For the Florida Panthers, 2016-17′ was a lost season. Coming off winning the Atlantic Division title, many thought they would challenge for a playoff spot once again. Then injuries occurred and head coach Gerard Gallant was unceremoniously canned following an early season game in Carolina. Assistant coach Tom Rowe took the helm but was let go after an abysmal finish. Now, the question is whether this team can bounce back from the mess of last season.
Led by two dynamic forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers can score in bunches. The issue is keeping them healthy. Last year, the duo appeared in 92 games combined. That severely impacted their ability to get on a roll. In turn, the team struggled offensively. Nick Bjugstad also experienced a down year, scoring 14 points. Granted, much of that had to do with missing nearly half the season due to injury.
With Huberdeau missing a majority of the season, Vincent Trocheck was given a chance to shine. He did that, developing chemistry with Jonathan Marchessault and the ageless Jaromir Jagr. The result netted him a career best in assists (31) and points (54) while keeping the Panthers in games. This season, he’ll be asked to anchor the second line and mentor the young prospects.
Speaking of prospects, the Panthers hope a couple can help them fill the void of those who departed this past offseason. Evgeni Dadonov is projected to round out the top line, with the hope he finds chemistry alongside Huberdeau and Barkov. Finnish winger Henrik Haapala, a former teammate of Barkov, figures to slot in on the second line with Bjugstad and Trocheck.
On the power play, the Panthers will turn to defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Barkov to lead the charge. There’s no doubt they will miss Marchessault, Jagr, Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen. Those four combined to score 26 goals with the man advantage. Take that away and last season could have been more disastrous than it turned out to be.
Defensively, the Panthers need Ekblad to stay healthy. Concussion issues have cost him parts of the past two seasons, something that’s concerning moving forward. He and second-year pro, Michael Matheson will be counted on to help lead a relatively young unit. The recent trade of Jason Demers to Arizona leaves them thin at that position, with both Ian McCoshen and MacKenzie Weegar expected to crack the roster.
In net, the Panthers will turn to the combination of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer. The tandem worked well last season, with both putting up near identical records in 39 starts. The team will hope for a similar output this season, as that position could decide their playoff fate.
Can the Florida Panthers bounce back from last season’s disappointment? While unknown, they have made the changes necessary and look to be a threat for years to come.