Florida Panthers ‘have to take the next step.’ Will it happen in Year 2 under Quenneville?

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Jordan McPherson
·4 min read
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As training camp begins, Aleksander Barkov repeats a line that has been repeated around these parts essentially since he was a rookie seven seasons ago.

“We have to take the next step,” the Florida Panthers’ center and team captain said on Jan. 3. “We’ve got to do it. We can’t talk much. We’ve got to do it on the ice, and we’ve got to show everyone that we’re taking the next step. Physically, everyone is ready. Mentally, everyone is ready.”

Almost every year, the Panthers go into the season with high expectations. This is their year, the saying always seems to go before it collapses and the postseason becomes nothing but a dream.

They know what’s at stake. Their young core of Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad isn’t getting any younger. Nor is Sergei Bobrovsky, their $70 million goalie in need of a bounceback year after struggling his first season in South Florida.

And the expectations? They remain high, at least internally, as the second year of the Joel Quenneville era begins Sunday night against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Every night,” Huberdeau said, “we have to expect to win. That has to be our mentality. We want to make the playoffs. It’s a lot of fun when you do.”

The Panthers will be in an eight-team battle for four playoff spots. Florida is part of the NHL’s new eight-team Central division, which also includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators. Teams are only playing against divisional opponents during the 56-game regular season, with the top four teams from each of the four divisions advancing to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

ESPN has the Panthers ranked 21st out of 31 teams and sixth among the eight Central teams.

“I think our division is up for grabs,” Quenneville, the Panthers’ coach, said. “Outside of Tampa, I think everyone has a real shot. I think we might be flying under the radar a little bit — and that’s not a bad thing as far as I am concerned.”

The Panthers made the postseason last year, albeit a watered-down version that included an expanded field when the NHL returned from a four-and-a-half-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic. Florida lost its best-of-5 play-in series to the New York Rangers 3-1 for a short trip to the Toronto playoff bubble.

And five months, once again, of wondering what could have been.

“They want to get down to business right away,” Quenneville said, “and they want to play for keeps.”

That started with new general manager Bill Zito overhauling the roster. The likes of Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour are the main faces gone.

A new group of players to break up the status quo enters in their place.

They have eight new forwards as part of their opening night roster. Each forward line has at least one new face.

Offseason additions Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe join the Panthers’ top forward line centered by Barkov. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Patric Hornqvist is on the second line with returning left wing Huberdeau and newcomer center Alex Wennberg. Two rookies — center Eetu Luostarinen and right wing Owen Tippett — join veteran Frank Vatrano on the third line. And one of Ryan Lomberg or Vinnie Hinostroza will be on the left wing with returners Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly on a potentially high-scoring fourth line.

Three new defensemen — Radko Gudas, Markus Nutivaara and Gustav Forsling (and, eventually, Noah Juulsen) — are competing with veteran Keith Yandle to be part of Florida’s final defensive pairing on game day. Two groupings from last year — Ekblad with MacKenzie Weegar and Riley Stillman with Anton Stralman — appear to remain intact for now.

“It’s been fresh,” Connolly said. “Obviously last year was not ideal. We didn’t get the job done. And when you don’t do that, new guys come in. I think the new guys have come in here and spiced up camp a little bit.”

It’s a change of pace this team hopes will be enough to get them over the hump. It’s a needed change, too. The Panthers, after all, have made the playoffs just twice since Barkov joined the team in the 2013-14 season and has yet to win a playoff series.

“It’s my eighth season here, but the first time I feel like it’s a fresh start,” Barkov said. “Everything is new. New team. New guys here. new management. For a lot of guys, it’s a new chapter of their life and career.”

The new chapter starts Sunday. But until the puck drops and until potential turns into results, the repeated line will be repeated by old and new faces alike.

“We’re a pretty deceiving team from the outside looking in,” Duclair said. “There’s a lot of talent. ... There’s another level we can reach.”

Will they finally reach that next level this year? Only time will tell.