Season Preview: Florida Panthers Look to Build off Strong Second Half

The Florida Panthers enter their 25th season with high hopes, as they are coming off an impressive 96-point season, which was their third-best mark in terms of points in franchise history. The Panthers finished 25-8-2 in the second half, but their slow first half kept them just one point shy of making the playoffs. Panthers coach Bob Boughner returns for his second year behind the bench. The Cats struggled with implementing the coach’s systems in the first half of last year, so it’ll definitely help to have some continuity this year.

 

Young front lines set to take next step

The Panthers return the same core from last year, and added a top-six forward, Mike Hoffman, to an already talented front line group. Hoffman recorded 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists), with Ottawa last year, and he fills in a void on the Panthers’ second line.

The Panthers young core has been developing for years, but they appear ready to break out this season. Newly minted captain Aleksander Barkov is coming off a career year, as he posted 78 points (21 goals, 57 assists), which was by far the highest point total of his career.

Barkov centers the first line along with winger Evgeni Dadonov, who recorded 65 points in his return to the NHL, and Nick Bjugstad, who’s coming off a bounce back season in which he posted 49 points. The Panthers second line figures to be one of the strongest in the NHL, as it features 2017 All-Star Vincent Trocheck (75 points in 2018), along with Hoffman and dynamic winger Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points in 2018).

 

 

Questions at blue line and in net

Florida’s defensive corps had a rough start to last season, but rebounded to finish 18th in goals against. Florida’s top-six defensemen are all returning from last year, including Aaron Ekblad (38 points +/- of 9) and Keith Yandle (56 points +/- of 7). The Cats also added KHL All-Star Bogdan Kiselevich from Russia, and he’s expected to compete for a top-four role.

The Panthers biggest vulnerability this season is goaltending, as Roberto Luongo is still capable of playing at a high level, but his durability is a major concern at age 39. Luongo has missed 75 games over the past two years due to injury, and the Cats will need solid goal-tending from back-up James Reimer. Reimer, is a capable backup, as he finished with .913 save percentage last year, but he is inconsistent at times.

The Panthers have a tortured history, having not won a playoff series since 1996, but this team feels different. The Cats have great depth at forward, and their young core seems poised to break out and finally lead this team to the promised land.

For now, the Panthers are in a tough Atlantic division, as they have to compete with Tampa and Boston (who both finished with 110+ points last year), and Toronto, who added John Tavares in the off season. But if there was a ever a Panthers squad equipped to compete in such a difficult the division, it is the current team. The Panthers open their regular season against Tampa on Saturday, October 6.

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