The 2021 regular season was a dream for the Florida Panthers. Can they finally expand that success to the playoffs in 2022? (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Can Panthers Sustain Last Year’s Breakout Season? 2021 NHL Previews

Every NHL season, there’s one or two teams that come out of nowhere and completely change their franchise’s perception. The Florida Panthers were undoubtedly one of those teams in 2021. After missing the playoffs in four straight seasons (not counting a qualifier round loss as the East’s #10 seed to the Islanders in 2020), the Panthers didn’t just make the playoffs last season; they broke through the glass ceiling, finishing fourth in the entire NHL. By points percentage, it was easily the franchise’s best regular season. Flordia’s stars have been lurking for a while. But new GM Bill Zito was finally able to surround them with the right supporting cast last year. And the results were a treat to watch.

Then again, you could have said nearly the exact same thing about the 2015-16 Panthers. They also came out of nowhere, winning the Atlantic Division in what was (at the time) the best regular season in franchise history. The team ultimately proved unable to maintain that surge, leading to the aforementioned four-year playoff drought. A lot has changed since then, of course. But one thing that hasn’t is Florida’s incredibly lengthy drought of not winning a playoff round. It dates all the way back to 1996; easily the longest in the NHL and the second-longest in the four major sports, leading (trailing?) only the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals (1990).

The Panthers understandably doubled down on a handful of the pieces that sparked their breakout year. They extended shrewd free agent signings Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair and deadline pick-ups Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour. They were also active this summer; making a big trade with Buffalo to bolster their forward core and adding the game’s premier OGWAC. The pieces are there for Florida to make consecutive playoff appearances for just the first time in franchise history. But they can pull it all together again?

Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Carter VerhaegheAleksander BarkovAnthony Duclair
Jonathan HuberdeauSam BennettSam Reinhart
Frank VatranoAnton Lundell (R)Patric Hörnqvist
Maxim MaximJoe ThorntonOwen Tippett

Star power up front hasn’t been the reason for the Panthers’ underachieving in previous seasons. Most people recognized Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau as one of the game’s top duos before last season. And if they didn’t before, they certainly do now. After all, Barkov won his first Selke Trophy thanks to a dominant all-around season (though his defensive impacts still weren’t quite as good as earlier in his career), coming full circle as the long-time front-runner as the popular choice for the league’s most underrated player. That label could arguably go to Huberdeau now; since the 2017-18 season, Huberdeau is 9th in the entire NHL with 300 points, with two seasons (including last year) at a 90-point pace or better. He’s one of the league’s most gifted players and earned some well overdue recognition in 2021 with a second-team all-star selection and the first Hart votes of his career.

But the mix around these players has been off for a while. The Panthers were still a strong offensive team during their recent dark years; they ranked 9th in goals per game and 3rd in shots per game from 2016-17 to 2019-20. The problem was high-scoring forwards like Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman weren’t good enough all-around players. And the depth situation often wasn’t the best (remember that two-defensemen forward line?). That changed last year in a three-transaction span that frankly should’ve won GM of the year for Zito. The first-year general manager took fliers on Verhaeghe (2 years, $1 million) and Anthony Duclair (1 year, $1.7 million). Then he shipped out an excess overpaid good in defenseman Mike Matheson for aging but still productive Patric Hörnqvist from Pittsburgh.

The results spoke for themselves. Those players helped the Panthers’ offense reach another level (3rd in goals, 1st in shots for), but also helped shape a much better structured overall team. Verhaeghe and Duclair developed instant chemistry alongside Barkov, allowing Joel Quenneville to drop Jonathan Huberdeau, who was more than capable of carrying the Panthers second-line. The rest, as they say, is history. He’ll have even more help this year thanks to Zito’s two most recent trade acquisitions: Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart.

The former looked like a total bust in Calgary, a former top-five pick that seemed destined for a career as nothing more than a bottom-sixer. Yet the Panthers paid a suspiciously high cost (essentially two 2nd round picks) to net him at the deadline. But like Verhaeghe and Duclair, the fit was instant. Bennett scored more points in 12 games as a Panther (15) than in 38 games as a Flame that season (12 in 38 games) and the season before (12 in 52 games). Part of that was due to a ridiculously high 16.4% shooting percentage (Bennett’s career average is 10.4%). But the Panthers are betting he’s the real deal by inking him to a 4-year, $17.7 million deal. It’s a risk given the small sample size. But it’s not a far stretch to say Bennett will at least be better than the end of his tenure in Calgary.

You could say the same for Carter Verhaeghe, who received a 3-year, $12.5 million extension (which doesn’t kick in until 2022-23) after not just his best NHL season, but just his second full-time NHL season. Verhaeghe played in 53 regular season and 8 playoff games for the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning as a pretty unspectacular bottom-sixer… just like Jonathan Marchessault in 2015-16. Like Marchessault, he signed a cheap two-year deal with Florida in free agency. And like Marchessault, he absolutely broke out in Sunrise, jumping from 13 points to 32 in 43 contests with gaudy underlying numbers (58% Corsi, 62% Expected Goals).

The Barkov effect was obvious; Verhaeghe had a 61% Corsi and 65% Expected Goals in 450 minutes with Barkov, but 54% and 55%, respectively, without him in 190 minutes. But those latter numbers are still pretty good. And it’s reasonable to think Verhaeghe can still be a productive scorer. Just like (you guessed it) Marchessault still is today (especially since the Panthers actually protected Verhaeghe in the expansion draft). Anthony Duclair’s underlying numbers followed basically the same cadence; incredible with Barkov, solid away from him. Duclair’s extension is probably the least risky; he has one of the best track records of any recent Panther acquisition thanks to having two 20-goal, 40+ point seasons under his belt.

That doesn’t even count last year, where he 43 games he scored at a 19-goal, 61-point pace. The latter number is easily a career-high. It’s nice to see him find what could finally be a permanent home after playing for five teams in his first six NHL seasons. Hörnqvist kind of feels like the forgotten addition despite scoring at a career-best 60-point pace and is Florida’s primary PP net-front option. He and solid all-around player Frank Vatrano would be great linemates if Anton Lundell makes the team out of camp after scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace in Finland’s Liiga. The 12th overall pick in 2020 figures to be a key part of Florida’s future and ranked 37th on Corey Pronman’s list of the top under-23 players in the sport.

Owen Tippett didn’t come in very far behind Lundell on that list. Though I must say it feels like he shouldn’t be eligible for seeing as he made his NHL debut nearly four years ago. Tippett finally made it back to the NHL in 2021 and was able to stick, putting together a respectable rookie season. I find it hard to believe a player of his skill (and youth) would be on the fourth line; he either switches spots with Vatrano or maybe even goes to the AHL to start the year. It’s a good problem for the Panthers to have, though I’d be on the former outcome.

I must admit though that the thought of the shoot-first Tippett playing alongside the best playmaker of this generation is intriguing. Joe Thornton is a very below-average skater these days. But he still has tremendous vision and scored 20 points in 44 games last year in Toronto. There are lots of candidates to fill out the Panthers roster. Noel Acciari can kill penalties and be a decent veteran 4C. And young players like Ryan Lomberg (congratulations on the recent proposal!), Eetu Lustorainen, Maxim Maxim (not a typo), and others will look to establish themselves as full-time NHLers. All have some NHL experience, with Lomberg memorably chipping in an OT winner in Game 3 against the Lightning back in the spring.

Defensemen

MacKenzie WeegarAaron Ekblad
Gustav ForslingRadko Gudas
Brandon MontourMarkus Nutivaara

For everything that went right for the Panthers last year, they also carry the burden of a massive “what if?” thanks to Aaron Ekblad’s season-ending broken leg in March. The first overall pick in 2014 was set to blow past his career-high in goals and points last year while playing some of the overall best hockey of his career. This is a fun nugget; Ekblad had a 55% on-ice goals for percentage last year, nearly identical to his 55.01% Expected Goals For. Score one for the stats nerds everywhere.

That being said, you didn’t need analytics to see how good Ekblad was last year. The Panthers somehow played just as good (if not better) in the regular season after Ekblad went down. But his presence was obviously missed in their first-round series against Tampa Bay. After all, the Lightning peppered Florida for 24 goals in the six-game series; Ekblad certainly could’ve helped slow down their high-powered offense.

While Ekblad is a pretty well-known and very good player, he gets a nice boost from playing alongside the criminally underrated MacKenzie Weegar. His underlying numbers were actually quite a bit better when he wasn’t playing with Ekblad. The 27-year old formed an outstanding pair with the otherwise unspectacular Gustav Forsling down the stretch (helping Forsling earn a 3-year, $8 million contract this summer). Weegar is an outstanding puck-moving defender and took a step forward offensively last year, scoring 36 points in 54 games after posting 41 in his first 172 games, spread out over three seasons. He and Ekblad should be great again this year. Though I’m a bit worried about Forsling-Gudas, specifically their ability to move the puck. Controlled exits are a major weakness for Gudas dating back to his days in Philadelphia. Though his physicality is much appreciated.

Florida’s third-pair should be nicknamed something along the lines of “the bargain bin” as they acquired Montour and Nutivaara for a 3rd and 5th round pick, respectively. Both are actually playing their off-side in this projection (not sure if that’s how it will play out, especially because I believe Montour said he didn’t like playing on his off-side in Buffalo). Speaking of Montour, he rediscovered some of the potential he showed at the beginning of his career in Anaheim when he was hyped as a future top-four puck-moving defenseman; the 27-year old rocked a 59% Corsi and Expected Goals Percentage in 12 games as a Panther. Nutivaara rounds out a very well-rounded Panthers defensive core that has a nice mix of puck-movers and physicality.

Goaltenders

Sergei Bobrovsky
Spencer Knight (R)

Sergei Bobrosky is still technically listed as the starter. But it’s almost a matter of time before Spencer Knight officially usurps Florida’s failed $70 million experiment as the number one netminder. Since joining the Panthers, Bob has allowed 22.1 goals above expected (per MoneyPuck.com) and ranks 41st out of 50 goalies in save percentage (min. 40 games played). Knight transitioned seamlessly from Boston College, where he recorded a .933 and .932 save percentage, respectively, in his freshman and sophomore years, to the NHL where he posted a .919 mark in four regular-season games and a .933 in two playoff games, in both of which the Panthers faced elimination. He’s long been regarded as one of the league’s best goalie prospects and should prevent Florida’s crease from needing an unlikely bounce-back from the 32-year old Bobrovsky to perform well. Losing the surprisingly excellent Chris Driedger stings, but there just wasn’t a spot for him.

The Verdict

The Panthers probably won’t be quite as good in the regular season this year as they were in 2021. And the Atlantic Division looks pretty tough. Tampa Bay will still be dominant. The Bruins should have enough gas in the tank to be very good once again. Toronto is a proven excellent regular-season team; with the threat of what feels like an inevitable and impossible playoff breakthrough always lurking. Montréal is coming off a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Ottawa should be better; maybe not “done with the rebuild” better, but better. There’s legit competition for the Panthers to worry about.

That being said, I’d be surprised if the team didn’t at least return to the playoffs. This is a pretty deep team on paper with enough star power to carry them if some of the kids struggle or injuries strike. Their defense is pretty well-balanced and features one of the game’s most underrated pairs. Goaltending is a bit of a question mark, but there’s a high ceiling at that position. Florida managed to keep just about every breakout piece from last year (save for Driedger) while also adding a legit top-six forward in Reinhart and a still useful Thornton.

Check out the preview for another team coming off a fantastic regular season but disappointing playoff run.

In a lot of ways, this is the exact opposite of what the Panthers did after their breakout 2015-16 season, when they completely changed their identity that summer and set the team back as a result. Maybe all of the extensions Zito signed are the team overcorrecting in the other direction. But keeping what worked plus giving them some help is a pretty darn good formula for success. Florida should have at least some degree it in 2021-22. This roster has the potential to take that next step. But actually doing so is no sure thing.

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Advanced Stats are 5v5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Roster Projection via CapFriendly