Florida Panthers Season Preview
Record Last Year: 38-26-18
Goal Differential: -24
Team 5v5 Fenwick: 50.35% (13th in NHL)
5v5 Sh%: 7.2%
5v5 Sv%: .925
PP SF/60: 48.8 (13th in NHL)
PK SA/60: 54.3 (26th in NHL)
Aside from the Phoenix Coyotes and maybe the Ottawa Senators, no team exceeded their expectations more than the Florida Panthers did last season. Pegged by most to be a bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers ended up winning the Southeast Division and making the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. They went onto give the New Jersey Devils a hard run for their money in the first round before being eliminated in seven games, ending what was one of the best seasons this franchise has ever had. Despite this, there haven't been many people picking Florida to repeat their title and there are many reasons for that.
For starters, they still had a terrible goal differential of -24 and had the same amount or fewer wins than non-playoff clubs such as Tampa Bay, Dallas, Colorado and Buffalo. One of the reasons why they got into the playoffs was due to their 18 points gained from shootout and overtime losses. It should also be mentioned that Florida was involved in 40 one goal games and they gained points in all but five of them. When your place in the standings is decided that much by one-goal gains, it's usually a sign that good fortune played a role in it.
In addition to Florida's own flaws, the rest of the teams in the Southeast each made their own improvements and appear to be more dangerous than they were a year ago. Florida isn't as bad of a team as some would lead you to believe, but they are going to need a few things to go right if they want to have a chance at repeating.
Who's In? Filip Kuba (D), JF Jacques (LW), Peter Mueller (RW), George Parros (RW), Alexei Kovalev (F), Mark Svatos (F)
Who's Out? Jason Garrison (D), John Madden (C), Wojtek Wolski (RW), Marco Sturm (LW), Krys Barch (RW), Tim Kennedy (F), Matt Bradley (RW)
If you thought Dale Tallon was going to have another ridiculous summer spending spree, then you thought wrong. The only big signing he made was defenseman Filip Kuba for two years at $4 mil. per season. Aside from that, most of the signings he made were all low-risk, decent-reward moves aside from getting Jacques and Parros, who have little to no value as enforcers. The Mueller signing, however, could end up paying dividends for the Panthers if he is able to stay healthy. Mueller's concussion history is easily his biggest red flag but it's also worth pointing out that he has done most of his work against soft minutes. Florida shouldn't have much of a problem giving those to him if he plays outside of the Goc line, though. Tallon also added veterans Marek Svatos and Alexei Kovalev as training camp invites who could make the team.
As for Kuba, he was brought into replace Garrison and he is a downgrade in more than a few ways. Kuba is basically an older version of Garrison in the sense that he is a below-average skater and not that great of a puck-mover, but he is serviceable enough to play top-four minutes if he's given a good defense partner (He got to play with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa.). If Kuba plays with Brian Campbell in Florida, then he might turn out okay as he is good enough to carry his partner to an extent and handle most of the puck-moving duties. Kuba still appears to be a downgrade from Garrison in a few areas, though. He barely came out in the black territorially despite having a stellar defense partner in Karlsson and had an absurd PDO of 1028, which was due to high on-ice shooting and save percentages.
Kuba will likely be asked to take on the same role he had with the Senators only he is going to be playing with a worse (but still pretty good) defense partner in Campbell. Then you have to take into account that Kuba is 36 and will be trusted with playing 23-26 minutes a night if he is going to replace Garrison. How this will turn out is anyone's guess.
Reasons to be Optimistic
Better Than You Think
Even strength play is one area where Florida has been pretty good in. They controlled over 50% of the 5v5 shot attempts last season and were a middle-of-the-road team in that category compared to the rest of the NHL. That's mediocre overall but pretty solid compared to the rest of the Southeast. A large reason for Florida's solid territorial play relates to how Kevin Dineen rolls his lines. He used Goc's line with Sean Bergenheim and Mikael Samuelsson in a shutdown role last season and they were able to win their battles at even strength. This allowed him to give the Stephen Weiss line a zone start push and they took full advantage of that. Those three could have done a better job at controlling possession but they got the job done when it came to scoring. Florida has a few forwards who are very good possession drivers like Goc, Bergenheim, Versteeg and Upshall and it makes their contracts somewhat defensible. Brian Campbell also played a big role in driving the play at even strength but that could deteriorate a bit depending on how Kuba plays alongside of him.
Being able to win the possession battle goes a long way into winning games and this is something that Florida did a better job at than most of their Southeast Division peers last season.
Help Is On The Way
Florida has one of the deepest forward prospect pools in the league and there is a good chance that a couple of them will make the team out of camp this year. One of them is 2011 first rounder Jonathan Huberdeau who had 45 points in 30 games in the QMJHL and has impressed a lot of people in camp from the sound of things. They also have a few players on their AHL club such as Quinton Howden and Drew Shore who can be called up if needed and we could see them relatively soon given Florida's bottom-six. They can also count on goaltender Jacob Markstrom if Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen have terrible seasons.
The reason why Campbell and Kuba aren't going to be asked to carry all of the load for the defense is because of the presence of Mike Weaver, who might be the best shutdown defenseman in the league who you have never heard of. For most of his career, Weaver has been trusted with playing against opposing team's top lines and starting a truck load of shifts in his own zone and he's done a pretty good job at shutting them down given the circumstances. He also plays a major role in the Panthers' PK and helps keep the top-four of their defense somewhat respectable. The best part about it is that he is signed for a very cheap contract for the next couple of years, which is a huge bargain considering all of the things Weaver does on the ice.
Reasons for Concern
The season starts in two days and the Panthers still have not signed restricted free agent Dmitry Kulikov to a new contract. He plays a pretty big role alongside Weaver and while his body of work thus far isn't stellar, the Panthers defensive depth after the top four leaves a lot to be desired. Ed Jovanovski is only a third-pairing defenseman at this point of his career, Erik Gudbranson is still very young and Keaton Ellerby is more of a depth fill-in. This may open the door for Gudbranson to play a bigger role, although he wasn't exactly impressive in his rookie season but he is going to have to step up sometime in the near future.
The Panthers issues don't end there, though as Weaver sustained an injury during a scrimmage in training camp and his status for the season opener is unknown. Sean Bergenheim is also going to be out for a little bit due to an injury he sustained overseas, which creates a big hole on Florida's second line. I mentioned earlier that Florida can call-up some of their players from San Antonio if needed, but their depth on their NHL club isn't exactly the best right now, especially on the blue line so these injuries and absences could end up hitting them pretty hard.
Porous Penalty Kill
Only four other teams gave up more shots per 60 minutes on the penalty kill than the Panthers did last season and not much was done to improve it either. Kuba was signed but he's essentially taking over for Garrison and I'm not sure how much of an improvement he will be. Ottawa's PK was only slightly better than Florida's last season and he played more minutes on that unit than anyone else. I can't see him being anymore effective than Garrison. Kovalev, Mueller, Parros, Jacques and Svatos probably won't see much time on the PK since none of them have done it in years.
Top-Line Production Sustainable?
Fleischmann, Versteeg and Weiss contributed to 35% of Florida's total goals last year, which is pretty standard for most top-lines. The reason why this is a concern for Florida is because all three players converted on over 12% of their shots and only Versteeg was able to drive the play forward a decent amount. Remember, these three received a zone start push so their inability to drive play is a pretty big worry if Florida is expecting them to repeat what they did last year. This wouldn't be as big of a concern if they had more depth scoring, which could come in the form of Mueller, Huberdeau and possibly one of Kovalev or Svatos but that's placing hope in a lot of guys who aren't guaranteed to produce. They'll also need Scottie Upshall to stay healthy for a full year and rebound from a terrible season to help take some pressure of this top line which is prone to regress.
Florida's chances of repeating look pretty slim if you compare what they have on their roster to others in the division but they should be decent enough to stay in the mix for a good part of the year. The suspension to Bergenheim, weaver injury and Kulikov holdout really hurt their chances right off the bat, though since those are three pretty big pieces that could be missing from the lineup on opening night and beyond. The Panthers aren't going to return to being pushovers but they could find themselves on the outside of the playoff race again. Of course, this is what most were saying last year, so maye we'll end up being wrong again.