As predicted, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers in 6 games, as the defending Stanley Cup champions made the second round, forcing the Panthers back to watching the playoffs earlier than they would’ve liked. The Panthers-Lightning series was an intense battle, a frustrating one and one filled with some of the biggest highs and lowest lows. The Panthers did not roll over and die. They battled hard, but were let down in certain situations. The future for the Panthers holds two options-one is bright and one is dark. It all comes down to whether or not the Florida Panthers are able to extend Sasha Barkov.
The Panthers captain has established himself as one of the best players in franchise history, battling for that title with his teammate and partner-in-crime in Jonathan Huberdeau. Barkov took strides this postseason. He posted 7 points in 6 games, while battling an upper body injury suffered in Game 3. Barkov had one of his best seasons this year, as he consistently found himself on the scoresheet, something he had struggled with earlier in his career. Barkov is a UFA when the 2022 offseason arrives, and the Panthers can offer him an extension when Free Agency begins this summer. Barkov has expressed a desire to stay in Florida, and a source that is close to the team indicates that an extension between the two parties is extremely likely. Barkov will be an expensive contract, and it is extremely necessary that he is extended before the season begins, so the team and organization can keep their focus on the ice, rather than what Barkov may decide to do in Free Agency. If Barkov resigns and the Panthers don’t bungle the expansion draft, as well as not messing up the offseason, the future looks bright. If Barkov doesn’t resign, the future is very bleak and dark.
The Panthers are not satisifed with the way things ended this year. Some can take solace in the fact that they lost to a team with a $100 million payroll, while only icing like $60 million themselves in some games. My source says that the team is angry, and that internal expectations, along with external ones are that the team must win a playoff round next season. As things stand, unless the Canadian government decides to keep its borders shut, the Panthers should return to the Atlantic Division next year. They will have to contend with the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs. The Lightning and Bruins are both formidable playoff foes, who will be extremely difficult to top in postseason action. The Panthers took on the Lightning without Aaron Ekblad, and they managed to push what should’ve been a sweep, with Tampa’s payroll and Ekblad’s absence to six games. The Bruins have a very deadly top 6 forward core, especially if Taylor Hall stays, and the Bruins have a good defensive system as well. The Maple Leafs are a high flying offensive team, but they have struggled in the postseason. It will likely be a four-way battle between Tampa, Boston, Florida and Toronto for the top 3 in the Atlantic next season.
The problem is that the Panthers have always had a bright future, and it has almost always let them down. Look what happened after 1995-96 and 2015-16. The difference is that the Panthers have hopefully finally found stability. Despite some questionable decisions, it is absolutely crucial that the Panthers keep Joel Quenneville. The Panthers have lacked stability behind the bench throughout franchise history, and Quenneville has got the Panthers to the qualifiers and postseason. The Panthers bought into Q’s system, and it is important to keep him around. As for his assistants, the Panthers may want to look to improve their special teams. Goaltending coaching is a question mark. Robb Tallas has struggled with Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Panthers goaltending other than Bobrovsky this season was pretty stellar. I would keep Q and maybe Ulf Samuelsson, but I think the rest of the coaching staff may need a new look. If Ian Clark is let out of Vancouver, the Panthers would be foolish not to grab him to be their goaltending coach, as he helped Bobrovsky in Columbus. I’d like to see if the Cats could bring back Paul McFarland to coach the powerplay.
As of right now, it seems that Spencer Knight may be the #1 goalie heading into next season. Knight had a great playoff campaign in his two starts, but I don’t think it is wise to rely on a 20 year old to carry the bulk of your starts. The Panthers are not pleased with Bobrovsky, but his contract makes him nearly impossible to move. Chris Driedger isn’t a fluke, and in an ideal scenario, the Cats would resign Driedger and platoon him with Knight. However, it looks like Bobrovsky and Knight are going to be the platoon next year. If the Panthers somehow get rid of Bobrovsky’s contract, it isn’t a sure possibility Driedger stays. Driedger has made clear that in an ideal scenario he wants to stay, but he knows realistically that it probably isn’t an option, and he has the chance to become a #1 goalie for another team. Driedger would likely attract a lot of suitors this summer, with the Kraken, Red Wings, Flyers, Penguins, Sharks and Oilers as my most likely destinations for him.
On the blueline, Keith Yandle’s days as a Florida Panther are all but done. The Panthers want to trade him, but Yandle has an NMC, and he is content in South Florida. The Panthers could threaten Yandle’s iron man streak, which is very close to beating Doug Jarvis, and Joel Quenneville made a shocking decision, scratching Yandle in the postseason. This doesn’t count against his iron man streak, but it is a sign to him that there isn’t a place for him here anymore. Yandle’s time in Florida is all but over, whether it be by trade or buyout. Anton Stralman struggled last season, and with a $5.5M contract, it was thought he’d be gone. However, an impressive postseason resurgence combined with the fact he only has one year left, along with the Panthers not needing any substantial cap room for next season make it likely that he stays. The big question is whether or not Aaron Ekblad returns to form after suffering a horrific lower body injury in March. The loss of Ekblad played a huge factor in the Panthers not being able to beat Tampa this postseason, as Ekblad’s special teams play and experience was sorely missed. Ekblad will be coming off nearly six months of recovery at the start of next season. This is the third freak injury a Panther star has suffered in the past few years, as Jonathan Huberdeau suffered an Achilles injury, and Vincent Trocheck broke his foot. Huberdeau recovered and blossomed after his injury. Trocheck struggled and was traded before regaining form this season. Huberdeau spent about 16 weeks recovering, while Trocheck spent about 8 weeks recovering. Once Ekblad is cleared to return to the ice, it will be interesting to see how he does his offseason conditioning. Mackenzie Weegar had a breakout year, but struggled in the postseason. Weegar got his first taste of real playoff action, and should be more prepared next season. Gustav Forsling had a breakout year, but the RFA is a target for the Kraken. The Panthers will likely lose one of Forsling or Radko Gudas to the Kraken. Gudas’s physical style helped reinvigorate the team on the backend. I expect the Panthers backend next season to look something like this: Ekblad, Weegar, one of Forsling/Gudas and Stralman. That leaves about three spots open on the backend. I expect Stralman to maybe rotate as a 6th Defender, and I think he and Matt Kiersted will do that. I don’t expect Markus Nutivaara or Brandon Montour back, and I think Maxwell Gildon may be able to make the jump next season. Gildon, a third round pick in 2017 was loaned to the Oilers AHL affiliate this year due to a backlog of defenders on FLA/TB’s combined affiliate Syracuse. Gildon blossomed and was named to the AHL All-Rookie team. I’d also take a look at the UFA market. I like Dougie Hamilton, but Hamilton will be a very expensive signing. Some guys that you could sign that may not require as much money include guys like Alec Martinez and Ian Cole. Over in Russia, Minnesota Wild prospect Brennan Menell had a great season, and with Minnesota having a stacked blueline, maybe the Panthers take a run at Menell.
Up front, the Panthers have Barkov and Huberdeau certainly returning. Barkov should be reunited with Carter Verehaege, and I could see the Panthers maybe trying to find another winger for Barkov and Verehaege, maybe they take a run at Patrik Laine. Most likely, I see Anthony Duclair returning for another season with Barkov and Verehaege. The second line I think you keep Jonathan Huberdeau with Sam Bennett and Owen Tippett. The third line is interesting. Frank Vatrano is someone the Panthers may move, due to an expiring contract and he may have priced himself out of Florida. Vatrano is an odd player. He doesn’t have the ability to consistently be a top 6 guy, but he is one of the best third line wingers in the game. A comparable would be Blake Coleman, a UFA on Tampa, the Panthers may want to target. Anton Lundell likely centers the third line to start, although I wonder if the Panthers resign Alex Wennberg to a one year deal to play on Lundell’s wing, and take the center spot if Lundell struggles. Noel Acciari and Patric Hornqvist are locks for the fourth line. I expect some competition between Grigori Denisenko, Mason Marchment and Ryan Lomberg for the empty wing. Personally, I think Marchment is the best fit there, and I think Denisenko may work better if he’s given a role higher in the lineup. Potentially, I think he could be a decent third line forward. Joel Quenneville likes to mix his lines so everyone has chemistry with each other. While this may seem harmful to the development of young guys like Denisenko, Q’s philosophy is that by having these guys build up chemistry with everyone on the team, they are able to fulfill their full roles night in and night out. Owen Tippett has the 2nd line RW spot, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he is pressured to retain that spot, especially if the Cats snag a first line wing, because that would put Duclair as the third line wing, and that will be tough competition for Tippett. I could see guys like Eetu Luostarinen and Aleksi Heponiemi being used as trade chips. Both guys need to gain some muscle if they are going to be solid NHLers. Nikita Gusev and Lucas Wallmark most likely walk.
On the powerplay, I think the Panthers ditch the 5 forward PP set up. I’m not sure if Patric Hornqvist retains his roll on PP1, because I think Sam Bennett could do just as good a job as him at screening. Aaron Ekblad will return to the Powerplay, and will likely take the shooter role. I think one of Sasha Barkov or Jonathan Huberdeau takes Yandle’s role as the blueline set-up man. I think it would probably be Huberdeau that takes that role. Watching the Lightning powerplay, I think the Cats should try to copy it. If you notice, the Lightning have an interesting 1-3-1 set up. Victor Hedman patrols the point, with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos set up for one timers on the faceoff dots, with Brayden Point in the middle to sneak a shot in. Alex Killorn screens the goalie. I think the Panthers may want to adapt that set up, but the problem is that Ekblad is more of a shooter and would have to take that one time spot on the right side. I think Barkov takes the left side with Huberdeau running point. Bennett would be the screen guy and I think Carter Verehaege is your guy in the middle of the ice. Another idea is maybe putting Anton Lundell as the one time guy on the right side, move Ekblad to the point, Huberdeau to the left side and Barkov in the middle. More than likely, I think they go Bennett-Barkov-Verehaege-Ekblad-Huberdeau. Powerplay 2, I think you put Forsling on the point as he is a skilled skater. I’d put Hornqvist in front of the net, with Tippett and Lundell in the one time spots, and either Frank Vatrano or Anthony Duclair in the middle.
On the penalty kill, the Panthers need to adapt a new style. They need to be more aggressive and clogging up the passing lanes. I think Duclair should be used full time on the PK. Barkov likely gets minutes on the PK, but I don’t think it is a good idea to keep him on the PK. I’d rather he rest, and I’d prefer Sam Bennett get those minutes. Gustav Forsling also shouldn’t be killing penalties.
Anything short of a playoff series win next season is unacceptable.