Last Season Record: 37-14-5
Last Season Point Total: 79
Key Departures: Alex Wennberg, Nikita Gusev, Philippe Desrosiers, Keith Yandle, Lucas Wallmark
Key Additions: Sam Reinhart, Joe Thornton, Sam Bennett (Re-signed), Sam Montembault
Okay, so let’s get one thing out of the way; I don’t trust the Panthers for a second.
There’s at least a non-zero chance the Panthers might’ve just been feasting on what became an otherwise kinda dull and bad division and they could return to just being the team just good enough to sneak into the wild card again. That is both entirely possible or just a brain that has trouble believing that this team could ever be actively a threat after decades of being kinda...there.
And that brain could very easily be fooled, because all things considered Florida seemed to be trending in the right direction. According to Evolving-Hockey, they were 4th in the league in Expected Goals-For, something NaturalStatTrick backs up. Their additions and bets up to this point in their forward corps have come up gigantic, and Coach Q has taken this team and otherwise turned them into a hard-working, furiously paced high-danger team that can and will score if they want to. Even when they lose guys and make wild choices in the offseason, am I surprised or even concerned? Not really, Quenneville’s work sort of explains itself. Did they pick up Devonian period fossil Joe Thornton? Cool, he gets to spring Anthony Duclair and Mason Marchment for transition chances, in all likelyhood. Barkov needs another winger? Cool, Sam Reinhart could use a little sunshine to brighten up his career to this point and he was one of like three Sabres who were good last year. Let’s bring him in. Sam Bennett playing like a dog’s breakfast in Calgary? Bring him down to Miami, baby. Consider that career...well, the jury’s still out on that one but if he doesn’t melt down, that’s still a damn reasonable forward corps.
I don’t even think their defensive corps is all that bad! Mackenzie Weegar might be a name generated by an AI but the kid can backcheck with the best of them. Ekblad may not be the five on five talent he used to be, but now he’s a power play force and plays with Weegar so he’s not completely overexposed. Forsling looked good last year, Brandon Montour wasn’t a total disaster, and their third pair of Nutivaara and Gudas actually played something approaching pretty decent hockey! They absolutely look like a team ready to take that next uneasy step!
But there’s unquestionably something holding them back. That man is the former #1 cop on the force. The albatross of which Willem Dafoe jabbers at you to never kill lest it bring misfortune upon your head. For a high-danger team, that means high-danger has to come back the other way. And when you are a high-danger team, you have to rely on your goaltender to make the big saves. Spencer Knight has shown he’s up to the task. But he’s being paid a pittance in comparison to the monolithic nightmare contract that must back him up this year. Is Sergei Bobrovsky any good anymore? I think we can go with some variation of “No” at this point. Does he have to play every game? I would hope not, because I’d wager that was just as big a part of their failures last year as anything else was. He simply isn’t the starter anymore, and they’re paying him Carey Price money until he croaks. I think the real question that faces these Panthers is not “are they for real” anymore. Getting Coach Q to come down to the Miami suburbs was probably more than enough to answer that. I think the real question here is “If they are for real, for how long?”
This might be the year that, after years of being the punching bag, the Bruins finally might have a handful of a game with the Panthers. They’ll probably win more than they lose, but I can’t imagine those games going entirely smoothly.
Hot Taek: Bobrovsky retires by the end of the season, allows his contract to become his wages as new goaltending coach, starting a glorious era of floridian cap fraud as both Florida teams furiously begin trying to out-fraud the other.