I am a fan of the Florida Panthers, yes you read that correctly, and albeit scarcely, we do exist. At the time of writing this the Panthers currently sit seven points back of the Carolina Hurricanes for the final wild card, with three games in hand. This season has been regarded by many analysts as a disappointment so far. As much as I love this team and have an enduring faith in them, I must agree with the experts. Even with a brand-new coach, the talent in this core is too much to expect anything less than a playoff berth.
The season opened splitting a two-game series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. After this, it was all downhill from there. This start provided an initial hope, that was quickly squashed by losing streaks, injuries, inconsistent play, and overall under-performing. Regardless of this, I still have faith in this team. I believe this team can still make the playoffs. Let’s say we don’t make the playoffs this season (but we will), I believe we are a few pieces away from being a dangerous, high energy, contending team. You might not believe it, but here are the reasons why.
This team was built hockey guru Dale Tallon … maybe you’ve heard of the Chicago Blackhawks. So yea, this guy knows how to build a team. After years of tanking and rotting at the cellar of the standings, there was some great drafting done by the Panthers, some of which they’ve thrown away. Here’s why I believe this team is ready to turn the corner and surprise the NHL.
The centerpiece of the core. This 22-year-old is already one of the best, yet underrated, centers in the league. Barkov is one of the greatest all time in the shootout with a career high 51.7% success rate. His shootout skills are even more impressive when you look at the last three seasons where he has made 15 of his 21 attempts. Also, he is a solid player to have in the circle, coming in at seventh this season in faceoff wins.
It also helps that this kid is a constant contender for the Lady Byng. He does not score at an especially high rate (but is still tied for the team league in goals and has a two-goal lead over everyone else in the NHL in shorthanded goals), but the puck handling, passing, vision, penalty killing, and overall talent easily make him the rock of this team and the future of this franchise.
Aaron Ekblad has the potential to be a great defenseman. Winner of the Calder trophy in 2015 after being drafted 1st overall in 2014, there are still big things expected from him even after his development hit a rough patch. Even so, he has proven himself to be a leader in the locker room and is expected to be named captain once Derek Mackenzie retires.
At just 22 years old, Ekblad is already on pace to be an all-time great scoring defenseman. Just this past week he became just the 16th NHL defenseman to score 10 or more goals in four straight seasons, putting him in company with greats such as Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin. Once Ekblad improves to the level expected of him since his rookie season, you can expect a fearsome presence while he is on the ice.
Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau
Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau are the scoring core of the team and they both are averaging close to a point per game. They both also lead the team in goals and in assists. Both sit at 24 years old and except for Huberdeau’s foot injury last season, they have been able to remain healthy. Furthermore, both these players are signed through 2022 so be expecting a lot of scoring from these guys for years to come.
In recent years the Panthers have drafted exceptionally well. The last two first round picks have been forwards expected to add much needed depth. Two years ago, the Cats drafted Finnish center Henrik Borgstrom. He has been averaging nearly 1.5 points per game in his Sophomore year at Denver and is expected to make the jump to the pro level next season. This previous draft the Panthers took Owen Tippett, who in his rookie tryout scored one goal in seven games but looked like a near NHL ready winger who after a little more development looks like a force to be reckoned.
Finally, goalie Sam Montembeault. The organization has been very high on this kid who cannot wait for him to be NHL ready given the current goalie situation with Roberto Luongo looking every day of 38 years old and James Reimer not being a consistent starter in the NHL. Other young draftees who look like they will add depth include Ian McCoshen, Denis Malgin, Mackenzie Weegar, and Mike Matheson, among others. Continued development of these players and continued strong drafting will provide the needed depth to make every line a threat to the opposition.
There you have it. My four reasons why you need to stop sleeping on the Panthers. This organization has made plenty of mistakes including recently a poor trade with the Vegas Golden Knights during the expansion draft. You also can’t forget putting Tom Rowe in charge after leaving Gerard Gallant on the curb in Carolina. If you don’t believe this team is on the up and up, just watch and come back to this article just to see how right I was. One final note. Just imagine where we would be right now if a guy by the name of Alexander Ovechkin were on this team.