2021 Season Preview: Pivotal Season for the Franchise as the Zito Era Begins


Hello everybody and happy New Year! The Florida Panthers enter the 2020-21 season a changed team. Nearly a third of the team’s projected opening night roster were not on the team when they shook hands with the Islanders in August following their elimination. The team has a new General Manager in Bill Zito and the team is undergoing a shift in identity and culture.

This upcoming season is pivotal for the Panthers. Once again, it’s expected to be a season of mediocrity, but missing the playoffs is not good for the team’s future plans. If the team intends to keep the tandem of Huberdeau and Barkov past 2023, the team needs to make a run and soon, otherwise they’ll head for greener pastures.

The Panthers have two options seemingly. Do they give up on the Huberdeau and Barkov era and hope to restart with guys like Anton Lundell and Grigori Denisenko? That’s not really an option due to the Sergei Bobrovsky contract and Bill Zito doesn’t seem content with the long standing tradition of mediocrity the team has held. The 2022 draft is loaded with talent and securing a top three pick with options such as Shane Wright, Matthew Savoie and Brad Lambert could be franchise changing. The 2023 draft isn’t bad either with Connor Bedard. Or do they try to chase a cup with this core this year? Of course the initial goal is the later but does the team have the pieces to do it? Losing Mike Hoffman and Evengii Dadonov is hard to swallow. Anthony Duclair and Patric Hornqvist should help, but it’s up to guys like Frank Vatrano and Brett Connolly to produce more consistently and to have rookies like Owen Tippett make a splash.

Offense

The team has lost a lot of scoring and there are a lot of questions on how to replace it. Let’s take a look at the team’s forward core.

Let’s start with the captain. Sasha Barkov struggled last year with keeping the puck for too long. Barkov needs to regain his confidence, and hold on to the puck more. Barkov also needs to be more creative and regain his shootout touch.

Patric Hornqvist is a new face on the team and brings a competitive edge. He is pissed about the Penguins giving up on him and ready to prove them wrong. However he is old and has concerns about his durability. The key for him is to try and stay healthy.

Noel Acciari had a breakout season last year, but expecting him to continue his goal scoring touch is questionable. It’s likely he does provide a solid offensive presence, but I highly doubt he eclipses a dozen goals. The key for him is to continue his play from last season, as it was successful.

Brett Connolly and new arrival Anthony Duclair scored almost all their goals in the first half of the season and then went on lengthy dry spells. The key for them is consistency. Duclair is a historically streaky player that has bounced around a lot, so it’s important for Joel Quenneville to turn him into someone that will be able to provide offense the whole season, without concerns of vanishing.

After a 24 goal 2018-19 campaign, Frank Vatrano only put up 16 goals last season. He struggled with discipline and was benched during the postseason. The key is to prove Joel Quenneville wrong for doubting him. Vatrano is a fiery player and should have no problem doing so.

Alex Wenneberg was bought out by the Columbus Blue Jackets and reunited with Zito in Florida. The key for Wenneberg is to stay healthy in order to regain his offensive production from 2016-17 in which he potted 59 points. Wenneberg is not a goal scorer, but he scored three postseason goals last year. Wenneberg’s job is to play a balanced two-way game and to set up guys like Hornqvist and Duclair to score.

Carter Verehaege is fresh off a cup with the Lightning. He was a depth player. Last time a Lightning depth player signed with the Cats, it went well until Dale Tallon..you know what, now’s not the time for the rant. Verehaege’s job is to play a depth role for the team and if he has a breakout season, then good.

Vinnie Hinostroza reunites with former coach Joel Quenneville and hopes to provide a solid scoring role in the bottom six. His job is to play a tough two-way game.

Rookie Owen Tippett should finally get his shot. His job is to just play the game. Do not overthink things, just play. His talent will flow naturally.

Defense

Mackenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad have simple jobs. Just keep doing what you were doing. It’s working.

Keith Yandle is Keith Yandle. You’re gonna get a ton of points, but also a lot of goals against.

Anton Stralman’s job is to basically try to prove the value of his contract.

Radko Gudas’s job is to shut down the other team’s offense and to make the Panthers a difficult team to play against. His key is making sure to stay out of the penalty box and more importantly Gary Bettman’s office. Also a few bone crushing legal hits would be cool.

Markus Nutivaara’s job is to play a two-way role, but most importantly bring the knowledge of Sergei Bobrovsky’s preferred defensive style. His job is to help the defense play in a way that makes Bob comfortable and better.

Goaltending

Sergei Bobrovsky’s job is to bounce back. He has a better defense. He’s had a year to adapt to the team. No more excuses. Bob has been known to be good after down seasons. He also has the daunting job of shutting down the dynamic Tampa Bay and Carolina offenses which is no easy feat. Anything less than a .913 save percentage and anything above a 2.75 GAA is unacceptable.

Chris Driedger’s job is to just keep doing what he’s been doing.

Overall, the team is much better defensively, but has lost a lot of offense. The team has potential to surprise people, but it’s more than likely another Groundhog Day type season. Look for the team to finish 28-22-6 at 62 points, just 2 out of a playoff spot and 6th in their division. All in all, the Panthers are still likely in eternal hockey purgatory, which is a terrible fate indeed.

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