The Florida Panthers are going to be really good one day. They deserve it. They have struggled for a long time but have remained patient and have assembled an impressive collection of youngsters to build around. The question, though, is if this is the year that they break through and claim a playoff spot - one that will likely be theirs for many years. It could be a year or two too soon, but sooner rather than later this team will be looking to win Atlantic Division titles.
Florida Panthers Offseason Moves
The team is largely content to go into this season with what they have. The lone noteworthy addition was Reilly Smith, who they traded for from Boston. The
winger has 100 points in 203 NHL games and is only 24, so he is a very nice addition. He'll likely find himself on the second line, and could eventually be
looked at to move up to the top line when 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr retires - likely in 2034 or so.
Florida Panthers NHL Outlook
What I admire most about this team is the approach they are taking with their special young players. Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad is probably the team's best player heading into this season. They made it easy for him to succeed by pairing him with Brian Campbell - the perfect mentor on and off the ice for a young defenseman. It worked so well that Ekblad moved in with Campbell and his wife. Offensively, they have two budding superstars in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. What better way to take the pressure off them and show them what it takes to succeed than to put Jaromir Jagr on their wing. The ageless wonder has 1,802 NHL points - and he missed three full NHL seasons playing in the KHL. He's hugely valuable to the effective maturation of the youthful core of this team - as are forwards Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen and Shawn Thornton on lower lines and defender Willie Mitchell. By the time these guys are ready to win they'll know how to go about it. You only need to look to Edmonton the last several years for a lesson in how it can turn out when that knowledge isn't passed on. Florida is playing a very long game here, and they are playing it right. That may not turn into enough wins now, but it will eventually.
Beyond Ekblad, Campbell and Mitchell, this is a solid defensive unit. All you need to know about the youth of this team is this - Dmitry Kulikov is the longest serving Panthers player, and he is only 24. He has improved immensely in the last year and should be poised for a strong season alongside Mitchell. Former third overall pick Eric Gudbranson took big strides forward last year and should have his best year this year, too.
Young forwards will be given a chance to shine. Brandon Pirri had 22 goals last year in just 49 games, but he had just two assists . He should see more playing time this year and has a chance to score 30 or more if everything goes his way. Others like Vincent Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi, and perhaps even this year's top pick Lawson Crouse, will get plenty of opportunities as well.
At some point I will become concerned about goaltending for this team, but this is not the year yet. Roberto Luongo isn't getting younger, but he had his best year in a long time in his first year back in Florida last year. Being removed from the drama in Vancouver suited him well, and he should be fine again. Al Montoya is a fine backup, though I don't think he is in any way the goalie of the future here.
Florida Panthers Schedule
This team opens with a home-and-home with Philadelphia then a trip to Carolina before hosting Buffalo. A record of 4-0 is viable and would be one heck of a way to start things off. The next stretch of four games - two games against Dallas sandwiching trips to Pittsburgh and Chicago - are dramatically tougher, so early success would be great for the confidence.
Florida Panthers NHL Futures Odds (from Bovada)
The Panthers are +6600 to win the Stanley Cup, ahead of just six teams in the league. They are +2800 to win the Eastern Conference - ahead of five of 16 teams. They are the sixth choice at +1000 to win the eight-team Atlantic Division.
2015-16 Florida Panthers Predictions
This is going to be a playoff team. This year. That's my bold prediction. I like how they are made up, and I really like the coaching for the situation. They likely won't do much once they get there, but they will take that next step. Pirri will have a big year to gain much more attention - and a much bigger contract.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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