By: Sam Schetritt and Andrew Levine
What’s a Hockey?
Shoutout to our esteemed colleague Chris Spooner for giving us the inspiration to write this article. The game itself is played between two teams (duh) on a sheet of ice, with the objective of scoring more goals than your opponent. Each team gets 5 players on the ice at a time (unless there are penalties) and a goalie as well.
Now why do I love hockey? It’s because of the constant flow of action. The game has changed over the years to become more about skill than physicality (rip the goons). The best player in the league right now Connor McDavid is a perfect example of this. He plays at a gear higher than everyone else and is so quick with the puck that it’s really tough to stop him. Here are some highlights
So who are the Florida Panthers?
Historically speaking, one of the worst franchises in all of sports. In our lifetime, the team has not won a single playoff series. The team has gone through countless rebuilds, poor drafting, bad hires, etc.
Thankfully, that’s all in the past. For the first time in a while, the Panthers are a stable franchise and look poised to take advantage of the talent they have on their roster.
What do you mean bright future? What’s changed?
Two major changes over the past two years have transformed this team. First was the hiring of Coach Joel Quenneville. For the uninitiated, Joel Quenneville is a coaching legend. He has the second most wins for a coach in the history of the NHL and in the past decade won three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago made a completely boneheaded move by firing him — that’s a story for another day — and the Panthers capitalized. Aside from general good coaching decisions, (scheming up good offense, shutting down opposing scoring chances, etc.) Quenneville has brought accountability and seriousness to a locker room in desperate need of some guidance. Quenneville planted roots for change during his first year, and they really blossomed during year two.
The second major change was hiring Bill Zito as general manager. Finding a good GM in hockey is like trying to find designer clothes at a thrift store. Luckily for the Panthers, however, they seemed to have found the Burberry Jacket they’ve been looking for. In just one offseason, Bill Zito found multiple diamonds in the rough to surround the stars. He followed that up by re-signing many of them to team friendly contracts. Zito has shown to be an excellent evaluator of talent, and the former player agent understands the art of negotiating as well as anyone. Expect the Zito-Quenneville partnership in South Florida to be a fruitful one for many years to come.
So who are the guys I need to know?
Great question! Any conversation about talent on this Panthers team begins and ends with Center Aleksander Barkov. To put it simply, the dude is a superstar. Aside from the fantastic offensive output every single year, what makes Barkov special is his defense. Last season, Barkov won his first Frank J Selke trophy, given to the league’s best defensive forward. Think of Barkov as the NHL’s version of Kawhi Leonard; maybe not the flashiest, but good luck finding someone who impacts winning more. The fantastic Finn has been the backbone of this Panthers team through the ups and many downs this past half decade, and that will likely continue this season.
The Panthers have two other players I would consider stars at their position: Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. Huberdeau anchors the second line for the Panthers and does so quite admirably. He may not have as complete of a game as Barkov does, but what he lacks in defense he makes up for in flash. Huberdeau is an offensive monster who will pull off the prettiest passes you’ll ever see. He makes the Panthers appointment viewing for every game.
Aaron Ekblad is everything you would want in a modern day defenseman. He’s strong, athletic, offensively gifted and a brick wall on defense. He flies somewhat under the radar nationally because his counting statistics don’t jump off the page, but anyone watching the Panthers will tell you he was sorely missed once he sustained that season ending injury last season. Assuming good health, count on Ekblad to be in the conversation for league’s best defenseman, as he was last season pre-injury.
Some quick hitters for players also worth knowing:
- Sam Reinhart (Samson) – newcomer on the team right on the verge of stardom
- Sam Bennett (The Lorax/Benny) – a trade deadline acquisition last year who had instant chemistry with Huberdeau and will continue to build off a strong finish to last years season (minus his boneheaded penalty in Game 1)
- Carter Verhaeghe – all around player who does everything good, but nothing elite.
- Anthony Duclair (Duke) – offensive dynamo with defensive questions
- Mackenzie Weegar (Weegs) – Aaron Ekblad may be the best defenseman on the team, but Weegar is the best defensive defenseman
- Gustav Forsling – Defenseman with impressive offensive skills
- Patric Hornqvist – Gritty veteran who scores gritty goals, one of the guys who helped flipped the culture
- Joe Thornton (Jumbo Joe) – Former superstar entering his age 42 season, it will be interesting to see how much he has left.
- Radko Gudas (The Butcher) – known for hitting anyone and anything in sight
Wow this team is loaded … are there any weaknesses?
From my point of view, the team has two major holes: defensive depth and goaltending. The top half of the defensive corps is solid, but the bottom half has questions. This won’t matter much for the regular season, but in the playoffs it may come back to haunt them. There will be at least one defenseman playing much more than they should given their skillset. Teams will take advantage of this in the playoffs, as Tampa did last year. One more strong defenseman could solve this, but that would likely have to come via trade, as the Panthers defensive prospects are nowhere near ready. Look for a potential trade deadline deal to fix that.
As for Goaltending, that problem may solve itself. Current goalie starter Sergei Bobrovsky was brought in a couple years ago on a big money deal that ties him to Florida for the next five years. If you’re just joining us here in Pantherland, know that Bobrovsky has been… underwhelming. The two time Vezina winner (yearly award for best goaltender) has struggled to be even league average in his two seasons with the Panthers. Most Panthers fans have given up on him ever reaching those lofty aspirations he initially had, and have accepted the idea that Bobrovsky is nothing more than the league’s most expensive backup.
So why the hope? Simple: Spencer Knight. Knight is the best goalie prospect on the Florida Panthers and quite possibly the entire league. What’s more, he looks ready for the show. Knight played four games for the Panthers last season. In those four, he certainly looked the part, posting numbers any goalie would be proud of. He even played the final two games of the Panthers’ playoff run, including only allowing one goal in a huge game five victory. Indeed, the Panthers’ goalie weakness can be fixed this season, it just relies on Spencer Knight.
Besides Spencer Knight, any Young Cats I should know about?
Certainly. The Panthers have another Finnish center on their roster who goes by the name of Anton Lundell. The most accurate way to describe Lundell would be Aleksander Barkov Jr. The two play very similar styles, and both dominated the Finnish pro league as teenagers. Lundell should be ready to play this season, starting as either the teams third or fourth center. If all goes well, however, he should end up as the second center on the team, right behind Barkov.
A couple more young players of note: Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko. Two offensively skilled forwards who fight for playing time in an incredibly deep winger corps.
Another name to watch is Matt Kiersted. This was a sneaky signing by Zito last season and I wonder how much he’s grown as a defensemen since then. If he impresses in Dev Camp and Training Camp, he could be in line for a bottom 4 role and maybe some power play minutes as well.
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