Florida pieced together a fantastic year, in part to being in a division with three Canadian teams, which couldn't quite get their acts together and made for easy fodder through the year, but let's not take credit away from how good this team actually was. Thanks to a good core group of players, the Panthers were Atlantic Division winners, earning home-ice against the New York Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs, but folding in six games to a hungry team from Brooklyn, playing with a hot goalie.
Of course, there is going to be playoff disappointment with this club, their season should have meant better things in the playoffs, but there was a bit of a no-show from most of their better scorers, as the Islanders were able to shut down most of the top Panthers from the regular season. Still, having done what they've done and the progress that they have made as a franchise, it has to breed more hope for the future, no matter how long either Jaromir Jagr or Roberto Luongo has left in their careers.
The coverage of the Panthers for the poolies in this draft probably wasn't as good as it could have been, as only 12 players from Florida were taken in the September draft, but no one was disappointed by what they had chosen. No one was dropped in Week Nine, while the back-up was chosen and then no one was dropped or picked in Week Eighteen, which kept this side very consistent within our ranks.
The top player taken was Luongo, taken with the top pick in the 2nd round and he finished as the team's best player, 13th overall in scoring, with 35 wins, 4 shutouts and 2 assists for 80 points on the year. Luongo was the 8th best goalie in the pool and at age 37, he still has a good enough game to be one of the best on a regular basis in the league.
15 Panthers were worthy of being picked in this year's pool, including Luongo, and that also includes his backup, Al Montoya, who appeared in 25 games for the team and picked up 24 points. Among the forward ranks, Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, Jiri Hudler, Teddy Purcell and Nick Bjugstad all finished as worthy in Panthers uniforms. Even the defense was solid in the scoring department, with Aaron Ekblad, Brian Campbell, Alex Petrovic and Dimitry Kulikov all earning nods here in the blog.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
I am always weary of sophomore players and their impact on a team and I wouldn't exclude Ekblad from that thinking, but one of the big differences between a kid like Ekblad and Nathan MacKinnon, is that Ekblad's job is defense and his offense is a definite bonus, where it's the other way around for MacKinnon and harder to make up when he's not scoring. I think the Panthers, building around that core, are going to make strides in the right direction and they will be in the mix for that wild card spot or they'll just miss. The way these playoff battles have gone in the past few years, it's only a few points difference between making it and being two or three spots away. I really do like their chances of making it next year.
No matter how much we talk about the seasoned veterans, the central figure for the Panthers' future is Aaron Ekblad and his season's scoring totals were only marginally less than in 2015, but his impact was big overall, as his play was a cornerstone to this team's success and his talent will only see his numbers increase in the next few years. Thanks to Ekblad, Jagr and Luongo, the Panthers did clinch a playoff spot and they are showing real promise going forward.
2017 Pool Outlook
|Aleksander Barkov||5.900||Dmitry Kulikov||4.333||Roberto Luongo||5.333|
|Teddy Purcell||4.500||Alex Petrovic||1.050|
|Nick Bjugstad||4.100||Aaron Ekblad||0.925|
|Dave Bolland||5.500||Erik Gudbranson||3.500||Samuel Montembeault||0.726|
|Marc Savard||4.021||Jakub Kindl||2.400||Colin Stevens||0.710|
|Derek MacKenzie||1.300||Michael Matheson||0.925||Mike McKenna||0.575|
|Rocco Grimaldi||0.925||Michael Downing||0.820|
|Lawson Crouse||0.925||Linus Hultstrom||0.793|
|Jayce Hawryluk||0.925||Mackenzie Weegar||0.680|
|Kyle Rau||0.859||Josh Brown||0.658|
|Dryden Hunt||0.809||Steven Kampfer||0.613|
|Shawn Thornton||0.750||Brent Regner||0.600|
There is lots to look forward to out of the Panthers' camp next season, as they have a great portion of their pool worthy players coming back for another stretch, the same group that worked so well to get that division title in the regular season. Florida also has the benefit of not having too many gaudy looking contracts on their books, which should allow for more flexibility to help improve this team.
The youth movement in Florida is a real positive, as the Panthers will put a lot of kids through their paces at training camp and try and pluck one or two to really help the team in the 2017 season. There isn't any real panic to try and get some of these youngsters in, so they will be forced to earn their spots, but a 20-year old like Jayce Hawryluk may get a long look, while 22-year old defender, Michael Matheson, already saw some time with the Panthers in the regular season and the playoffs and could end up with a full-time job, come October.
Needs at the 2016 Entry Draft
The Panthers have dealt away draft picks to get where they are, something that needs to happen with these playoff-bound teams, but they have done well to keep their 1st round pick for this draft, where they will pick 23rd. I can see the Panthers taking the best player available, since they have the knack of either developing players or flipping assets for players to help them win now. Taking the best player available will at least give them a chance at one of those. Adding more depth down the middle can never hurt a team and Luke Kunin from the University of Wisconsin seems to be a pretty solid move, as his scouting report suggests that he is a very versatile player.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Unrestricted free agency gives the team some questions moving forward, more so about Brian Campbell on the back end, than a rental player like Jiri Hudler, but still some questions. Don't forget about Al Montoya either, who might go looking for a starting job this Summer.
Vincent Trocheck leads the restricted free agent group into the off-season, but he's coming out of his entry-level deal, so the Panthers will likely look to bridge his deal for a season or two, before giving him the big bucks, but it will eventually come.
Without those gaudy contracts, their pool worthy group looks very attractive at $40.8 million for 11 players, which leaves the team with plenty of space to work with. The Panthers acquired the cap lump of Marc Savard, but they didn't even use the LTIR for that number, they just ate it with ease. The Panthers may still be a bit of a budget team, but it's working for them.
There is a lot to like about this Panthers team, heading into the 2017 season and there is nothing on paper that says they won't make the playoffs again next season, but you can make a lot of arguments about how they may not win the division again, but they will put up their argument for why they should be there again. A good young core, a veteran goalie and lots of leadership should mean great things for this club. One of these days, this young core will be ready to lead this group to a Stanley Cup, but it does seem a little early... or does it?