With the Panthers kicking off their season at home against the Penguins of Pittsburgh tonight, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to share my thoughts on what we will see from the Panthers and the NHL this season.
The Panthers looked great last year and finished 2nd in their temporary division with the likes of Carolina, Tampa, Nashville, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, and Columbus. Much like the arguments being heard around college football right now, there was a big disparity of talent between the top 3 teams and the rest of the division and all of the teams only played within that division until playoffs.
That being said, the Cats did finish ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and even took them to Game 6 before the soon-to-be Stanley Cup Champs ended the series. That was better than any other team did in the playoffs against Tampa with the exception of Barry Trotz’s Isles.
This year will be crucial for both the Panthers and their GM, Bill Zito. Zito has shown that he is not afraid of making big moves and has landed Sam Reinhart, Olli Juolevi, and Joe Thornton this offseason.
On top of this, players like Owen Tippett are starting to make a case as to why they do not just belong in the NHL, but belong in a top 6 type role in the league. The Panthers are probably one of the deepest, if not the deepest, rosters in the Eastern conference.
Here are the projected lines for tonight’s game:
Verhaeghe – Barkov – Reinhart
Huberdeau – Bennett – Tippett
Vatrano – Lundell – Hornqvist
Thornton – Luostarinen – Duclair
Weegar – Ekblad
Forsling – Gudas
Nutivaara – Montour
With depth guys like Tippett, Bennett, Vatrano, and Hornqvist; the Panthers have the ability to win in any type of game you want to play? Physical? Sure! Speed and skill? We got that too.
Unlike teams like Toronto, the Cats opponents are going to have to worry about shutting down all 4 lines from scoring. You can’t just stop Barkov or Hubby and then take a few shifts off. The Panthers can score from up and down their lineup which is going to be scary for the other team’s goalies.
The biggest question mark for the Cats this season will be between the pipes. Chris Driedger stole Bobrovsky’s job last year and earned himself a nice payday with the newly formed Seattle Kraken. Driedger’s departure puts the #2, or soon to be #1, position on 20-year-old Spencer Knight. Knight looked great in his small sample size last season; however, it will be interesting to see what he is capable of in his first full, NHL season.
Since signing his $70-million deal, Bobrovsky has looked less than impressive and has many Florida fans angry with former GM Dale Tallon. Last year, Bob finished the season with a 19-8-2 record, 2.91 GAA, and a .906 SV%. These are not terrible numbers, unless you are making $10 million AAV! On top of this, in the playoffs, Coach Q gave both Driedger and Bob a chance to start before handing the reigns over to Knight, leaving Bob up in the press box.
Despite Knight’s talents and very bright future, he is still a rookie who cannot even legally buy a beer in South Florida yet. For the Panthers to go far, they will need Bobrovsky to step up and shoulder some of the workload.
This could very well be the year that the Panthers win the Atlantic division. As mentioned, they are a very deep team with some incredible superstar talent.
On top of that, Boston and Tampa have both lost quite a bit in terms of depth. Boston still has the Perfection Line and McAvoy on the backend; however, Ullmark is not Rask. I do not see the same caliber of depth players on the Boston roster as I do on Florida.
As mentioned in a previous piece, Tampa still has a very strong team filled with superstars like Hedman, Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, and Vasilevskiy; however, they are another team that lost a lot in terms of role players. I think the impact of losing Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman will really show itself, especially during playoff time. On top of that, did anyone else see the absolute ass whooping Pitt laid on them Tuesday night? That was ugly!
Toronto will be a tough team in the division; however, I do not think they have done anything to improve upon what they have put on the ice in years prior. In all actuality, I think they may have even gotten worse from last year, especially losing Andersen. Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek both had good seasons last year; however, I would still take a healthy Freddy Andersen over either of those guys. On top of that, I really do not see what the Leafs did to improve upon their defense or their depth. Both of which contribute heavily to their early playoff exits.
If the Cats can get even just above average goaltending, I see this division and even the conference as theirs to lose. I firmly believe the window to win for the Panthers is now and the Cup has a damn good shot at staying in Florida. The only difference is Lord Stanley will be leaving the West Coast and heading to the Best Coast of Florida!
Hot Takes and Predictions from Around the NHL:
- The Panthers and Islanders will faceoff in the Eastern Conference Finals
- Trotzy has gotten the Isles to the ECF the past 2 seasons and given a damn good fight to the eventual Cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning. I think the addition of Chara and a healthy Anders Lee will make this team a force in the East. That on top of two great goalies at his disposal will make the Isles one of the Cats biggest hurdles in the East.
- Montreal misses the playoffs after their unbelievable 2021 Cup Final appearance
- Montreal will be missing Price and Weber as this season starts. No one is sure when/if Webs will be able to come back to play. With such a long list of injuries, not a lot of offseason moves, and a short turnaround time from their SCF appearance, I foresee them being more like this year’s Dallas Stars than anything.
- Toronto has yet another disappointing 1st round playoff exit
- As mentioned above, Toronto did not make any moves to improve upon their team. If anything, they actually got worse this offseason. Do not be shocked Leafs fans if you are golfing after the first round yet again.
- Robin Lehner underperforms in Vegas
- Lehner has been quite the character this offseason, speaking out against the league and various coaches. Since the Golden Knights just traded away the face of their franchise in Flower, shouldn’t Lehner be focused on stepping up as there will be no safety net for him this season. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, Flower also won the Vezina last year, so those are some big shoes to fill for Robin. I just foresee him underperforming and contributing to a disappointing post-season for the Knights (their division should be easy so I have no doubt they will make playoffs, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they are a first round exit).
- Grubauer shows that it was the Colorado team that made him a Vezina finalist as he tanks for the Kraken
- Let’s be honest, Colorado has been an absolute wagon the past few seasons. They seem to be hitting their stride and are considered a Cup contender every year. Was Grubauer’s game really worthy of being a Vezina finalist or was he just on a stellar team? I think this year is going to show it was more the team than the tendy. Every time I see someone calling him a Vezina finalist, my mind goes back to the playoff series he had against Vegas and game 6 where he was not stopping a thing.
- Bobrovsky loses the #1 goalie spot to Spencer Knight by New Years
- Again, this may be a common theme; however, goalies will underperform and disappoint a team. Unfortunately for Bob, he has a future face of the franchise in Spencer Knight nipping at his heels and anxious to steal the job. Do not be surprised if you see Coach Q keep Boobtitsky on a very short leash this year.
- Blackhawks win the West
- I did an article earlier this summer breaking down some of the moves that the Hawks have made this offseason. Getting consistent goaltending in Flower and defense from a guy like Seth Jones will have a huge impact on the team. Not to mention, Toews will be returning after taking a year off due to illness. This has the potential to be a very dangerous team in the West.
- Tampa gets bounced out of playoffs in the 1st round
- Like I said earlier, the Lightning have lost some considerable role players in Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman. These are the types of guys you need if you want to make a deep Cup run. Ok, maybe I was exaggerating a bit, but I think these missing pieces are going to be too much for Tampa to fill in just 1 offseason. Tampa will make the playoffs, but I do not foresee an extended run or a three-peat in their future.
- Spencer Knight beats out Cole Caufield to win the Calder
- Because why not? Maybe he goes in and takes Bobrovksy’s net and never gives it back? Crazier things have happened. Who knows, he could be the American version of Patrick Roy who took Montreal on their epic Cup run? Hopefully, he is the answer in between the pipes that the Panthers have been searching for.
- Barkov wins the Hart Trophy
- Another “because why not” type pick, many analysts and personalities have put Barkov up with the likes of Matthews, McDavid, and MacKinnon. If he can truly lead the Panthers to a top spot in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, is it that far out of the realm of possibilities? I think Matthews “cools off” after last year’s season when he has to play teams that actually has goaltending. McDavid is, well McJesus; however, he will need to do more than just lead the league in goals. He will need to have a top finish and a little more playoff success. So if Barkov can tear it up while leading the Panthers to the post-season in style, I do not see why it couldn’t be him.