The Panthers mass exodus up front means that their young core group will have to carry the offensive load. Gone are future Hall-of-Famer Jaromir Jagr, 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault, Thomas Vanek, Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen and Shawn Thornton, who were either dealt, lost to Vegas in the expansion draft, bought out or retired.
Florida is strong up the middle with leading scorer Vincent Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad, but with departures are thin on the wings. Jonathan Huberdeau missed 51 games due to an Achilles injury and will need to stay healthy and be productive.
The Panthers blueline entered last season with a great deal of promise, as they added veterans Keith Yandle and Jason Demers via free agency. They joined former Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad, but after a disappointing season and a complete changeover of the management and coaching staff, Florida’s defense has some question marks and undergone some changes.
Yandle continues to be a dependable offensive weapon and led the Panthers in defensive scoring with 41 points. Demers was signed to a five-year deal primarily due to his positive analytics numbers, but GM Dale Tallon has moved away from the players added by his predecessors and dealt the 29-year-old blueliner to Arizona last week.
Ekblad remains the foundation piece of the Florida defensive corps but took a step back with a career-low 21 points. The concern for the Panthers is the numerous concussions the 21-year-old has dealt with only three years into his NHL career and how detrimental that could be to him and the franchise’s future.
The advancing age of Roberto Luongo made it necessary for the Panthers sign James Reimer to ease the veteran netminder’s workload. Florida climbed back into playoff contention in the second half, but Luongo’s hip injury in early March pretty much ended any serious bid for the post-season.
Reimer played 42 games and finished with marginally better statistics than Luongo, but consistency has always been a problem for the former Maple Leaf. For Florida to make a bid for the post-season, Luongo will need to stay healthy and play 50 games or more.
Looking ahead to trade deadline – if sellers who could be on the move. If buyers, what area might they need to improve? The much-traveled Vrbata was signed to a one-year deal and has been a deadline rental in the past. Florida has over $11 Million in cap space entering the season, but that was due to ownership’s wish to cut the budget. If they are in contention come deadline time, Tallon has options.
What rookies could make the team? 2017 top pick Owen Tippett has the size and a big shot, but the 18-year-old may need another year of seasoning in the OHL. 23-year-old Henrik Haapala led the Finnish SM-liiga with 60 points. KHLer Nikolai Belov was signed to a professional tryout and could earn a contract with a good training camp.
Which player could take a step forward this season? Barkov has to find a way to avoid injury for the Panthers to have a chance. The 22-year-old has missed 37 games over the last two seasons and could reach 70 points if he plays a full season. Bjugstad dropped to seven goals after three straight seasons scoring 15 or more and has the talent to rebound.
Which players could regress? Ekblad’s concussion issues have to be a big concern for the franchise. The former top overall pick could be one hit away from another long absence and could throw his career into doubt.
Are there any training camp battles expected? Veterans Brandon Pirri and Harry Zolnierczyk were brought in on professional tryouts. Pirri was a Tallon draft pick in Chicago and scored 22 goals for the Panthers in 2015 and could earn a contract. Former Canucks first-rounder Jared McCann struggled after being acquired in the deal that sent Erik Gudbranson to Vancouver but will get another chance to crack the Panthers roster.