Welcome to our third 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 2017-18 season. Not only will we take a look at the Panthers, but we’ll delve into the rest of the organization, including their AHL affiliate – the Springfield Thunderbirds – which is kicking off its second season.
Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Change Is In The Air … Again
- Springfield Thunderbirds
- Players To Watch
- Organizational Depth Chart
- Further Reading
Owners: Vincent VIOLA & Doug CIFU, 5th season
General Manager: Dale TALLON, 7th season
Assistant General Managers:
- Eric JOYCE, 5th season
Head coach: Bob BOUHGNER, 1st season
Associate coach: Jack CAPUANO, 1st season
- Paul MCFARLAND, 1st season
- Ben COOPER, 1st season (video coach)
- Robb TALLAS, 9th season (goaltending coach)
- Springfield THUNDERBIRDS, 2nd season
- Manchester MONARCHS, 3rd season (unofficial affiliation)
Where the Panthers finished last season:
- Record: 35-36-11
- Total points: 81 (↓ 21)
- Wildcard: 7th
- Division: 6th (↓ 5)
- Conference: 13th (↓ 10)
- League: 23rd (↓ 16)
- Goals For: 210 (23rd)
- Goals Against: 237 (20th)
- PP%: 17.0 (24th)
- PK%: 85.3 (2nd)
- 5v5 score-adjusted CF%: 50.29 (17th)
Current total salary cap hit*: $63,510,832
Current salary cap space*: $11,489,168
Draft picks this year:
- FLA 1st-round, ARI 2nd-round, FLA 3rd-round, VGK 4th-round, FLA 5th-round, FLA 6th-round, FLA 7th-round
*Information via CapFriendly
Change Is In The Air … Again
Just over a year removed from what was one of the busiest off-seasons in their history, the Panthers went back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong during the disappointing 2016-17 season and how to fix it.
It apparently didn’t take long to sort through some of the mess as Dale Tallon returned to the helm as the team’s General Manager just a day after a season-ending 2-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals on April 9th.
As part of that announcement, Tom Rowe, who stepped in as an interim head coach following the botched firing of Gerard Gallant just 22 games into the season, was reassigned within the organization.
The moves were made with the hope of restoring stability, at the very least in the minds of the players who were said to be upset with and confused by the direction of the front office, as well as the lack of clear leadership.
“From today, we’re moving forward with a singular voice under my leadership in hockey operations,” said Tallon back in April. “We’re going to have one agenda – and one agenda only – and that is winning.”
For Tallon, it was a return to the post under which the team had the most – and only – success in the last 7 years. Although the team billed his title change to President of Hockey Operations made last May as a promotion, it quickly became clear that wasn’t the case.
“I think we wanted to get better, we tried to do it in a hurry and we made some mistakes because I think we had too many voices,” Tallon said.
One of those voices was Steve Werier – who played a crucial role in the free-agent signing of eventual 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault as well as the extensions doled out to Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and others – was relieved of his duties as Assistant General Manager but remains with the organization.
Closer to the ice, the Panthers were on the lookout for a new head coach.
After an interview process that spanned months and included a wide variety of coaches, 46-year old Bob Boughner was hired on June 12th.
Described as an intelligent, tactical coach, Boughner has served as the owner, General Manager, and head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires for the last 11 years.
His NHL experience includes time as the Blue Jackets’ assistant coach during the 2010-11 season and the last two years spent in the same role running the Sharks’ defense.
Tallon and the Panthers’ brass were impressed by how well Boughner prepared for his interview. He apparently gave a presentation on the team using packages related to advanced stats, systems, players and more.
“I prepared a big package and I did a lot of research on the organization and personnel, and presented my philosophies,” said Boughner.
“We talked about a lot of stuff; analytics, and depth, and rosters and all those kind of things and I just tried to make sure I was as prepared as possible and answered any questions they had.”
That seemed to be more than enough for him to earn the job.
“Bob blew us away with his preparation, his passion, knowledge and dedication to the game,” said Tallon. “It was incredible. It’s very rare that this has ever happened as far as my history interviewing people for jobs, especially coaches.”
Within a span of two days in late-June at the NHL Draft, the Panthers already had Boughner’s bench staff set.
Jack Capuano, who coached with the Islanders against the Panthers in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, was chosen for the associate coaching position.
The Rhode Island-native spent the last seven years as the Islanders’ head coach, compiling a record of 227-192-64, and one season before that as their assistant coach.
He also has four years of coaching experience with the team’s AHL affiliate and has made a total of three NHL postseason appearances.
“When I was looking for [an assistant coach], I wanted someone with experience, someone that has a great knowledge of the league, and has had success in the league, and [Jack’s] record speaks for itself,” said Boughner.
Paul McFarland signed on as the Panthers’ assistant coach a day later for his first pro coaching job. The brother of John, drafted by the Panthers in the second round of the 2010 Draft, Paul served as the head coach of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs for the last three seasons.
“He’s a bright mind, a young guy, an up-and-coming coach,” said Boughner. “I think he’s gonna bring that passion to the rink everyday. He’s going to make both Jack and I better.”
Prior to his time with the Frontenacs, the 31-year old also spent two years as the assistant coach of the Oshawa Generals.
McFarland served as head coach of Canada’s Under-18 team at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and was selected to return for the 2017 tournament but was replaced after taking the job with the Panthers.
A former defenseman himself, Capuano is expected to run the Panthers’ defense and the penalty kill.
McFarland, who played left wing in the OHL and at the collegiate level in Canada, will oversee the Panthers’ forward group and power play, the former of which was the subject of a lot of controversy this off-season.
The Panthers also added Chris Pronger to their front office shortly thereafter as a hockey operations senior advisor and rounded out their coaching staff with the hiring of video coach Ben Cooper in late-July.
In terms of personnel, the biggest wrench thrown into the Panthers’ plans to get back on track was the expansion draft, which was the first since 2000.
The Vegas Golden Knights had the stage – almost – to themselves at the NHL Awards Show as they announced the players they had plucked from each of the other 30 teams in the league.
The Panthers, like the rest of the league, had two possible routes to protect players on their team; the first meant protecting 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goaltender and the second allowed the protection of any 8 skaters and 1 goaltender.
The creation of the protection list, which used the second ‘8-1′ method, was directed by Tallon – and clearly so – and included Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Alex Petrovic, Mark Pysyk, Keith Yandle, and James Reimer.
The two notable omissions from the list were Reilly Smith, who struggled in 2017 after posting a career-high 25 goals in 2016, and the aforementioned Jonathan Marchessault, a bargain-bin free-agent signing who became the Panthers’ first 30-goal scorer since 2009.
Teams could only lose one player through the expansion draft itself, but that didn’t rule out trades in which players could still join the Golden Knights.
With a 5-year, $25 million contract extension set to begin this coming season, Reilly Smith was shipped off to the Golden Knights in exchange for a 4th-round draft pick.
Marchessault went too as Vegas’ expansion selection. From the looks of it, the Panthers convinced the Golden Knights to accept Smith – and his contract – in a trade by allowing them to take Marchessault in the expansion draft.
The end result was two holes left in an already shallow Panthers’ offense.
And as the free-agency period got underway, it became clear that the Panthers would not be re-signing future Hall-of-Famer and unrestricted free-agent Jaromir Jagr, ending his exciting and historic 2-and-a-half year run in the Sunshine State.
“We really didn’t make an offer,” admitted Tallon regarding the team’s discussions with Jagr’s agent, Petr Svoboda. “It just didn’t get to a point where I was in a position to make an offer yet because I was trying to make some moves to free up some money for that and it just didn’t develop.”
It’s a bit unclear what exactly went down, but from the sound of it, it could be a combination of a disagreement financially and the team wanting to go younger and faster.
That became even more clear when they bought out the contract of Jussi Jokinen just prior to the start of free-agency.
The 36-year old had an injury-plagued year which affected his offensive production, down to 28 points from 60 the year before, and he was due to earn $4 million this coming season for the final year on his deal.
Since Jokinen was older than 26 at the time of the buyout, the Panthers will pay him two-thirds of that $4 million over the next two seasons, meaning he’ll earn $1.3 million this year and next.
Aware of the fact that they’d need some help up front – before and after the expansion draft – the Panthers made several signings.
The first two came back on June 1st when the Panthers agreed to terms with Maxim Mamin, their 6th-round pick in 2016, and Henrik Haapala, a 23-year old free-agent forward who led Finland’s top pro league in scoring last season.
Both attended the Panthers’ development camp for the first time this summer, and Tallon was especially happy with Haapala’s performance, going as far as to speculate where he might play this season.
“We’re very impressed with our free-agent signing from Finland, Haapala,” he said when the camp concluded. “He was great this week. Really fast, very creative, and would fit in nicely on [the second line] as well.”
When free agency opened that week on July 1st, the Panthers made somewhat of a splash, signing former 2007 second round draft pick Evgenii Dadonov to a 3-year deal.
The now 28-year old winger had just wrapped up a career year in the KHL where he finished fifth in league scoring with 30 goals and 35 assists in 53 games for SKA St. Petersburg while playing on one of the most dynamic offensive lines.
After his linemate, Vadim Shipachyov, signed with the Golden Knights, there was some speculation as to whether or not Dadonov would follow suit, but he decided to return to the team that drafted him and is likely to earn a first-line role right out of the gate.
“In all the three World Championships I’ve been involved in with Team USA, [Dadonov’s] been the best player in the tournament,” Tallon said.
The Chelyabinsk, Russia-native possesses high-end offensive abilities, including a quick, precise shot, good vision, and an above-average skating ability.
“I think it’s a good team,” said Dadonov of the Panthers. “I think they’re a good group of guys, lots of skill. The team is pretty young [and] I think the team has a good future.”
Dadonov recorded 20 points in 55 games for the Panthers from 2009 through 2011 before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. He played in 35 games for their AHL affiliate before leaving for the KHL where he’s seen success for the past three years.
“He’s a totally different player now,” said Tallon. “Fitness level, nutrition, maturity, all of those things, he’s just a different player. He wants to be here, got a great attitude […], he’s gonna fit in nicely, probably play with Barkov and Huberdeau.”
Veteran winger Radim Vrbata also signed on with the Panthers for a year and could prove to be a solid addition to the top-6.
The 36-year old has notched at least 51 points in three of the last four seasons and most recently, he led the bottom-feeding Arizona Coyotes with 55 points during the 2016-17 campaign.
The rest of the Panthers’ free-agent signings were not nearly as earth-shattering, with tough guy Micheal Haley signing a 2-year deal, Finnish goaltender Harri Sateri joining the organization as the third goaltender, and former 2010 draft pick Connor Brickley coming aboard on a 2-way contract.
Haley played for Bob Boughner the past two seasons with the San Jose Sharks as well as Jack Capuano with the Islanders and their AHL affiliate earlier in his career.
Two 2017 draft picks, including Owen Tippett, the 10th overall pick, and Sebastian Repo, a 6th-round selection, signed entry-level deals, with both expected to compete for roster spots this preseason.
While most of the changes happened up front, things were relatively quiet on the backend.
Restricted free-agent Mark Pysyk, who was protected by the Panthers from the expansion draft after a solid first year with the team, signed a 3-year contract extension on July 6th.
“Game in and game out, [Pysyk] was the most consistent defenseman,” said Tallon during a conference call with the media. “He played very well for us in every situation. Tremendous character, he’s a really good guy, the players really like him and he’s just a solid defenseman. I think he’s gonna get better and he really fits in nicely.”
Alex Petrovic, who was in the same boat as Pysyk, signed a 1-year extension a week earlier.
This means that in addition to Mike Matheson, Aaron Ekblad, and Keith Yandle, five of last year’s six regulars are back on the blue-line.
Jason Demers, who posted a career-high 9 goals from the blueline last season but struggled defensively, was placed on the trade block this summer.
In a report corroborated by insider Pierre LeBrun, The Province, a publication out of Vancouver, reported at the beginning of July that Demers, by way of a modified no-trade clause in his 5-year, $22.5 million contract signed last year, prevented a deal that would’ve sent him to the Vancouver Canucks for – wait for it – Erik Gudbranson.
Demers made it through 3 days of training camp before his time as a Panther came to an abrupt end. The Arizona Coyotes stepped up to the plate and shipped winger Jamie McGinn to Florida for the right-shot defenseman.
It was yet another sign that Dale Tallon is – and unsurprisingly so after returning to the General Manager position – firmly in charge.
Just about the entire backend returning means many of the questions surrounding the Panthers will be up front. Five of the top 10 scorers from a team that had the seventh-worst goals per game average in the league last season are gone.
Regardless, there’s no denying that any and all success will depend largely on the health of the Panthers’ young core, which many forget is still entirely intact.
|Trade Date||Acquired||In Exchange For|
|6/21||VGK 2018 4th-round draft pick||Reilly Smith|
|9/18||Jamie McGinn (ARI)||Jason Demers (FLA)|
|Signing Date||Player||Position||Contract Terms|
|7/1||Evgenii Dadonov||RW||3 years, $12 million|
|7/1||Radim Vrbata||RW||1 year, $3.75 million|
|7/1||Micheal Haley||W||2 years, $1.65 million|
|7/1||Connor Brickley||LW||1 year, $750k (2-way)|
|7/1||Harri Sateri||G||1 year, $750k (2-way)|
|7/1||Curtis Valk||C||1 year, $682,500 (2-way)|
|7/3||Alexandre Grenier||RW||1 year, $725k (2-way)|
|Francois Beauchemin||RW||1 year|
|Evan Cowley||G||1 year|
|Ryan Horvat||W||1 year|
|Matt MacKenzie||D||1 year|
|Ed Wittchow||D||1 year|
|Matt Buckles||LW||1 year|
|Anthony Greco||RW||1 year|
|Byron Blaine||C/W||1 year (+ NHL out-clause)|
|6/2||Henrik Haapala||ELC||2 years, $2.7 million (2-way)|
|6/2||Maxim Mamin||ELC||2 years, $1.85 million (2-way)|
|7/1||Chase Balisy||Extension||1 year, $650k (2-way)|
|7/1||Reece Scarlett||Extension||1 year, $675k (2-way)|
|7/1||Alex Petrovic||Extension||1 year, $1.85 million|
|7/2||Sebastian Repo||ELC||3 years, 2.22 million (2-way)|
|7/6||Mark Pysyk||Extension||3 years, $8.2 million|
|7/19||Owen Tippett||ELC||3 years, $4.975 million (slide risk + 2-way)|
|8/3||Mackenzie Weegar||Extension||1 year, $675k (2-way)|
2017 Draft Picks
|Round – Pick||Player||Position||2016-17 Team|
|1 – 10||Owen Tippett||RW||Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)|
|2 – 40||Aleksi Heponiemi||C||Swift Current Broncos (WHL)|
|3 – 66||Max Gildon||D||U.S. Development Team (USHL)|
|5 – 133||Tyler Inamoto||D||U.S. Development Team (USHL)|
|6 – 184||Sebastian Repo||RW||Tappara (Liiga)|
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.
|Jonathan Marchessault||Chosen by Vegas at Expansion Draft|
|Reilly Smith||Traded to Vegas|
|Jason Demers||Traded to Arizona|
|Jussi Jokinen||Contract bought out, signed with EDM|
|Reto Berra||UFA, signed w/ ANA|
|Thomas Vanek||UFA, signed w/ VAN|
|Kyle Rau||UFA, signed w/ MIN|
|Adam Wilcox||UFA, signed w/ BUF|
|Sam Brittain||UFA, signed in AHL|
|Colin Stevens||UFA, signed in ECHL|
|Graham Black||UFA, attending University of Calgary|
|Tim Bozon||UFA, signed in Switzerland|
|Michael Sgarbossa||UFA, signed w/ WPG|
|Brent Regner||UFA, signed w/ DAL|
|Brody Sutter||UFA, signed in AHL|
|Paul Thompson||UFA, signed w/ VGK|
Below is a summary of our prospect rankings for the 2017-18 season. For a more in-depth analysis of each specific player, check out the full rankings here.
|1||Henrik Borgstrom||University of Denver||20|
|2||Owen Tippett||Mississauga Steelheads||18|
|3||Adam Mascherin||Kitchener Rangers||19|
|4||Jayce Hawryluk||Springfield Thunderbirds||21|
|6||Aleksi Heponiemi||Swift Current Broncos||18|
|7||Maxim Mamin||CSKA Moskva||22|
|9||Ian McCoshen||Springfield Thunderbirds||22|
|10||Dryden Hunt||Springfield Thunderbirds||21|
|11||Mackenzie Weegar||Springfield Thunderbirds||23|
|12||Thomas Schemitsch||Springfield Thunderbirds||20|
|13||Juho Lammikko||Springfield Thunderbirds||21|
|14||Riley Stillman||Oshawa Generals||19|
|15||Byron Blaine||University of Maine||22|
|16||Jonathan Ang||Peterborough Petes||19|
|17||Ben Finkelstein||St. Lawrence University||19|
|18||Linus Nassen||Lulea HF||19|
|19||Max Gildon||United States Development Team||18|
|20||Matt Buckles||Springfield Thunderbirds||22|
|21||Michael Downing||Springfield Thunderbirds||22|
|22||Josh Brown||Springfield Thunderbirds||23|
|23||Linus Hultstrom||Djurgardens IF||24|
|24||Curtis Valk||Utica Comets||24|
|25||Patrick Shea||University of Maine||20|
|26||Chris Wilkie||University of North Dakota||21|
|27||Karch Bachman||Miami University (Ohio)||20|
|28||Tyler Inamoto||United States Development Team||18|
|29||Francois Beauchemin||Charlottetown Islanders||21|
|30||Reece Scarlett||Springfield Thunderbirds||24|
|31||Ed Wittchow||Springfield Thunderbirds||24|
|32||Joe Wegwerth||University of Notre Dame||21|
|33||Miguel Fidler||Ohio State University||21|
|1||Sam Montembeault||Blainville-Boisbriand Armada||20|
|2||Evan Cowley||University of Denver||22|
|3||Ryan Bednard||Bowling Green State University||20|
|4||Hugo Fagerblom||Wings HC Arlanda||21|
For the past two years, we’ve outlined several “storylines” or major talking points heading into the new season. They’ve tended towards highlighting areas of uncertainty and ones that if executed properly should translate to success.
As always, we’ll revisit them at the end of the season to see how the Panthers fared.
The tweaked top-6
The Panthers’ most important and highest-scoring forwards – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck – are all back as expected, but each of the top two forward lines will have at least one new player.
Free-agent signings Radim Vrbata and Evgenii Dadonov are expected to fill two of the three vacant top-6 spots while Henrik Haapala seems to be at least one of the candidates to fill the third and final open spot.
In our 2017-18 prospect rankings, we have Haapala ranked as the fifth-best prospect in the Panthers’ system, and for good reason too. He’s basically a winger version of Denis Malgin in that he’s a bit undersized but is quick, intelligent, and creative with the puck.
It’s still unclear how he’ll fare against bigger opponents and on the smaller North American ice surface but he’s clearly skilled enough and can skate well enough to at least be a complimentary player on a line with two more experienced players.
Haapala isn’t a lock to play in the top-6, and if he doesn’t, the AHL might be a better landing spot for him, but it does sound like Dale Tallon and the rest of the Panthers’ front office at least like what they’ve seen from him thus far.
Vrbata, on the other hand, is still in great shape for a 36-year old and considering how well he performed last season, there’s not much risk associated with his 1-year deal, at least heading into the year.
He’s still fast, can really shoot the puck, and has managed to stay relatively healthy throughout his career. His points per 60 rate of 1.87 would’ve been fourth on the Panthers last season ahead of Trocheck and Jonathan Marchessault, while his goals per 60 of 0.74 would’ve been fifth.
Dadonov, however, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2011, although he really emerged as a top player in the KHL – the second-best league in the world – over the past 4 years.
He racked up 240 points in 311 career regular season games in Russia in addition to 60 points in 71 playoff games, which is close to a point per game.
Not only that, but he’s totaled 32 points in 30 World Championship games over the past three seasons, an impressive stat line considering there’s typically more NHL-caliber talent playing in those tournaments.
Playing with Barkov and Huberdeau shouldn’t be too hard for Dadonov who has proven he can skate with the best of the KHL in linemates Ilya Kovalchuk and Vadim Shipachyov.
How well the top-6 – and really the entire forward group – performs will depend not only on health but also how quickly they can mesh and learn each other’s tendencies.
These are skilled players we’re talking about, and all of them have some sort of pro experience, so there shouldn’t be too much of a learning curve.
Playing with different players is part of the game and fortunately they’ll be able to work with each other during the preseason and at training camp.
The new-look bottom-6
Compared to the top-6, the changes to the Panthers’ bottom-6 look to be slightly more dramatic, and until the season starts, a bit more unclear.
So far, the only returnees to the bottom-6 from last season are Nick Bjugstad, Colton Sceviour, and Derek MacKenzie. That means we can expect at least 2 or 3 new forwards that either weren’t regulars last year, were recently acquired, or are fighting for an NHL job.
Jamie McGinn, acquired just this week in exchange for Jason Demers, is all but guaranteed to take one of those spots.
“He’s a hard-nosed, up and down, north-south [player], takes the body, goes to the net, and gets those dirty goals,” said Tallon of McGinn. “It was a need for us.”
A need indeed…to some degree at least.
Florida was well below the league average last season when it came to generating shot attempts in and around the crease. But looking at McGinn’s heat map from his year with the Coyotes, even despite the team’s poor play, he still made a living creating those exact chances down low.
If he can return to his 2015-16 form – or help increase the number of opportunities the Panthers get around the net – it’ll be a huge win for them. However, it’s a bet they’re making, and there’s no guarantee after a rough year offensively in the desert.
In general, the players in competition for the remaining bottom-6 spots are as follows, in no particular order:
- Jayce Hawryluk
- Maxim Mamin
- Sebastian Repo
- Juho Lammikko
- Denis Malgin
- Jared McCann
What’s interesting is five of the six players above are draft picks of the Panthers, and that they’re all capable of playing in the NHL is really encouraging.
The first four players – Hawryluk, Mamin, Repo, and Lammikko – each play similar games that fit the desired mold of the coaching staff, so it’s going to come down to how well each performs during the preseason.
Of those four, Lammikko is probably the dark horse but he’s in the mix nevertheless.
Repo and Mamin have two and three years of pro experience respectively, so they’re more mature and and understanding of what it takes to play at a higher level. The latter, a 22-year-old winger, has a serious chance to crack the team after spending his time in the KHL.
The last two players – Malgin and McCann – are in tough spots, because they’re not really bottom-6 players but there’s also no room for them in the top-6, nor have they shown – at least at the NHL level – that they’re truly ready to go there.
McCann came on towards the end of the season in the AHL and has stood out at training camp, so perhaps with his ability to play on the wing he pushes for Haapala’s tentative spot on the second line.
“Night and day,” said Dale Tallon of the difference between McCann’s play this preseason compared to last year. “He’s been arguably the best player in training camp so far.”
Malgin also hit a bit of a stride at the end of the year in the NHL, but as a natural center with little to no experience on the wing, he may not have the same inside track as McCann.
There’s also Owen Tippett, the Panthers’ first-round pick at June’s draft with a natural ability to score goals. He has the size, speed, and shot to keep up in the NHL, and they may very well give him the 9-game try-out that he’s eligible for before deciding whether or not to send him back to juniors.
The challenge becomes figuring out what’s best for Tippett’s development long-term, because that’s what will make the Panthers better, not rushing him if he isn’t ready.
What all of this basically comes down to is this: if any young player is going to make the team, they must be given plenty of minutes, otherwise it’s a year of them wasting away in the press box and on the bench, something the Panthers made a bit of a habit out of last season.
Of course, the six players listed above would be the ideal options to fill the bottom-6, but we can’t forget that Micheal Haley exists and is likely to secure at least a part-time spot because of his familiarity with new head coach Bob Boughner.
The Panthers also have two forwards on professional try-out contracts, Brandon Pirri and Harry Zolnierczyk.
Both have the potential to be useful if they’re willing to accept two-way deals, especially Zolniercyzk who can skate and be a reliable, veteran option in a pinch, but neither is really worth an everyday spot.
When it comes to both halves of the lineup, there’s definitely some question marks. How quickly will the young players adjust, what will their impact be, and will that impact be big enough to complement the top-6 to help in getting the Panthers to the playoffs?
We’ll soon find out.
Defense: Year 2
Last year, the biggest talking point and arguably one of the biggest concerns heading into the season was the overhauled defensive core, and rightfully so.
Four of the six defensemen that suited up on Opening Night were brand new to the team and, aside from some preseason action, they had never really played together.
Unsurprisingly, they struggled early on and were inconsistent on the whole, some of which can be attributed to coaching, systems, and other off-ice distractions.
Those same six defensemen were weeks away from returning intact until Jason Demers was dealt to the Western Conference to help the Panthers’ wing depth.
It’s rare for teams to bring back their entire defensive core, but the Panthers had just about all of their defensemen locked up for the foreseeable future.
With Demers gone, the door is now open for at least one of the Panthers’ young defensemen to make the roster.
Mackenzie Weegar, a smart, offensive defenseman, and Ian McCoshen, a shutdown, puck-moving defender, are at the top of the list and eyeing NHL spots.
“It’s obviously a big training camp for me,” said the 23-year old Weegar, who’s nearing veteran status at the Panthers’ training camp by now. “I had a good off-season training back in Ottawa and I’m trying to do everything I can [to] make this team this year.”
The two defensemen formed a solid, heavily-relied-upon top pairing for the Panthers’ AHL affiliate last season before earning 3-game auditions with the NHL club in April.
Weegar recorded 36 points in 60 games for the Thunderbirds – good for third on the team – en route to an AHL All-Star Game invite. Seventh-round draft picks are usually long shots to make the NHL, but the Panthers have been very patient with Weegar and have done a good job developing him thus far.
McCoshen’s plus-minus rating of +23 was tied for the ninth-best mark in the AHL, and he went on to record an assist in his NHL debut.
“It’s definitely nice to get that confidence going into the summer that you can play in this league,” McCoshen said earlier in the week. “Just trying to build off of that and try to stick here.”
At the very least, the Panthers’ defense appears to be in good hands.
An experienced coach will be running things in Jack Capuano and a former NHL defenseman in new head coach Bob Boughner will oversee the entire team.
“I think a lot of people, when you think about defense, they think defense,” said Capuano. “For me, it’s more about the offense from the defense. We want to have over 150, 160 points from our defensemen this year.”
At first glance, those point totals seem a bit lofty, but the Panthers’ defensemen actually managed 144 points last season, and that was in spite of everything that went on.
If they’re able to surpass that, it could ease the offensive burden on the forwards.
Aaron Ekblad will be one of the keys to reaching that mark, and he certainly seems to be ready to get going after putting in some work this off-season.
“It’s been a good, long off-season,” said Ekblad in early August. “I feel like I’ve made strides in a lot of my game. I’ve gotten a lot stronger, a lot better in shape, [and I’m] confident about the year.”
“I truly believe that I’m the most confident and ready that I’ve every been to play the game.”
Sounds pretty good.
Mike Matheson, meanwhile, didn’t try to change too much when preparing for his second full NHL season. Coming off a rookie campaign that saw him post 17 points in 81 games, the most important thing he has going into this year is NHL experience.
“I think that there’s a reason I was able to get to this point,” Matheson explained. “I don’t think just because you attain a new level doesn’t mean that you need to completely change what you’re doing. It’s important to go back to what got you to this opportunity and make sure that you keep focusing on getting better.”
We didn’t highlight goaltending as a major storyline heading into last season, but it certainly was one after Roberto Luongo underwent off-season hip surgery.
Once again, the spotlight is on him more than James Reimer, at least for right now.
The 38-year old started just 40 games last season, the lowest total of his career in a full 82-game season, as a result of missing the final two months due to issues stemming from the procedure.
He returned to the ice early this summer – as usual – and has gone through his normal off-season routine, except now he knows he’ll have to pay more attention to his body in order to remain healthy.
“A little more pre-practice, pre-game preparation,” Luongo says. “Making sure you stay on top of things. I think last year, even though things were feeling well, I kind of neglected it.”
Of course, there’s no telling if even being more aware will allow him to endure a full season, but everything seems to be looking good so far.
“I put in a lot of hard work this summer with the trainers here, making sure that area’s nice and strong, and right now I feel great,” added Luongo.
It would come as no surprise to see the Panthers balance the workload between Luongo and James Reimer evenly again this year, or possibly even give Reimer more starts if it means keeping Luongo more fresh.
Reimer had a shaky start last season but settled in nicely and was one of the better statistical performers in the league, that is until the team trailed off at the end of the year.
He played in a career-high 43 games while posting a respectable 0.920 save percentage and 2.53 goals-against average.
“We all saw that once things happened, [Reimer] did an unbelievable job for our team and carried us and gave us a chance to win every night and really that’s all you can ask for,” said Luongo at the end of last season.
With most of the defense back for year two and more solid systems likely to be in place for the entire team, it’s entirely possible that both goaltenders won’t be tasked with stopping the same amount of high-danger chances as last year.
“I want to put a game plan together [so that] we’re not gonna expose these guys,” Boughner said of Luongo and Reimer at a summer fan summit. “We’re not gonna have to have Luongo standing on his head every night stopping 40 [shots] to win a hockey game.”
“[In] San Jose where I came from and I ran the defense, we kept everything to the outside. We made sure that the goalie only had to make 20 to 25 saves. To go into a game every night having to have your goalie steal a game is not the kind of team we’re going to be about.”
That has to be reassuring for both goaltenders, especially Luongo who’s not getting any younger but is still relatively consistent and effective when healthy.
“[We won’t] give teams time and space, so that’s pretty good for me,” Luongo said with a laugh.
The power play
Will this finally be the year that the Panthers get the power play right?
For the past several seasons, it always seemed like the Panthers had the personnel necessary to create a successful power play.
Thomas Vanek and Keith Yandle, two players widely considered to be power play specialists, were added last year, Jaromir Jagr before that, and many young, offensively-talented forwards have already been here for a while.
For some reason, their plans have yet to come to fruition.
The Panthers own the fourth-worst power play percentage in the league at just 16.7 percent dating back to the start of the 2013-14 season.
New assistant coach John McFarland will be keeping a close eye on the forwards this year while also running the power play.
He’ll have a couple of new weapons at his disposal, including Evgenii Dadonov and Radim Vrbata up front and potentially second-year defenseman Mike Matheson on the backend.
Jamie McGinn could find himself as a net-front presence on the man-advantage, something the Panthers have hardly ever had on a consistent basis.
Beyond that, we should hopefully see quicker puck movement to open shooting lanes, better personnel usage, and overall more unpredictability. Last year, players were often on their off-hand or in flat out poor spots that didn’t allow them to use their abilities to their full potential.
The Panthers will need as much offense as they can get this year, and they desperately need to be more successful on the power play. Improving things at the systems level is certainly a good place to start.
The Panthers are on the rise and so is their AHL squad.
After an inaugural season that felt long at times, the Springfield Thunderbirds have some reinforcements on the way, meaning there’s a lot to look forward to in year two.
The water became murky early on last year when the injury bug hit the Panthers during the preseason.
A broken wrist suffered by Nick Bjugstad meant Denis Malgin, who was likely to start the year in the AHL, would be forced to stick with the Panthers.
Jonathan Huberdeau’s Achilles’ injury meant key AHL forwards Greg McKegg and Shane Harper had to fill depth spots in the NHL as a result of others moving up in the lineup.
And the Thunderbirds suffered a slew of injuries of their own.
Jayce Hawryluk broke his hand at the preseason rookie tournament and then suffered a concussion in his AHL debut a couple of months later before finally returning to action in the new year.
Brent Regner, the team’s captain and arguably their most reliable defenseman at both ends of the rink, played just 28 games due to two separate injuries, the second of which was season-ending.
Juho Lammikko, Brody Sutter, Graham Black, Stephen MacAulay, and assistant captain Ryan Horvat were among the many players that spent good chunks of the season on the shelf.
Reece Scarlett, acquired at the trade deadline from the New Jersey Devils, scored a goal and suffered a season-ending injury in his first game with Thunderbirds.
Head coach Geordie Kinnear – and his bench staff of Doug Janik and Michael Ryan – had to get creative with the lineup on a nightly basis as a result of the injuries and subsequent call-ups, and they handled all of it quite well.
Some nights – just like the Panthers – they were tough to beat, but struggled mightily on others en route to several long losing streaks.
In total, 45 different players suited up for at least a game over the course of the season as the Thunderbirds finished with the 10th-fewest goals scored and the third-worst power play in the league.
In an effort to help remedy both of things, they went out and added several new forwards that should help out in the goal department.
Leading goal-scorer Paul Thompson won’t be back after signing with the Golden Knights, but assistant captain and do-it-all forward Chase Balisy – who led the team in points with 45 – will return after signing on for another year.
Balisy, 25, has been with the Panthers for the last two seasons after signing his first two-way deal back in 2015. He managed to play in all 76 games for the Thunderbirds last year and was relied on heavily in all situations, including the power play, penalty kill, and overtime.
It’s expected that he’ll have the same trust from the coaching staff this year, although they may not have to lean on him as much offensively.
Dryden Hunt, the Thunderbirds’ fifth-leading scorer last season with 31 points, will likely play a huge role in the top-6 this time around as he begins to make his case for an NHL job.
“Last year was full of ups and downs,” said Hunt. “I learned a lot. This summer I worked a lot on my foot speed and things of that nature to kind of get ready for the fast-paced game. I got a track coach and worked on the track quite a bit.”
Hunt did have an impressive second half and after a long off-season, look for him to pick up right where he left off.
Former 2013 draft pick Matt Buckles, who opened some eyes with 7 points in 9 games on an amateur try-out contract last season, is entering his first full pro season. He’ll be a nice middle-6 option that can chip in offensively with his big frame and hand-eye coordination in front of the net.
Anthony Greco and Ryan Horvat are both returning on one-year deals as well. Greco, a hard-working, speedy winger, will look to build on a good rookie year that saw him notch 31 points in 74 games, including 3 shorthanded goals.
On the other hand, there will be several fresh faces in the Thunderbirds’ lineup.
Curtis Valk and Alexandre Grenier were two of the top additions made during the off-season as they’ve taken their talents from the Canucks organization to the Panthers this season.
Valk, a 24-year old center who signed the first one-way deal of his career with the Panthers on July 1st, recorded 46 points in 75 games for Vancouver’s AHL affiliate last season, which was his first full campaign in the league.
He’s a smaller forward at 5’9″ and roughly 170 pounds but has good vision, is a fast skater, and possesses above-average offensive skills.
Grenier is a 26-year old winger that plays a power forward game thanks to his physically imposing 6’5″, 210-pound frame.
The Quebec City-native has recorded at least 40 points in each of his last 3 seasons in the AHL and earned a 3-game call-up to the Canucks last season where he was kept off the scoresheet.
Valk and Grenier were teammates last year on the Utica Comets and finished second and third in team scoring respectively. Both will probably slot right into the Thunderbirds’ top-6 – an area of the lineup that has several holes in it – and combine for at least 80 points.
Old friend Connor Brickley is back as well.
Originally chosen by the Panthers in the second round of the 2010 Draft, Brickley posted 5 points in 23 NHL games before he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and was dealt to the Hurricanes last October for the aforementioned Brody Sutter.
Sutter was one of the many casualties of the Thunderbirds’ injury bug and went on to play in just 19 games before leaving the organization this off-season as a free-agent.
Meanwhile, Brickley struggled after suffering an injury of his own during a fight in November and finished with only 26 points in 69 games for the Charlotte Checkers.
He agreed to a one year, two-way deal with the Panthers at the start of the free-agency period in July and will try to work his way through the organization a second time.
Brickley still isn’t really known for his offensive abilities, but is still capable of putting up some decent numbers in the AHL and should be a reliable option in the middle-6. He’ll be a big body that can go to the front of the net and potentially help out on the power play.
Blaine Byron is also expected to be a helpful addition to the Thunderbirds’ forward group.
The 22-year old forward signed a one-year AHL contract as a free-agent out of the University of Maine where he totaled 108 points in 145 career games.
“Goal-scoring, [and] hard work,” said Bryan McCabe, the Panthers’ Director of Player Development, about what attracted the organization to Byron. “We have a lot of Maine connections in this organization, a couple coaches, a couple scouts, so there’s been a lot of eyes on the kid, and most importantly, he wanted to come here.”
The deal includes an out-clause that allows other NHL teams to offer him a contract during the season. However, the Panthers would have 24 hours to match any offer, and I suspect they’d do so, especially if he’s performing well.
Byron wasn’t among the top tier of college free-agents of this off-season that included Denver’s Will Butcher and Harvard’s Alexander Kerfoot, but he was certainly in the next highest tier of available players, and is considered to be a good bet on a low-risk contract.
If he can take advantage of the opportunity, it would be huge for the Panthers’ prospect pool and the depth of the organization. We’ve already got him as the team’s 15th-best prospect because of his playmaking ability, solid frame, and offensive abilities.
“I just wanted a place that I thought was the best fit for me,” said Bryon. “I think the whole staff and group here was really good [to] chat with, and just the way my game compares to how they want to play is pretty similar and I thought it was a good fit for me.”
There’s no doubt Byron will have every chance to put all of that to use this season considering the spots open up front.
Francois Beauchemin, a standout offensive player in the QMJHL last season, also earned his first AHL deal and figures to use his hard wrist shot and vision to contribute a bit in the bottom-6.
On the backend, the Thunderbirds won’t see changes nearly as drastic as up front.
With one or both of Mackenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen likely moving up to the NHL to fill the open sixth defenseman spot, there will be openings in the Thunderbirds’ top-4.
If it’s Weegar that goes, the Thunderbirds will be without a player that can play in every situation, whether it’s the power play, penalty kill, even strength, down a goal, up a goal, tied, and everything in between.
He logged big minutes last season and really emerged as a responsible, effective player in Springfield and one worthy of a shot in the NHL.
If it’s McCoshen, a similar hole will be left open. He also played a ton of minutes in key situations and was a steady force in the defensive zone.
Behind that pairing was another of Josh Brown and Michael Downing, who both played in their first full AHL campaigns.
They too formed a solid duo and were trusted a lot in similar situations by the Thunderbirds’ coaching staff, especially during the second half of the year as they became more comfortable and consistent.
Brown and Downing will both be back in Springfield this season barring any unforeseen circumstances and will be relied upon to anchor the top-4 from the start.
Ed Wittchow, also a former Panthers draft pick, has a spot on the bottom pairing in his sights after splitting his time between the AHL and ECHL last year but finishing in Springfield.
The Panthers brought Matt MacKenzie back to the Thunderbirds’ defensive core as well after a surprisingly effective stint last year filling in for injured players. He was signed to a try-out contract in November before agreeing to a standard player contract about two months later.
MacKenzie played regularly with some of the Thunderbirds’ better players and his offensive touch earned him time on the second power play unit.
The 25-year old has already played over 200 games in the AHL and 85 more in the ECHL, meaning he’ll be the steady, veteran presence that the Thunderbirds’ young defensemen will need.
Reece Scarlett will bring a similar presence to the lineup as he heads into his fifth AHL season. Having never passed more than 60 games in a season, his goal is probably to remain healthy, and if he does, he’ll play a big role for the Thunderbirds.
A reliable puck-mover with good offensive awareness, the 24-year old was on pace for a career year last season before an injury cut his year short.
Also in the mix is Thomas Schemitsch, the 20-year old offensive defenseman that the Panthers are pretty high on. He had his share of struggles in his first pro season, and he had it rough travel-wise too as he was constantly shuttled back and forth between the AHL and ECHL.
Our 12th-ranked prospect for the 2017-18 season, Schemitsch fared much better during the short period of time he spent in the ECHL, and now that he has some pro experience and another off-season of training under his belt, he could be ready for a full year in Springfield.
Perhaps even more interesting than the Thunderbirds’ new-look forward group is the turnover between the pipes.
The goaltenders that wrapped up the 2016-17 season – Adam Wilcox, Sam Brittain, and Colin Stevens in the ECHL – are all gone.
The baton is inching closer to being handed over to top goaltending prospect Sam Montembeault, who is turning pro this season after four years in the QMJHL.
The Panthers signed 27-year old Finnish netminder Harri Sateri out of the KHL with the expectation that he’ll mentor Montembeault.
Sateri played 42 games last season for Vityaz Podolsk, recording a 0.929 save percentage and a 2.53 goals-against average. It will be his first year back in the AHL since spending three seasons with the San Jose Sharks’ affiliate in Worcester from 2011 through 2014.
How the workload will be split between the two is anyone’s guess, but assuming Montembeault doesn’t stumble too much out of the gate, it could be fairly even.
“There’s three new goalies this year and even the starter job is there,” said Montembeault. “We all gotta push to get that job and the one that is the best will get it.”
Evan Cowley, a 2013 draft pick of the Panthers, is the third goalie competing for a spot after spending the last 4 years as a backup at the University of Denver. He put up very good numbers playing less than he probably would’ve liked, but earned an AHL contract nonetheless.
Odds are Cowley will at least start the year with the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL and go from there.
Overall, this season’s Thunderbirds squad is shaping up to be a more evolved and skilled version of last year’s team.
The returning players will be complemented by talent added through free-agency, and we may even see some of the guys fighting for NHL roster spots filter into the Thunderbirds’ lineup. More options for the coaching staff in the top-6 will hopefully translate to an uptick in the goal department.
A defensive core kept mostly intact should bode well for the Thunderbirds at their own end of the rink.
There are only a few jobs with the Panthers up for grabs and more than a few players working for them, so that could make for an even better AHL team.
So far, the Springfield fans have reacted very well to the return of hockey to the area, and this season will only add to the excitement that has already filled the MassMutual Center.
Players To Watch
- Nick Bjugstad — A couple of freak injuries and poor usage by the Panthers’ coaching staff derailed Nick Bjugstad’s 2016-17 campaign, and it didn’t help that he never exactly looked like his old self. The 24-year old was impressive during the 2016 playoffs and is only a couple of seasons removed from a 24-goal campaign. If he gets the ice time he deserves, can find chemistry with linemates, and is able to regain his form from not too long ago, he’ll once again be a key part of the Panthers’ offense. It’s possible recently-acquired Jamie McGinn finds success with him as a player that can put in rebounds, dig out loose pucks, and make some plays. If nothing works out, it may make Dale Tallon’s decision to protect Bjugstad from the expansion draft look like the wrong one.
- Aaron Ekblad — The former first overall pick didn’t exactly start the season off the way he intended to. A neck injury at the World Cup of Hockey forced him to endure a slow start and seek help from the Panthers’ sports psychologist, Derick Anderson, and Dale Tallon. Just as he found his groove at the start of the new year, he suffered a concussion. Instead of shutting him down for the rest of the year with the Panthers all but out of the playoff race, he played one more game two weeks later before calling it quits. The Panthers desperately need Ekblad to get back on track, and from the sound of it, he seems to be chomping at the bit to start the season. A healthy, confident Ekblad playing for a coach he’s a family friend of in Bob Boughner should do wonders for him, the Panthers’ defense, and the rest of the team.
- Evgenii Dadonov — Dadonov is back, and it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how he fits into the Panthers dynamic. Dale Tallon says he’s likely to play on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau, and that’s really the best place to start. With the offensive skill-sets of all three players, there’s the potential for a deadly trio to form right in front of our eyes. Dadonov’s scoring ability, speed, and smarts should make him an asset on a Panthers’ power play that is desperate for improvement. Top KHL forwards coming over to North America, including Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov, have seen success recently, so there’s no reason why Dadonov shouldn’t, especially with the young talent the Panthers will have around him.
- Honorable mention: Jonathan Huberdeau — Jonathan Huberdeau was set to have a huge season last year until he suffered an Achilles’ injury during the preseason, but that didn’t stop him from looking as dominant as ever when he returned to action in February. There’s still so much we’ve yet to see Huberdeau do, and that’s a good thing for the Panthers. With him and Barkov healthy again and Dadonov ready to step in, things are about to get a lot more exciting.
- Henrik Borgstrom — If you keep tabs on only one Panthers prospect this season, it has to be Henrik Borgstrom. The 20-year old, who is also our top-ranked prospect for this season, took the college hockey world by storm last year with his highlight-reel moves and exuberance on and off the ice. The NCHC’s reigning Rookie of the Year will look to at least match the impressive numbers he managed as a freshman, which included 22 goals and 21 assists for 43 points in 37 games, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him surpass them either.
- Owen Tippett — If you plan to follow two Panthers prospects this season, make the second one Owen Tippett. Unless he’s leading the team in scoring after the first week or two, odds are he’ll head back to the OHL for another year of junior hockey, and that’s perfectly fine. After a 44-goal sophomore season with the Mississauga Steelheads, he has the potential to do even more damage this year after an off-season of training and taking part in NHL camps. Look for him to be around the top-10 in league scoring, or perhaps hanging around and earning a spot with the Panthers.
- Jayce Hawryluk — At this point, Jayce Hawryluk has been around the block and is inching towards a spot on the NHL roster. There’s definitely a chance that this year could be the one for him to make the jump, but no matter where he plays, you’ll want to keep an eye on him. Our fourth-ranked prospect heading into this year, Hawryluk showed flashes of talent last year and managed to put up solid numbers as an AHL rookie despite being on the shelf for the first half of the season. If he doesn’t make the team, he’ll be a surefire top-6 option in Springfield and will undoubtedly be one of the first call-ups. If he does make it, he’ll infuse the Panthers’ lineup with the passion, skill, and speed the Panthers’ brass has been talking about adding since the off-season began.
- Sam Montembeault — It’s been two years since the Panthers drafted Sam Montembeault in the 3rd round of the 2015 Draft. He’s finally set to hit the ice as a pro player for the first time this coming season after four impressive years in the QMJHL. Being that he’s a goaltender, and a young one at just 20-years old, it will be important to temper expectations as he adjusts to better shooters, faster play, and in general, more skilled players that can do things a lot more quickly compared to the junior level. He’s an athletic, quick-moving goaltender, so hopefully the adjustment period won’t be too long, and he’ll have veteran netminder Harri Sateri, as well as goaltending coach Leo Luongo, by his side throughout the entire process. At this point, it’s not fair to really put many expectations on him, but rather sit back and see how he does.
- Honorable mention: Aleksi Heponiemi — The other Rookie of the Year winner in the Panthers’ system is Aleksi Heponiemi, who won the award last year in the WHL. Heading into his second season with the Swift Current Broncos, the speedy, creative forward projects to be one of their top offensive performers once again. With some players leaving the team, he could be relied upon even more than before. Heponiemi won’t be in the running for an NHL spot any time soon because of his light frame, but it will be interesting to see how he does as a sophomore in the WHL.
Organizational Depth Chart
Note: Starred players are currently either playing for a junior / college / international team or are on an AHL contract and therefore are not eligible to be recalled to the NHL roster. Players on AHL contracts are only listed if they were drafted by the Panthers.
Also, this chart is not intended to be viewed or used as a ranking. Players are not necessarily considered “better” or “worse” than players they’re listed above and/or below. In certain cases, players with more pro experience are given priority.
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
|Jonathan Huberdeau||Aleksander Barkov||Evgenii Dadonov|
|Jamie McGinn||Vincent Trocheck||Radim Vrbata|
|Micheal Haley||Nick Bjugstad||Colton Sceviour|
|Maxim Mamin||Derek MacKenzie||Jayce Hawryluk|
|Henrik Haapala||Jared McCann||Alexandre Grenier|
|Connor Brickley||Denis Malgin||Sebastian Repo|
|Dryden Hunt||Curtis Valk||Owen Tippett*|
|Juho Lammikko||Chase Balisy||Jonathan Ang*|
|Matt Buckles*||Henrik Borgstrom*||Chris Wilkie*|
|Adam Mascherin*||Aleksi Heponiemi*|
|Karch Bachman*||Patrick Shea*|
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Keith Yandle||Aaron Ekblad|
|Michael Matheson||Mark Pysyk|
|Ian McCoshen||Alex Petrovic|
|Ed Wittchow||Mackenzie Weegar|
|Michael Downing||Josh Brown|
|Linus Nassen*||Thomas Schemitsch|
|Riley Stillman*||Reece Scarlett|
|Max Gildon*||Linus Hultstrom*|
|Tyler Inamoto*||Benjamin Finkelstein*|
Here’s a quick list of some articles from earlier off-season to get you even more ready for the upcoming season: