While they are returning the bulk of the core that went from an Eastern Conference eighth seed to falling in the Cup Final to the Vegas Golden Knights, making a deep playoff run has its costs. Star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are likely to be out until mid-December with injuries; key glue piece Radko Gudas left via free agency; and numerous spots need to be filled throughout the lineup.
But the Panthers now know what it takes to get there after making it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 and intend to build on that in 2023-24.
“There is no next step,” general manager Bill Zito said. “We need to do everything at that level that the players execute through the second half of the season and the playoffs. And that needs to become a habit, a way of life, not something you aspire to be or elevate your game to.”
With the bar set at an all-time high, the Panthers intend to build on that momentum and reach new heights this season.
Here is how the Panthers can provide an encore to their 2023 Stanley Cup Final run:
Fully healthy Matthew Tkachuk is ready to lead the way
After suffering a fractured sternum in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Matthew Tkachuk is 100% healthy and ready to follow up his MVP-caliber debut season in Sunrise.
The 25-year-old power forward put up 109 points in the regular season while adding 11 goals and 24 points in 20 postseason games.
But outside of his offensive numbers, Tkachuk provides the Panthers with much-needed physicality, a 6-foot-2 body to open up space in front of the net, and slick playmaking that he hopes to bring more of in his second year in South Florida.
“I look at myself as an offensive player and somebody who can play in different situations but I don’t look at it like ‘I am going to get more points,’ ” Tkachuk said. “I could get 20 to 30 points less and be a way better player than I was last year, so I think there is a lot of room for me to grow. I do not think I’m even close to my prime yet, to be honest, so I know I have a lot more to give and that might not be points.”
Familiarity with new system helps keep Panthers afloat
Florida found itself floundering at times during the regular season as injuries piled up under first-year head coach Paul Maurice.
Even with Ekblad and Montour likely out for the first two months, the Panthers do not have to learn a new system with pieces going in and out of the lineup. They know what to expect and they have found a formula for a winning style of hockey.
“We expect more from ourselves and we expect more from each other,” said Tkachuk. “We expect that you are going to come in every day and you are going to work hard, whether it is a summer skate or training camp or a practice during the season. The standard has definitely been set and we have a really good culture here. If you are not doing that, you are probably going to be an odd man out here.”
Newcomers Rodrigues, Lorentz, Stenlund add depth
Once the Panthers get their star defensemen back, they will be entering the stretch run of the season with arguably a deeper roster than the one that took them to the Stanley Cup Final.
The additions of Evan Rodrigues, Steven Lorentz and Kevin Stenlund add depth to a forward group that was severely outmatched by the Vegas’ bottom two lines, while a slew of free agent pickups will shore up the blue line.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola, Mike Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov were all brought in to hold things down with Ekblad and Montour out, and the best of the field will fill out the remaining two open roster spots when they come back.
All four of them are NHL-caliber defensemen and Zito is prepared to stick with the top performers no matter who it is.
“I’m not here to mail it in or anything,” Ekman-Larsson said. “Obviously, we want those two back as soon as they are ready and I think it is good to have guys that push each other. At the same time, I want to push them to be better and I know that they are going to push me, too. So everything comes into play there.”
Panthers need Sergei Bobrovsky to return to playoff dominance
A huge reason why Florida advanced as far as it did in the playoffs was due to the dominant goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky.
He rose to the occasion after an inconsistent start to his Panthers career, going 12-7 with a .915 save percentage, 2.78 goals-against average and a shutout.
Even with young goaltender Spencer Knight back from the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance program ready for a breakout season, Bobrovksy is still expected to be the No. 1 guy in net. The Panthers will need to see him play at the same level he did during the postseason.
“If you are going to be too confident, then it is going to hit you,” Bobrovsky said when asked how he can build off the dominant run. “There are pluses and minuses and it depends on how you look at it. So I think you have to be humble, appreciate the moment and enjoy it because it’s a whole different story and all the great players are going to have the opportunity to compete from zero again.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida Panthers hope for repeat Stanley Cup Final run in 2023-24 NHL season