What's Next: The Florida Panthers

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Welcome to our 2022-23 Preview series. In each article we’ll be focusing in on a different team, reviewing how they did last season, what their summer has been like, and what their outlook is for the 2022-23 campaign.
We’ll open

by reviewing the Atlantic Division, starting with the Florida Panthers.

2021-22 Season in Review

The Florida Panthers absolutely dominated during the regular season. Even Joel Quenneville’s resignation stemming from the Blackhawks scandal didn’t distract the team. The Panthers were 7-0-0 under Quenneville and 3-01 in Andrew Brunette’s first four games as the bench boss. Florida went on to claim the Presidents’ Trophy with a 58-18-6 record.

At the heart of the Panthers’ strength was their offense. They averaged 4.11 goals per game, which sounds amazing on its own, but really need to put that into historical context. In the entire salary cap era, the 2021-22 Panthers are the only team to average over 4 goals a game. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to find a team that did better than them offensively.

Those 1995-96 Penguins featured Mario Lemieux scoring 69 goals, Jaromir Jagr scoring 62 markers, and Petr Nedved finding the back of the net 45 times. By contrast the Panthers didn’t have a single 40-goal scorer, but what they did have was scoring depth.

Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, and Jonathan Huberdeau each tallied at least 30 goals. Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe crossed the 20-goal milestone. Anton Lundell, Mason Marchment, Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour, Patric Hornqvist, Frank Vatrano, and Gustav Forsling all found the back of the net at least 10 times. That’s 13 players who recorded at least 10 goals in a Panthers jersey last season. The 1995-96 Penguins by contrast had nine players with at least 10 goals.

By contrast, Florida wasn’t anything amazing defensively, but they were acceptable. Sergei Bobrovsky had a solid season with a 2.67 GAA and .913 save percentage in 54 games and Spencer Knight provided Florida with a good alternative, posting a 2.79 GAA and .908 save percentage in 32 contests.

That all said, Florida had done nearly as well in the 2020-21 campaign and ultimately lost in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first round series. Hoping for a different outcome this time around, Florida went all in, acquiring Ben Chiarot for, among other things, a 2023 first-round pick, and they surrendered their 2024 first-round pick as part of a trade to get Claude Giroux from Philadelphia. Florida was already missing their 2022 first rounder, which highlights just how many future pieces the team had given up.

Had they gone on to win the Cup, that would have been a sacrifice well worth making, but that’s not what happened. Instead, they struggled against Washington in the first round, ultimately eking out a six-game series win, before being swept by Tampa Bay. The Lightning knows firsthand that being swept in a series can be a great motivator and the Avalanche can tell the Panthers that playoff disappointments can provide the experience necessary for success. Not every team that disappoints in the playoffs eventually goes on to win the Cup though and the Panthers went into the summer with some significant questions.

How has their summer gone?

In two words: Not great.

Remember Giroux and Chiarot, whom the Panthers pay top dollar for in their failed bid to win the Cup? Well they signed with Ottawa and Detroit respectively, so Florida essentially has nothing to show for those trades now. Marchment, who had 18 goals and 47 points in 54 games with Florida last season, also walked, signing a four-year, $18 million contract with Dallas.

Those departures would have been hard to avoid given Florida’s limited cap space, but they still sting. Florida has tried to round out their team by dipping into the bargain bin though. Nick Cousins signed a two-year, $2.2 million contract and Colin White agreed to a one-year, $1.2 million deal. Both of those could be decent bottom-six options with White being particularly interesting given his initial success with Ottawa before struggling in recent years.

Speaking of interesting, the Panthers also signed Marc Staal to a one-year deal and offered Eric Staal a professional tryout offer. Though both are well past their prime, the prospect of having the brothers playing together is at least a fun idea. They also signed Chris Tierney, who was at one time a good middle-six forward but has seen his value tank, to a one-year, two-way deal.

The idea clearly here is to focus on low-risk, medium-reward options. If they don’t work out, it doesn’t matter too much given their minor cap hits, but if one or even two of those signings pay off then the Panthers will be very happy. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s also the move teams make when they have few other options, and it isn’t likely to make up for what was lost.

2022-23 Outlook

Make no mistake though, the Florida Panthers are still a team to beat. Even with Marchment and their key trade deadline acquisitions departing, Florida’s forward core is the envy of the league. Huberdeau, Barkov, Reinhart, Duclair, Verhaeghe, and Bennett are still in the prime of their career. Lundell should only get better. As should Knight, who might give Bobrovsky a serious run for his money in a battle for the starting gig this season.

The Panthers will also go back to being led by a veteran coach in Paul Maurice. While Andrew Brunette deserves credit for the work he did under difficult circumstances, the hope is that a more experienced bench boss will help the team come playoff time.

Even in a division as strong as the Atlantic, Florida still looks like the front runners. The question isn’t if the Panthers will make the playoffs, it’s if they’ll find success when they get there and that’s a tough one to answer. As noted above, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche took their licks before becoming champions, but then there’s also stories like the Joe Thornton/ Patrick Marleau-era San Jose Sharks and Sedin twins-era Vancouver Canucks. Teams that were fantastic for years but could never quite get it done in the playoffs. Those serve as cautionary tales for the Panthers.

There’s also particular pressure on Florida to succeed this season. Currently Huberdeau comes with a favorable $5.9 million cap hit, but he’s set to become a UFA in the summer of 2023 and it’s safe to assume that he’ll want at a minimum the $10 million annually that Barkov is getting. Meanwhile, Knight is on the final season of his entry-level contract and if the 2022-23 campaign is another strong season for him, then he’ll expect a sizeable raise too. In other words, the Panthers’ cap situation could become more difficult after this season and that might make the summer of 2023 one of some sacrifices. So even if the 2022-23 campaign isn’t the closing of their window by any stretch of the imagination, it’d certainly be in their best interests not to take their time together for granted.