2016-17 Florida Panthers Season Preview

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Welcome to our second annual Florida Panthers Season Preview where we’ll recap the entire off-season and tell you everything there is to know about the team to get you ready for the 2016-17 season. Not only will we take a look at the Panthers, but we’ll delve into the rest of the organization, including their new AHL affiliate – the Springfield Thunderbirds – which will feature an upgraded cast of young, talented players.

Table of Contents

  1. The Basics
  2. Change Is In The Air
    1. Trades
    2. Free Agent Signings
    3. Other Signings
    4. 2016 Draft Picks
    5. Departures
  3. Rebranded
  4. Storylines
  5. Springfield Thunderbirds
  6. Players To Watch
    1. NHL
    2. AHL/Juniors/College
  7. Organizational Depth Chart
  8. Further Reading

The Basics

Owners: Vincent VIOLA & Doug CIFU, 4th season

General Manager: Tom ROWE, 1st season

Assistant General Managers:

  • Eric JOYCE, 4th season
  • Steve WERIER, 1st season

Head coach: Gerard GALLANT, 3rd season

Associate coach: Dave BARR, 1st season

Assistant coaches:

  • Scott ALLEN, 1st season
  • Mike KELLY, 3rd season

Captain:

  • Derek MACKENZIE, 1st season

Assistant captains:

  • Jussi JOKINEN, 3rd season
  • Aaron EKBLAD, 1st season

AHL affiliate:

  • Springfield THUNDERBIRDS, 1st season

ECHL affiliate:

  • Manchester MONARCHS, 2nd season

Where the Panthers finished last season:

  • Record: 47-26-9
  • Total points: 103
  • Wildcard: –
  • Division: 1st
  • Conference: 3rd
  • League: 7th
  • Goals For: 232 (8th)
  • Goals Against: 200 (7th)
  • PP%: 79.5 (24th)
  • PK%: 16.9 (23rd)
  • 5v5 CF%: 48.7 (20th)

Current total salary cap hit*: $62,858,333

Current salary cap space*: $10,141,667

Draft picks this year:

  • FLA 1st-round, FLA 2nd-round, FLA 3rd-round, AZ 3rd-round, FLA 5th-round, ANA 6th-round
*Information courtesy of CapFriendly

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Change Is In The Air

It was an incredibly busy off-season for the Panthers when it comes to roster moves. Sure, the Panthers had just finished up its best season in franchise history, which featured 47 wins and 103 points, but the team knew there was still room for improvement. Never in the team’s history have the Panthers made as many roster moves and organizational changes as they did in the past 5 months since Dale Tallon brought in a slew of players that would lead the team to a playoff berth in 2012.

Several of the trades came as a surprise with the front office deciding now was the best time to not only part ways with Erik Gudbranson, but also Dmitry Kulikov, two players who have been with the Panthers organization for a combined 12 seasons. Gudbranson was seen by many – even Dale Tallon – as a perfect candidate to become the team’s next captain, and he was loved by fans and outsiders for his physical and seemingly strong defensive play.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Jared McCann, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
However, with the Panthers’ revamped brass taking a different approach to managing the team – one that includes more analytics and focuses on getting the most out of their cap space – it certainly wasn’t as difficult of a decision as it would’ve been had a fan – or even a previous management group – been the one calling the shots. Gudbranson’s underlying numbers suggest that he’s a bottom-pairing defenseman, and since he was due for a large contract, he was shipped off to the Vancouver Canucks for a top forward prospect in 20-year old Jared McCann, a very early 2nd-round pick in 2016, and a 4th-round pick in 2016.

The same thinking is what led to the moving of Dmitry Kulikov, who had been the longest-tenured Panther, to be traded at the 2016 NHL Draft. Kulikov is currently entering the final year of a 3-year contract worth $13 million ($4.3 million AAV) after which he’ll become an unrestricted free-agent. Reports say the 25-year old defenseman was looking for a long-term deal worth up to $6 million per year, and even though he may be a good player, the Panthers knew they could get more for their money if they looked elsewhere.

So, look elsewhere they did and they found Mark Pysyk. Not only is Pysyk a solid performer on the analytics side of things – and their scouts tended to agree – but he’s just as good – if not better – than Kulikov at less than half the price. Pysyk is a restricted free-agent after this season is up and the Panthers will likely be able to get him on a new deal worth under $3 million per year, while Kulikov is a year older and already commanding over $5 million.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Mark Pysyk, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Before that move happened, the Panthers made a big splash by acquiring Keith Yandle from the Rangers in exchange for two draft picks. Because Yandle was set to become an unrestricted free-agent just over a week later, the second pick in that exchange was a conditional and the Rangers would only get it if he signed with the Panthers. Three days after the acquisition, the Panthers announced that they had signed the offensive defenseman to a 7-year deal worth $44.45 million, and he went on to express his excitement about getting the opportunity to play alongside Aaron Ekblad as well as make a run at the Stanley Cup as soon as this season.

Yandle has been known around the league as a force to be reckoned with, especially on the power play which is an area where the Panthers have struggled mightily to find consistency for years. The 30-year old is ranked second in power play points among defensemen with 92 since 2012, and he has posted at least 40 points in 6 of his 9 NHL seasons. The three times he didn’t reach 40 points were the lockout year of 2013 (30 points in 48 games), his 2nd full season in the NHL (30 points in 69 games), and his first full season in the league (12 points in 43 games).

On the same day they signed Yandle long term, the Panthers swung a deal with Colorado which got them goaltender Reto Berra in exchange for forward Rocco Grimaldi. Grimaldi – who’s time with the Panthers we discussed in our 2011 Draft review – struggled to earn a spot over the course of several opportunities with the NHL club and was passed over on the depth chart by prospects like Kyle Rau and others who signed ELCs recently. As a result, the Panthers decided that this off-season was the best time to ship him off in order to get a return of some value, and what they ended up with is a very capable number 2 or 3 goaltender in Reto Berra. While Grimaldi still has time to become an impact player in the NHL, that time is running out and the Panthers managed to get decent value out of him considering his track record thus far.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Keith Yandle, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
In early June, the Panthers also moved the contract of Marc Savard and a 2018 2nd-round pick to the Devils in exchange for AHLers Graham Black and Paul Thompson. While both players are expected to remain in the AHL for the foreseeable future, the Panthers were able to rid themselves of a $4 million cap hit for the upcoming season, giving them room to sign free agents and extend core players to long-term contracts.

Jason Demers, James Reimer, Colton Sceviour, and Jonathan Marchessault were all beneficiaries of the new-found cap space when the free-agent market opened in July, and these signings, as well as all of the other moves made during the off-season, amounted to some skillful cap management by the Panthers’ front office. If we’re honest, this is really the first time in the team’s history where the front office has been able to manage its assets (players and cap space) so well. Not only are there no players left on the roster from the Panthers’ 2011-12 playoff team, but the roster is vastly improved all around while still having money to spare for trades at the deadline and other signings.

The Panthers weren’t done however, as they made yet another trade on August 25th when they sent Dave Bolland and his $5.5 million cap hit to Arizona alongside Lawson Crouse in exchange for two draft picks. Although Bolland was thought to be virtually untradeable due to the fact that he’s been injured for months and carries with him a large cap hit over the next 3 years, the Panthers were able to get a deal done after what Assistant GM Steve Werier described as “months of planning and countless calls with Arizona’s GM, John Chayka.”

While the Panthers now have a ton of cap space despite having players like Ekblad, Barkov, Trocheck, Smith, Yandle, Demers, Reimer, and others locked up long-term, they did give up a top prospect in Crouse whose potential seemed to change like the South Florida weather. The move does, however, give them a ton of flexibility when it comes to avoiding bonus overages, having room to acquire players throughout the season whether it be at the trade deadline or in the event of injuries, and it also allowed them to sign more players, like Jonathan Huberdeau, to contract extensions.

Huberdeau’s 6-year, $35.4 million extension didn’t come too long after Bolland and Crouse were dealt to the Coyotes, so it’s clear that the move facilitated the deal with the Panthers’ young, top-line winger. The final moves of the offseason included adding Adam Pardy and Justin Fontaine to the training camp roster on professional try-outs and signing Anthony Greco and Eddie Wittchow to AHL contracts.

Jonathan Huberdeau, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
The changes didn’t stop at the roster, however, as the Panthers restructured their front office in May. Dale Tallon was promoted from “Executive Vice President and General Manager” to the position of “President of Hockey Ops,” Tom Rowe ascended to the role of General Manager, and both Eric Joyce and Steve Werier were given “Assistant General Manager” titles. The Panthers also hired a handful of analytics staff, let go of many scouts, including Scott Luce who worked in and led the department for years, replaced a number of equipment and medical staff, and added 2 new coaches to the NHL level (Dave Barr and Scott Allen), among other things.

The moves weren’t taken lightly by many, including outside media members, as they questioned why the Panthers would blow up their management structure after such a successful season, although it seemed like more of a coincidence than anything. With Vincent Viola and Doug Cifu having owned the franchise for 3 years now, an assessment of the organization was conducted from top to bottom and bottom to top, and it just happened to come after the the team’s best year ever. If the offseason of signings and trades that succeeded these sweeping changes is any indication, perhaps the restructuring was for the better and will pay off sooner rather than later.

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Trades

Trade Date Acquired In Exchange For
5/25 Jared McCann, 2016 2nd-rd pick, 4th-rd pick Erik Gudbranson, 2016 5th-rd pick
6/10 Graham Black, Paul Thompson Marc Savard, 2018 2nd-rd pick
6/20 Keith Yandle (negotiating rights) 2016 6th-rd pick, 2017 4th-rd pick (for signing w/ FLA)
6/23 Reto Berra Rocco Grimaldi
6/25 Mark Pysyk, 2016 2nd-rd pick, 3rd-rd pick Dmitry Kulikov, 2016 2nd-rd pick
6/25 2016 7th-rd pick (BOS) (selected Benjamin Finkelstein) 2017 7th-rd pick
8/25 Conditional 2018 2nd-rd pick, 2017 3rd-rd pick Dave Bolland, Lawson Crouse

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Free-Agent Signings

Signing Date Player Signed Position Contract Terms
7/1 James Reimer G 5 years, $17,000,000 ($3.4 million AAV)
7/1 Jonathan Marchessault LW/RW 2 years, $1,500,000 ($750k AAV)
7/1 Colton Sceviour RW 2 years, $1,900,000 ($950k AAV)
7/2 Jason Demers D 5 years, $22,000,000 ($4.5 million AAV)
9/1 Anthony Greco LW/RW 1 year, $50,000 (AHL contract)
July Eddie Wittchow D N/A (AHL contract)
July Rihards Bukarts RW N/A (AHL contract)
July Zac Lynch RW N/A (AHL contract)

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Other Signings

Signing Date Player Type Contract Terms
5/3 Linus Hultström ELC  2 years, $1,850,000 ($925k AAV)
5/10 Sam Montembeault ELC  3 years, $2,775,000 ($925k AAV)
5/11 Shane Harper Extension  1 year, $650,000
6/16 Connor Brickley Extension  1 year, $650,000
6/20 Ian McCoshen ELC  3 years, $3,075,000 ($1.025 million AAV)
6/22 Sam Brittain Extension  1 year, $750,000
6/28 Greg McKegg Extension  1 year, $700,000
6/23 Keith Yandle Extension 7 years, $44,450,000 ($6.35 million AAV)
7/1 Aaron Ekblad Extension 8 years, $60,000,000 ($7.5 million AAV)
7/2 Vincent Trocheck Extension  6 years, $28,500,000 ($4.75 million AAV)
7/3 Reilly Smith Extension  5 years, $25,000,000 ($5 million AAV)
7/5 Derek MacKenzie Extension  2 years, $2,750,000 ($1.375 million AAV)
7/12 Logan Shaw Extension  1 year, $660,000
7/13 Jonathan Racine Extension  1 year, $660,000
7/14 Denis Malgin ELC  3 years, $2,080,000 ($693,333 AAV)
9/6 Jonathan Huberdeau Extension  6 years, $35,400,000 ($5.9 million AAV)

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2016 Draft Picks

Player Position 2016-17 Team
Henrik Borgstrom C University of Denver
Adam Mascherin LW Kitchener Rangers
Linus Nassen D Luleå HF
Jonathan Ang C Peterborough Petes
Riley Stillman D Oshawa Generals
Maxim Mamin LW/RW CSKA Moskva
Benjamin Finkelstein D St. Lawrence University

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Departures

Below is a list of the players who left the Panthers since the end of the season in late-April. The list includes players who were traded and pending unrestricted free-agents that were not re-signed by the Panthers.

As we can see, while there was a lot of turnover in the organization, all of the players let go – aside from one or two exceptions – are players that can and have been easily substituted. We can see many replacement-level NHL players, several AHLers, and a few that actually made an impact for the Panthers. Not too much was lost here, but anything that was lost was replaced with a player – or players – with more skill and versatility.

Player Reason
Erik Gudbranson Traded to Vancouver
Dave Bolland Traded to Arizona
Lawson Crouse Traded to Arizona
Dmitry Kulikov Traded to Buffalo
Rocco Grimaldi Traded to Colorado
Marc Savard Traded to New Jersey
Brian Campbell UFA, signed w/ CHI
Willie Mitchell UFA
Quinton Howden UFA, signed w/ WPG
Teddy Purcell UFA, signed w/ LA
Jiri Hudler UFA, signed w/ DAL
Al Montoya UFA, signed w/ MTL
Garrett Wilson UFA, signed w/ PIT
John McFarland UFA, signed in Finland
Brett Olson UFA, signed in Austria
Sena Acolatse UFA
Cameron Gaunce UFA, signed w/ PIT
Rob Flick UFA, signed in ECHL
Corban Knight UFA, signed in AHL

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Rebranded

As we’ve seen already, this season for the Panthers was all about out with old and in with the new. In addition to the myriad of players leaving and entering the organization just over the past several months, a set of revamped logos – as well as brand new home and away jerseys – were unveiled back in early June, much to the dismay of some fans who were still clinging to the admittedly old, 90’s era look.

The Panthers will don the new look for the first time at the BB&T Center when the pre-season gets underway on Tuesday, September 27th, but the organization’s rookies wore the home reds this past weekend at the rookie tournament in Coral Springs, giving us a taste of how they’ll appear during an actual game.

Aside from the infamous “JetBlue” jerseys worn by the team from 2009-2012, the Panthers’ logos and jerseys have featured largely the same design, and none of the tweaks made over the years have come close to being as dramatic as the overhaul worked on by owner Vincent Viola, his son John, and co-owner Doug Cifu over the past 3 years.

Gone is the leaping Panther as the team’s primary logo and gone is the popular palm tree and hockey stick as the secondary logo. Now, the primary logo is a shield with head shot of a more mature, reserved panther looking off to its right. A cleaned up version of the Panther we all know and love lives on as a decal that will reside on the top of each player’s helmet.

The jerseys, which feature red as the predominant color on the home variant and white on the away variant, share an overall appearance similar to that of the Florida state flag. The laces near the neck are strung through holes specifically to match the pattern of the flag while the new secondary logo that appears on both sleeves features a Florida flag modified to include a sun in the middle and a prowling panther on the top.

Both jerseys, as well as the team’s marketing campaign, make use of a new letter and number font that appears to be slightly less narrow than the previous font in addition to being a bit more angular with certain characters. The home jersey’s main logo crest reads “Panthers” above the onlooking state animal while the road version’s crest reads “Florida,” and on both, a stripe outlined in gold runs through the logo on the front but does not continue onto the back. The “Panthers” crest is the version of the logo that has been painted on center ice at the BB&T Center.

As with any change, there are plenty of people who will love it and plenty of people who will hate it, but either way, this redesign makes it absolutely clear that the ownership group of Viola and Cifu are committed to South Florida and want to move on from the failures and losing seasons of the past. The new jerseys and logos are fresh and modern and show that these new Panthers are not the same team that people haven’t had many reasons to be proud of over the past 23 years. This off-season especially has made it pretty obvious that the Panthers are moving in a new direction, and that direction is one that involves winning multiple Stanley Cups.

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Storylines

In last season’s preview, I wrote up a bunch of storylines – which tended to highlight areas of uncertainty – for the year ahead and then reevaluated them when everything was said and done at the beginning of the offseason. This year, I’ll do the same thing, and fortunately, the Panthers have given us plenty of talking points.

The new-look blueline

When pundits and analysts talk about the Panthers’ offseason, the first thing most of them mention is how the team essentially overhauled its defensive core, and this is for good reason too. Five defensemen that were on the team’s opening night roster (4 of which were starters) from last season are no longer with the organization: Dylan Olsen, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell.

The Panthers either traded or opted against re-signing them in favor of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, two of the top free-agents available on the market this offseason, as well as Mark Pysyk, a cheaper, controllable, and higher upside version of Kulikov whom he will “replace.” Mike Matheson’s impressive play towards the end of last season, into the playoffs, and at the World Championship in May gave the Panthers the confidence they needed to move Gudbranson for a forward rather than looking for another defenseman in return.

There’s no question that the Panthers’ front office looked at and made use of analytics when deciding whether or not to move on from the players they did and acquire the others. Some would argue that the Panthers are no longer as tough as they once were and therefore won’t be as intimidating or capable when it comes to protecting star players.

Others have suggested that the move from defensive defensemen like Mitchell and Gudbranson as well as the increased integration of analytics brought with it an inundation of puck-moving defensemen like Demers and Pysyk who are “ineffective” when it comes to actually playing defense. Finally, some have said that the Panthers have far too many right-handed defensemen (which is somewhat true) and this fact, along with there being several new defensemen in general, will ruin the chemistry the team had defensively.

Are all of these legitimate concerns? Yes, of course they are. But are they also being blown out of proportion? Probably. Teams make moves all the time and if you’re not willing to sit still, you gotta do what you gotta do. I went over some gameplay of Yandle, Pysyk, and Demers in an article last month, and by checking that out, what you’ll see is that all three of them are more than capable defensively. Will they throw the same bone-shattering body checks as Erik Gudbranson? No, but they’ll be positioned well, get their sticks in lanes, cut off passes, anticipate plays, frustrate the opponent, and get the puck up the ice or to the forwards. And that’s not to say that being physical suddenly isn’t necessary, because the new defensemen can and will throw the body if the chance arises.

The point is that it’s possible to play defense and be effective without being labeled as a “defensive defenseman,” and we must dispel the myth that “puck-movers” are only good on the offensive side of things. If you’re good at blocking lanes or knocking the puck off an opposing player’s stick and then retrieving it, skating away with it, and sending a nice pass to a forward, you’re much more versatile than a player who isn’t the greatest skater and doesn’t make the greatest passes so is forced to get overly physical and chip pucks off the glass, among other things.

When it comes to handedness, this is definitely something to keep an eye on, but I don’t foresee it being too much of an issue. Players like Demers, Yandle, and Ekblad are so talented and two of them are veterans (or maybe all 3 of them?) in the league, so this is nothing they can’t adapt to. For the younger defensemen like Matheson, Petrovic, and Pysyk, it will take working with their defensive partner through camp, preseason, and practices to build up chemistry. Having two defensemen of the same handedness isn’t anything new; in fact, many pairings around the NHL happen to have this set up, whether it’s intentional or just the way things worked.

One rudimentary example would be the Blackhawks’ pairing of left-handers Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson. You might say that it’s no big deal for them because those are two of the most talented defensemen in the league, but the point is that the Panthers have plenty of talent on their blueline, especially after this offseason. So, while it’s a concern, it’s not the massive one that some would have you believe. Fortunately, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Panthers will have some time before the season even starts to get pairings and defensive work in. In general though, if the Panthers lose a game, it won’t be because a defensive pairing had two righties on it.

The other side of the coin says that both Kulikov and Gudbranson were due for contracts worth way more than their on-ice performances. They were earning $4.3 million and $3.5 million per year despite basically being 3rd-pair defensemen that were used in top-4 roles. In the cap world, teams have to do everything they can to get the most out of their money in order to retain their top players and have space to add on when necessary, and the Panthers have done a phenomenal job of that as I mentioned earlier.

The analytics movement + will it pay off?

There’s been a lot of talk about the Panthers and their new focus on incorporating analytics into decisions surrounding the on-ice product. It’s tough to discuss because there are as many people against it as there are people for it, and I think the main thing to understand is that it’s just another piece to the puzzle for the Panthers. They haven’t and won’t make a decision based solely on analytics and Assistant GM Eric Joyce has said on numerous occasions that the team will often defer to a scout’s opinion on a player if he and the analytics don’t match up.

Of course, some of the moves made this offseason had an analytics component to them. Mark Pysyk was acquired from the Sabres, and he is known around the analytics community for being a driver of possession. On the contrary, Erik Gudbranson, one of the Panthers’ poorest performers analytically-speaking over the past few seasons, was traded to the Canucks in exchange for a controllable, high-upside asset in Jared McCann.

Then there’s Jason Demers, who’s known for driving possession and suppressing shots at an elite level, as well as James Reimer and Reto Berra, two goaltenders that are near the top of the league in high-danger save percentage in addition to many other advanced metrics like win and loss thresholds.

Last season, the Panthers were at the top of the league when it came to the stat of “PDO,” which is a combination of shooting percentage and save percentage at 5v5. The idea behind it is any PDO over 1.000 means a team is getting lucky and under 1.000 means a team has been unlucky, since high or low save percentages and shooting percentages are bound to normalize over time. The moves the Panthers made this offseason are somewhat of an attempt to combat whatever regression they might encounter this season while allowing them to be more consistent overall. If, hypothetically, their 12-game win streak last year was split 6-6, they would’ve been right on the cusp of the playoffs rather than comfortably over the minimum point threshold (excluding other factors, of course).

As we all know, advanced stats aren’t the end-all-be-all and won’t guarantee you a win on any given night. The idea, however, is to increase those odds by putting together a team that is more favorable when it comes to the metrics that are proven to lead to winning. It’s why players that have shown they’re able to drive possession are highly-sought after, because if they’re able to do the little things that contribute to their team having the puck more often, odds are that the team will have a better chance at scoring than the opponent. For example, you can’t shoot the puck if you don’t have it, and the more shot attempts you do take, the more likely it is that one of them will end up in the net.

It’s also important to note that the Panthers view analytics not just as a number or stat that represents an on-ice event, but also as input from other sources like scouts, coaches, management, and their own cap data. To the Panthers, analytics encompasses all of those things and probably a lot of proprietary stuff I’d imagine as well, especially with their recent analytics hires.

Will it pay off in the end? We can’t say for sure what will happen, just like analytics can’t say with certainty whether a team will win or lose or if a player is good or bad. What we can say is that the Panthers are doing what they can to make themselves more favorable in the eyes of analytics, and this season will be a good starting point for determining whether or not the moves that were made will begin a positive trend or a negative one.

How will the bottom-6 play out?

One of the Panthers’ main goals this offseason was to improve the bottom half of their lineup. The wings past the 2nd line were revolving doors all year long, Teddy Purcell and Jiri Hudler didn’t perform nearly as well as the Panthers hoped when they acquired them at the trade deadline, and the 4th line often seemed to prioritize grit over skill.

Probably one of the biggest questions is exactly how the bottom-6 will be situated now that the Panthers have Jonathan Marchessault, Colton Sceviour, and Jared McCann in addition to the internal players fighting for a spot. This year’s preseason is probably the most crowded and uncertain the bottom-6 has ever been for the Panthers, and that’s definitely a good thing.

On July 1st, GM Tom Rowe described Sceviour as “a real good guy to help us on the 3rd line” and Marchessault as a player that can “compliment the 4th line, 3rd line combination,” making it clear that those two players will most likely have spots with the Panthers to start the season. Then, with Bjugstad and MacKenzie already having spots as the centers on those lines and Shawn Thornton filling a spot as an extra forward on the 4th line, that leaves about 2 spots open on the wings.

One option I’m sure the Panthers will consider is Jared McCann, the young forward they acquired in the Erik Gudbranson trade and are very high on. Considering how well he did on the Vancouver Canucks’ 4th line last season as a 19-year old rookie, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him play on the 3rd line given the Panthers desire for more offense in that area. After an offseason of work, he probably has a spot in the lineup barring something unforeseen, although playing in the AHL can’t be totally ruled out.

The final forward spot is probably the most difficult to predict, because all of the options available are capable of fulfilling the role well. The names that are left include Kyle Rau, Connor Brickley, Greg McKegg, Logan Shaw, Shane Harper, and maybe one player that shines during camp. Four or five decent players battling for one spot is really good for the overall success of the team and it’s exactly what the Panthers wanted. Not only will it determine a spot to start the season, but it plants the seed in the player’s head that there are guys waiting in the wings if they get too comfortable, so it’s a win-win.

“There’s definitely spots [open] on the 4th line,” said Rowe this past week at the rookie tournament. “That’s why we went out and got the guys that we got, and then the guys we have internally … it’s going to be a very competitive training camp, but everyone’s gotta be ready to go.”

Last preseason, the Panthers brought in David Booth and Martin Havlat on PTOs, two older players who, looking back seem, more like fillers designed to keep the players on their toes than guys that had a real chance at making the roster. That’s in contrast to this year where Fontaine (and Pardy on the defensive side) had a legitimate shot to make the roster out of camp, especially considering he’s solid performer analytics-wise and has piqued the Panthers’ interest for some time now.

In the end, the Panthers’ bottom-6 should be noticeably improved over past seasons, and since head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll all 4 lines equally, this will certainly be a key to the team’s overall success.

Can the offense pick up where it left off + the young players

Last season, the Panthers had one of the best offensive performances collectively in their history. Their goals for per game average of 3.3 currently sits as the third-highest out of the team’s 23-year existence. Not only that, but the Panthers had 5 players with at least 20 goals, 4 players with at least 25 goals, 4 players with 50 or more points, and 2 players with at least 60 points. These are really impressive numbers and it’s a good part of the reason why they had so much success last year, especially at even strength.

One of the big questions entering this season is whether or not the Panthers’ offense be as successful this year as it was last year, and the simple answer to that is yes, for the most part. As I mentioned earlier, the Panthers ended last season with the second-highest PDO in the NHL, and they came back down to earth a bit in the playoffs in the form of not being able to score on Thomas Greiss. While the team’s save percentage at 5v5 was fairly high at 0.948, suggesting Luongo was playing better than he was getting credit for, the Panthers were shooting at 5.74% which is below the league average and well below their 8.84% from the regular season.

Another challenge the Panthers faced throughout last season was not being able to find any sort of consistency on the power play. So what did they do? They brought in Keith Yandle, who has a great track record, and hired a new assistant coach, Dave Barr, who brings experience running a better-performing power play in Buffalo. Not only do the Panthers want to improve it for obvious reasons, any sort of regression at even strength could be off-set by a power play that is converting more often.

Yet another offseason of training and working out – as well as a hunger to avenge last season’s 1st-round playoff exit – should do the Panthers’ young players – like Barkov, Ekblad, Huberdeau, Trocheck, Bjugstad, and Smith – wonders, and there’s a good chance they’ll perform as well as they did last year at the very least. The top-6 will likely remain the same as it was last season at least for the beginning of the season, and more skilled players in the bottom-6 should help round things out even more.

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Springfield Thunderbirds

This year will be the Panthers’ first season as the NHL parent club of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the newest team in the AHL. The Panthers were affiliated with the Portland Pirates last season after their agreement with the San Antonio Rampage expired the year prior, however they were forced to find a new club after the Pirates’ owner opted to put the team up for sale early in the offseason. After it was purchased by Springfield Hockey, LLC., the team was relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts, which was enabled by the previous tenants, the Springfield Falcons, being bought by the Coyotes and moved to Arizona.

The Thunderbirds unveiled their logo, jerseys, and mascot (Boomer) over the course of the offseason to complete the appearance of the team that will play its home games at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield.

The Panthers had to do some roster building to some degree with the AHL team as a result of player departures from last season, like Brett Olson, John McFarland, Sena Acolatse, Garrett Wilson, Rocco Grimaldi, Cameron Gaunce, and others. However, this process was aided by the fact that many of the Panthers’ prospects will be graduating to the pro level this season in addition to the signing of players to AHL contracts.

Shane Harper was re-signed to a 1-year deal back in May after a solid 2015-16 campaign which saw him tally 37 points in 59 games as one of the Pirates’ top offensive performers. He’s yet to play a game in the NHL, and he probably would’ve last year had he not been injured himself, but considering his play in the AHL, he may be a viable call-up option this season should he not crack the Panthers’ roster out of camp.

In early June, the Panthers acquired Graham Black and Paul Thompson from the Devils in the Marc Savard trade, and both are expected to suit up for the Thunderbirds this year. Black is just 23 and has the potential to make an impact in the bottom-6 in the future while Thompson is a season removed from a 33-goal campaign in the AHL, suggesting that he’ll bring even more offense to the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in Springfield.

Connor Brickley and Logan Shaw were re-signed to 1-year deals as well this offseason, and for now, it’s unclear whether they’ll earn NHL spots or not. Brickley spent 23 games with the Panthers during the first half of last year while Logan Shaw came up early on and spent the rest of the season in Florida. However, as we know, the Panthers improved their bottom-6 depth this year, so it’s not going to be the cake-walk to make the roster that it was in past years. Should they end up in the AHL, you can bet they’ll play in the top-6 for Springfield considering their resumés and performances towards the tail-end of last season.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Logan Shaw, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Kyle Rau is another player who could return to the Thunderbirds, but there’s no doubt that the organization will consider him for a bottom-6 role in the NHL, especially after his performance during a 9-game stint with the Panthers in February and March. He plays a gritty, skilled game and could be a good option in the bottom-6 or as a call-up. Since the Panthers’ 3rd line is presumed to be full, odds are he’d slot in on the 4th line if he cracked the roster, and the question the front office would have to answer its whether it’s worth it to limit his ice time there while benefitting the Panthers or give him top line minutes in the AHL.

Brent Regner will return as the team’s captain, and with him he’ll carry some NHL experience after making his debut with the Panthers in February. Like last year, he’ll patrol the blue-line on one of the team’s top 2 pairings while playing in all situations for the Thunderbirds, and even though he’s not a prolific offensive performer, he still manages to chip in about 20 to 30 points each year. On a personal note, he’ll be playing in Springfield for the second time in his career after playing for the Falcons from 2010 until 2012 as a member of the Blue Jackets organization.

Also ready to wear the Thunderbirds’ new uniforms are Jonathan Racine, MacKenzie Weegar, and Greg McKegg, the first two of which have been with the Panthers for a few years now. Racine is entering his fourth season with an AHL affiliate of the Panthers, and it’ll be the third different one he’s played for. As I noted back in May, it was unclear at the time whether the Panthers would re-sign Racine or not as a result of their shift towards puck-moving defensemen and the fact that his lone NHL game came 2 years ago; it seemed as though they had forgotten about the young defender. He did make strides this past season however, and he was offered a 1-year deal for the upcoming campaign, meaning he may finally have an opportunity to earn a call-up.

Weegar has been progressing slowly but surely, and this coming year will be his 3rd in pro hockey and second in the AHL. The 22-year old puck mover played primarily in a bottom-2 role for the Pirates last season and found himself in and out of the lineup on numerous occasions, but that appears to have been the Panthers moving him along slowly and working with him as he seemed to get better as the year wore on. He’s not quite where he should be just yet when it comes to his decision-making, but as a former 7th-round pick used to playing in an offensive role with Halifax of the QMJHL, it was bound to take him extra time to round out his game.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Greg McKegg, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Greg McKegg could see an expanded role this season in the with the Panthers losing some depth at center in the AHL. Thunderbirds GM Eric Joyce said recently that the center position would be “anchored” by McKegg as a result of the team being young down the middle compared to years past. The 24-year old tallied 23 points in 47 games for the Pirates last season in a bottom-6 role, so there’s the potential for more production from him if he does in fact see more ice time. The Panthers seemed to like what they saw last year from him in the NHL, and that could make him a call-up candidate depending on the need.

Between the pipes, things will be familiar for those that followed the Panthers’ former AHL affiliate Portland Pirates last season as All-Star Mike McKenna and backup Sam Brittain are set for another season in the AHL. Expected to join them is Reto Berra whom the Panthers acquired from Colorado, although his spot for the start of the season is pending the availability of Roberto Luongo at the NHL level. Colin Stevens could compete for a spot, but he’ll mostly likely start the year in the ECHL once again. For more on the Panthers’ goaltending depth, click here to find a complete rundown.

It will be interesting to see how the goaltending situation is handled since the Thunderbirds will have a 1A and 1B in McKenna and Berra as well as Brittain who’s capable of putting in some time as well.

The big story for the Thunderbirds will be the players making their North American pro hockey debuts after paying their dues in college, junior leagues, and internationally. Dryden Hunt is likely to start the year in the AHL after being signed out of the WHL in February, and he has a good chance of slotting into the top-6 right away. Hunt is coming off his 5th season in the WHL where he led the league in goals with 58 and earned the most valuable player award. His best asset by far is his wrist shot and one-timer, both of which are suited for the pro level, while the part of his game that needs the most work is his skating. For some in-depth analysis of Hunt and his game, check out this article from March.

Jayce Hawryluk could join the Thunderbirds to start the season as well, although there’s a chance that debut will be delayed after the tenacious forward underwent surgery to repair a broken right hand that he suffered in a fight during a rookie tournament almost a week ago. One can assume that his chances of making the Panthers’ roster were hurt to some degree by the injury since he’ll be forced to miss most, if not all, of training camp and the preseason.

Juho Lammikko will have the opportunity to earn a spot in the Thunderbirds lineup after signing his first pro contract in April. The 20-year old forward impressed at the rookie tournament this past week with his size, defensive prowess, and hockey IQ. Lammikko played 1 game in the AHL at the end of the regular season in April, but his pro career will get underway for real this season and has 25 games of experience in Finland’s top professional league, Liiga, with Ässät.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Ian McCoshen, Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Two other players making the jump to the pros are Ian McCoshen and Denis Malgin. McCoshen, taken by the Panthers in the 2nd round of the 2011 Draft, is finally turning pro after spending the last 3 years at Boston College where he served as an assistant captain and tallied 21 points in 40 games as a junior. He has a chance to crack the Panthers’ roster thanks to his physicality and defense-first mentality – which is something the team lost when they moved Gudbranson to the Canucks – but with no NHL experience, he may have to settle for a top-4 spot in the AHL.

Denis Malgin is currently one the Panthers’ most underrated prospects, and between development camp in July and rookie camp last weekend, he proved that he is deserving of way more recognition than the amount he’s received thus far. Of course, if he continues to impress during the preseason, he could push for an NHL roster spot, but the fact that he’s a center – and only 19 – would mean there isn’t much room for him in the bottom-6 with Bjugstad and MacKenzie already filling those roles. In addition to that, Thunderbirds GM Eric Joyce stated in an interview a few weeks ago that Malgin would likely “slot in as the number 2 [center]” in the AHL, and that probably makes the most sense for his long-term development even though he’s already played pro hockey in Switzerland.

Anthony Greco, Zac Lynch, Eddie Wittchow, and Rihards Bukarts will be playing for the Thunderbirds this season as all four are signed to AHL deals after finishing up their college and junior careers in the spring. Greco, 22, attended Ohio State University for 4 years where he collected 37 goals and 35 assists in 125 games while Lynch, 24, graduated from Robert Morris University with 157 points in 152 games and as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

Wittchow, a physical, defensive defenseman was drafted by the Panthers in 2011 before playing in the USHL and then 4 years at the University of Wisconsin where he became known for his bone-shattering hits. Bukarts spent 4 seasons in the WHL playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings and Portland Winterhawks where he totaled 190 points in 192 career games.

Another defenseman, Michael Downing signed his entry-level contract just prior to the end of the NHL regular season after completing his coursework at the University of Michigan. Like Wittchow, he’s known for his physical play – and showed that in his one and only AHL game in April – but he’s also capable of producing offensively.

Greco and Wittchow were invited to the Panthers’ development camp in July and earned a contract at the end of it while Lynch  and Bukarts were signed to a tryout contract with the Portland Pirates at the end of last season and attended camp in July as well. Greco, Lynch, and Bukarts are gritty, skilled, speedy and play solid defense which will make them good options for the bottom half of the Thunderbirds’ lineup, while Wittchow and Downing could end up in the ECHL if they aren’t able to secure a spot on the bottom pairing. These players – excluding Downing – aren’t competing directly for a spot on the Panthers’ roster just yet since their contracts don’t allow it, but it’s possible that they could earn two-way deals in the future if they perform well in the AHL.

Overall, the Panthers’ AHL affiliate will be young and skilled, but it seems as though most of these players are well beyond their years and should be able to give most of their opponents a run for their money.

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Players To Watch

NHL

  • Aleksander Barkov – The Panthers’ number-1 center is poised to take his game to yet another level after an impressive 2015-16 campaign which saw him rack up 28 goals and 31 assists in just 66 games. His gentlemanly play earned him Lady Byng Trophy finalist honors while the continuance of his solid two-way play netted him some votes for the Selke Trophy. Considering he was able to reach 28 goals in less than a full season of play last year, there’s no reason why 30 goals and 60 to 70 points shouldn’t be attainable for the 21-year old Finn, especially if he and his linemates – Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau – are able to continue the chemistry they’ve had over the past season and a quarter.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau – Huberdeau is fresh off his fourth season in the NHL during which he posted a new high in goals (20) and points (59) while tying his mark of 39 assists from the year before. In addition to that, he finally signed a long-term deal in September which will keep him with the Panthers through the 2022-23 season. He appears to have bulked up nicely this summer and his first shot of the preseason at the Ice Den broke the glass behind the net, so we could and should be in store for a big season from the 23-year old. Like Barkov, he should be in range of 60 to 70 points this year – if he gets off to a better start than he has in the past – while looking to lead the Panthers’ offense like he’s capable of doing.
  • Vincent Trocheck – Vincent Trocheck will be watched closely this year to see how he fares after breaking out for career-highs in goals (25), assists (28), and points (53) in 76 games last season. The blossoming young center missed the final 6 games of the regular season and first 4 of the playoffs while he recovered from a fractured heel after blocking a shot in late March. The hope is that he can rekindle the incredible chemistry he had with linemates Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen in order to help lead the Panthers’ offensive attack.
  • Keith Yandle – Keith Yandle will make his debut with the Panthers when the season gets underway in October, and it will be very interesting to see if and how he’s able to change the dynamics of the Panthers’ offensive attack and power play. Since he’s hit the 40-point mark in 6 of his 9 NHL seasons, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to do it again with the highly-skilled players that make up the Panthers’ forward corps. He isn’t much of a goal scorer, but if he’s given top power play time (which he should be), among other things, an uptick in that area wouldn’t be surprising.
  • Jason Demers – Demers is another new addition to the Panthers’ blueline and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he’ll play in the top-4 from the get-go. He’s not a prolific point producer by any means, but he’s capable of 25 to 35 points and that shouldn’t be much of an issue given the quality of his new teammates. His ability to supress shots at a high level will make him a very good option on the penalty kill while his tendency to drive possession will allow him to be paired often with the Panthers’ skilled forwards. Although the Panthers already have a ton of players to choose from for the power play aside from Demers, he did spend some time playing with the man-advantage in Dallas, leading the defense with 3 goals (out of his 7 in total) last season.

Honorable Mention: Nick Bjugstad is set for his 4th NHL season after a 2015-16 campaign that was thrown off by migraines which forced him to miss the entire month of December. The 24-year old struggled to produce after returning in January but got on a roll towards the end of the season and ended up as one of the Panthers’ best players heading into the playoffs. After a full offseason of training, there’s no reason why Bjugstad shouldn’t be able to return to the 24-goal mark that he reached during the 2014-15 season especially with the addition of several new wingers for the bottom-6.

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AHL/JUNIORS/COLLEGE

  • Jayce Hawryluk –  As one of the Panthers’ top prospects, Jayce Hawryluk will be a really interesting player to follow this season as he makes the jump to the pro level. Because of a broken hand he suffered in September’s rookie tournament, he’ll be forced to miss just about all of the Panthers’ training camp and preseason games, so starting things off in the AHL is a very real possibility for him and more-so than it would’ve been had he not sustained an injury. He was a dominant offensive producer in his final junior season as as he totaled 47 goals and 59 assists in 58 games, and his chances of slotting into the Thunderbirds’ top-6 right away are very good. Depending on his performance and the needs of the Panthers, a call-up to the big leagues isn’t out of the question, but he may need some time to adjust to the pro game despite already being a fast-paced player and thinker.
  • Ian McCoshen – The 21-year old blueliner is likely to start the season in the AHL with the Thunderbirds and that will allow him to take a similar route to the NHL as former Boston College teammate Mike Matheson. While his abilities are above average, there isn’t really a spot for him with the Panthers, and he’d be better off getting top-4 time in the AHL than playing limited minutes on the bottom pair. If he progresses well, there’s no doubt he’ll earn a call-up this season, but rushing him to the NHL is not something the Panthers want or have to do at this point. It will be interesting to see how McCoshen plays against pro players for the first time and if he can begin developing into the skilled, shutdown guy the Panthers desire.
  • Sam Montembeault – With the Panthers’ AHL team being as full as it is in net and the organization wanting Sam Montembeault to get as much playing time as possible, it’s very likely that he’ll return to the QMJHL for his 4th and final season of junior hockey. As a skilled goaltender with a bright future, the Panthers are in no rush to move him through the ranks, especially after adding James Reimer and Reto Berra to the organization this offseason. We’ll look for Montembeault to once again be one of the top goaltenders in the QMJHL this season while hopefully helping to return the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada to the playoffs.
  • Denis Malgin – As he enters his first hockey season in North America after playing for a pro Swiss team for the past two years, Denis Malgin is one to watch. The quiet 19-year old made a name for himself by potting 6 goals – including a hat-trick – in 3 games the Panthers’ rookie tournament in September, and it seems as though he’ll get top-6 ice time right away thanks to his well-rounded game and pro experience. Adjusting to the North American ice surface will be key for him, but if his play during the rookie tournament was any indication, he should have no problem doing so.
  • Linus Hultstrom – Like Malgin, Linus Hultstrom will be playing in North America for the first time this season after spending the last 4 seasons in the SHL, Sweden’s top professional league, where he most recently led defensemen in scoring with 31 points in 52 games. Hultstrom has a chance to crack the Panthers’ roster out of camp, but the odds of him doing so aren’t very high considering there are at least 6 defensemen with NHL experience that are likely to get a spot out of the gate. It could be more beneficial for the 23-year old to play in a top-4 AHL role to start the season and work towards a call-up if the Panthers’ roster enables it. With his NHL-caliber skating ability and above average offensive instincts, he should progress fairly quickly.

Honorable Mention: After playing with HIFK’s junior team for the past 3 seasons in Finland, Henrik Borgstrom is ready to take things to the next level. He’ll suit up for the University of Denver Pioneers this season as he begins adjusting to not only the smaller ice surface but also a higher level of competition than he’s used to facing. Some struggles are to be expected as a freshman, but it’s expected that he’ll get ample ice time and have every opportunity to succeed.

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Organizational Depth Chart

Note: Starred players are currently either playing for a junior / college team or are on an AHL contract and therefore are not eligible to be recalled to the NHL roster.

Forwards
Left Wing Center Right Wing
Jonathan Huberdeau Aleksander Barkov Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen Vincent Trocheck Reilly Smith
Colton Sceviour Nick Bjugstad Jonathan Marchessault
Jared McCann Derek MacKenzie Shawn Thornton
Kyle Rau Greg McKegg Logan Shaw
Dryden Hunt Denis Malgin Jayce Hawryluk
Adam Mascherin* Juho Lammikko Shane Harper
Tim Bozon Chase Balisy Paul Thompson
Karch Bachman* Graham Black Anthony Greco*
Brody Sutter Rihards Bukarts*
Steven Hodges Zac Lynch*
Henrik Borgstrom* Christopher Wilkie*
Jonathan Ang* Joe Wegwerth*
Patrick Shea*
Matt Buckles*
Defensemen
Left Defense Right Defense
Keith Yandle Aaron Ekblad
Michael Matheson Jason Demers
Jakub Kindl Mark Pysyk
Ian McCoshen Alex Petrovic
Michael Downing Steven Kampfer
Eddie Wittchow* Linus Hultstrom
Linus Nassen* Brent Regner
Riley Stillman* MacKenzie Weegar
Josh Brown
Thomas Schemitsch
Benjamin Finkelstein*
Goaltenders
Roberto Luongo
James Reimer
Reto Berra
Mike McKenna
Sam Brittain
Colin Stevens
Samuel Montembeault
Evan Cowley*
Ryan Bednard*
Hugo Fagerblom*

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Further Reading

Here’s a quick list of offseason articles to get you even more ready for the upcoming season:

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/05/04/mike-matheson-impresses-during-latest-stint-with-the-panthers/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/05/21/vincent-trocheck-becomes-two-way-threat-in-breakout-season-with-panthers/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/05/16/revisiting-the-panthers-2015-16-pre-season-storylines/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/06/09/reilly-smith-impresses-in-his-first-year-with-the-panthers/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/06/28/in-the-system-henrik-borgstrom/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/06/20/chl-prospects-in-panthers-pipeline-have-solid-showings-during-2015-16-season/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/08/21/yandle-pysyk-demers-set-to-bring-new-elements-to-panthers-blue-line/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/08/07/reviewing-the-panthers-2011-draft-class/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/09/15/2016-preseason-ranking-the-panthers-top-10-prospects/

https://catsontheprowl.com/2016/09/20/busy-offseason-results-in-improved-goaltending-depth-for-the-panthers/

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