to land Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the consensus top two picks in the draft. While players of their skill will always help, both are centres which could lead to the Panthers trading away a young centre for some winger help.

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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