Florida Panthers 2023-24 NHL Season Preview
As late as April 3 last season, the Florida Panthers sat on the outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs picture. Coming off a franchise-record 122 points and a President’s Trophy, the Panthers had regressed to the middle of the pack. They were scrapping and clawing for the final spots with an Islanders team that would be clearly outplayed in the first round by the Carolina Hurricanes and a Pittsburgh Penguins team that would completely reshape its front office.
Ultimately making the playoffs by the skin of their teeth was one thing. Going on one of the most improbable playoff runs ever to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 was quite another. And it’s exactly what the Panthers did. They rallied back from 3-1 down in the first round to Boston Bruins. After that, they shell-shocked the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes over the next two series, losing just one contest.
The dream ultimately ran out of steam in the Final. An obviously better Vegas team outmatched them in a five-game series victory. Still, it was an incredible run for the Panthers and their fans. Once a punching bag of the league for attendance and on-ice success, the Panthers proved they belong with the big boys.
But now the climb begins again, and it might be even steeper for the Cats this time around. That Finals run has given the Panthers a significant disadvantage at the start of this season. The question marks that nearly kept them out of last year’s playoffs still remain. Florida isn’t at risk of being a one-hit wonder; they were one of the league’s best teams in each of the two prior seasons, so they deserve some benefit of the doubt. The Panthers have raised the bar — now it’s time to see if they can match it again.
Projected Lineup (via Daily Faceoff)
|Evan Rodrigues||Aleksander Barkov||Grigori Denisenko|
|Carter Verhaeghe||Sam Bennett||Matthew Tkachuk|
|Eetu Luostarinen||Anton Lundell||Sam Reinhart|
|Ryan Lomberg||Steven Lorentz||Nick Cousins|
You might notice a lot of bold on Florida’s defense, with two-thirds of the opening night blue-line new Panthers (although Dmitry Kulikov did play for the team from 2009 to 2016). Injuries have driven a lot of that. And while this is a temporary fix, it’s going to be long enough before Florida gets healthy that they can’t just throw their hands up and shrug if things don’t work. They need to find some successful combinations with this mix. Otherwise, it could put them behind the eight-ball in a deep Atlantic Division.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the biggest name in this group, although that doesn’t mean he’s the best. Florida doesn’t need him to be at peak Arizona levels when he was a legitimate top-pair blue-liner. But he can’t be the black hole he was last season for the Canucks, either. I know it’s tempting, but the Panthers would likely be best served at keeping him off the first pair at all costs.
Granted, it’s hard to feel better about any of the other options last year. Niko Mikkola was just as ineffective as Ekman-Larsson last year but in a lesser role. Kulikov is a generic depth defensive defenseman. Mike Reilly was a bit of an analytics darling a few years back in Ottawa, although his time in Boston went very poorly, culminating in a buy-out this summer. Ekman-Larsson was also bought out by the Canucks himself. Incumbent Panther Josh Mahura is probably the best bit to fill big minutes. After all, he crushed third-pair minutes a season ago. Not everyone who does can handle the spotlight, but his play merits the chance more than anyone else here.
Evan Rodrigues is a solid addition, albeit a strange one since his arrival forced the Panthers to trade Anthony Duclair. Perhaps Florida was worried Duclair wouldn’t return to the level he was at before the Achilles surgery that cost him 62 games last season. Rodrigues does give the Panthers more cost certainty. His contract is for four years, whereas Duclair is set to hit free agency after this season. Then again, Rodrigues will be 34 when the deal ends, so we’ll see who comes out looking the wiser. Steven Lorentz is a run-of-the-mill fourth-liner who came back as part of the Duclair deal.
3 Players to Watch
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson – This is a massive year for Ekman-Larsson personally. His elite days are behind him, but his NHL future could be riding on his performance this season. On a more optimistic view, he gets to play big minutes for the reigning Eastern Conference champions, and if he’s good, it could result a moderate pay-day next summer when the cap goes up. Both sides have a lot to gain from this signing, which is typical for a one-year deal. But they also have a lot to lose, which isn’t.
- Spencer Knight – In 2018, the Panthers made Spencer Knight the fourth-highest drafted goalie of the salary cap era when they selected him No. 13 overall. Since then, everything has gone haywire. The Panthers immediately blocked him by signing Sergei Bobrovsky to a mega deal weeks later. Knight looked as advertised in 2020-21, then regressed the next season before spending Florida’s playoff run in the NHL’s Player Assistance Program as he recovered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s great to see Knight back on the ice, first and foremost. It would be even better if he could help give Florida one of the league’s most formidable tandems.
- Sam Reinhart – He’s a bit buried behind the star power of Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, but Reinhart is no slouch. His eight goals in last year’s playoffs were tied for second most on the Panthers, and he’s a versatile player with strong defensive acumen coming off a 67-point campaign. That alone should get him a lot on the open market, but another strong year would certainly help. There’s also the matter of guiding Florida on another deep playoff run, of course.
Riser and Faller
Riser: When the Panthers first emerged as a quality team in 2020-21, Carter Verhaeghe was one of their biggest success stories. Then 25, Verhaeghe had just 13 NHL points in 52 games to his name (albeit alongside a spot on the Stanley Cup as part of Tampa Bay’s 2020 win). Verhaeghe was a near-point-per-game player for that Panthers team. And after a slight step back scoring-wise in 2021-22, Verhaeghe exploded for a team-leading 42 goals, tied for ninth in the league. The Panthers are probably going to need to win some shootouts early on this season, making Verhaeghe an even bigger piece than he already was.
Faller: It’s a good thing for your team when this label goes to Ryan Lomberg. Part of that is the turnover Florida’s had on defense. That’s for the worst as Radko Gudas was excellent in a third-pair role and Marc Staal at least let Brandon Montour thrive offensively. Lomberg was fine last year, but he scored just two more points in 27 more games than 2021-22 and failed to drive play. He’s still a fine fourth-liner, just one who was better two seasons ago than last year.
The Big Question
Can they whether the injuries to Aaron Ekblad and Montour? Losing either would’ve been a huge blow; being without both is close to catastrophic. The duo combined for 111 points last season and 21 more in the playoffs. Montour in particular was a revelation, tallying 73 points in the regular season and eight playoff goals. Ekblad is a franchise face, the second longest-tenured Panther behind Barkov and a sturdy top-four presence. There’s no timeline for either’s return as of two weeks ago, per GM Bill Zito. Florida can probably survive a month or so without them. But if their absences extend beyond Thanksgiving, it may be tricky for the Panthers to hold up.
Eliminate COVID-19-related weirdness, and you have to go all the way back to 2014-15 to find the last time a Stanley Cup Finalist missed the playoffs the next season (the Los Angeles Kings did it after winning the 2014 Cup). This Panthers team does seem like a much stronger bet than most finalists to join that club, though. Between the injury situation, last year’s uninspiring regular season and the quality of their division, there’s a surprising amount of factors working against them.
That being said, betting against the Panthers proved to be a losing proposition last spring, even when the deck was stacked against them. Barkov and Tkachuk are still one of the league’s deadliest duos. They’re not lacking for help up front. And Florida should get healthy on defense at some point. It may take a crafty, early in-season addition by Zito. But Florida has a good chance to find a niche in the playoff picture once again.