Florida Panthers 2021-2022 Season Preview: The Cup Window Opens

Floirda Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville
(Quenneville pouring Champagne into the Stanley Cup/Origin Unknown)

The preseason is over, the final cuts have been made, and the regular season awaits us. The Florida Panthers finally kick off their most anticipated season in franchise history. Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the FLA Live Arena.

On paper, this is the deepest Panthers team I’ve ever seen. Guys who were regulars in the lineup last season will see their ice time reduced. Via off-season acquisitions and the rise of several of the Young Cats. 

Recap

Patric Hornqvist, started last season on the second line and was a lock for PP1 minutes. He is now looking at a bottom six role and a role on the PP2 unit. Anthony Duclair floated between the top two lines last season, earned a contract extension in the offseason. He is projected to be a third line winger just because that’s how good this team is.

So much credit has to be given to the front office for getting the team to this point. Bill Zito and Co turned this team around from pretenders to contenders in a little over a calendar year.

But at the end of the day, roster moves do not determine who wins the Stanley Cup. The games have to be played. I know the boys are up for the challenge, and while minor I think the team’s new social media hashtag describes the energy in the locker room, it’s #TimeToHunt

This is a team that’s hungry. A team that knew they were good enough to win last year. They were just a bit unlucky with injuries and having to face the Lightning in the first round. This isn’t a group of individuals who are going to make excuses though.

It’s a team who would rather go out on the ice and show just how good they are. It’s a team filled with highly motivated players who all want to win and win together HERE. Aleksander Barkov’s comments at his extension press conference highlight this belief.

Opening Night Roster

As I mentioned before, this is the deepest Florida Panthers team we’ve ever had. The team has changed a bit since we recorded our season preview episode a few weeks ago though.

Noel Acciari received shoulder surgery and is expected to be out for a few months, while 7th Defenseman Kevin Connauton is currently on the IR with the expectation that he joins the team sooner rather than later.

On top of that, the team made a trade with the Vancouver Canucks for Olli Juolevi. Juolevi was the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and has had an underwhelming start to his NHL career. The Panthers acquired him for Juho Lammiko and Noah Juulsen and the team hopes a change of scenery can help revive his career. We saw this work out for the Panthers last season with the acquisition of Sam Bennett, and it will be interesting to see how Juolevi plays with an opportunity to impress Joel Quenneville early.

(Panthers Opening Night Roster / @FlaPanthers twitter)

Forwards

The initial list is not surprising at all. Prospects Grigori Denisenko and Aleksi Heponiemi were cut early in camp, showing that they still have a ways to go in their development. This is a good thing for the Panthers, as they can get a full season of AHL hockey under their belts before being expected to become significant contributors for the team in the 2022-2023 season.

Of all the names on the list, all eyes will be on Anton Lundell. Lundell has been described as “Barkov Jr.” by fans and beat reporters since he was drafted, and we’ll get to see him start in the big leagues. How he plays will be a major area of focus when it comes to the personnel moves made by the team, as they may be forced to move lines around or acquire another center if he isn’t ready.

Defensemen

RIP the Matt Kiersted 7D hype train. Like the forwards list, the defensemen come with zero surprises as well. The team made clear who their six defenders were by their offseason moves, and Juolevi is a shot in the dark until Kevin Connauton returns.

If the Panthers are to make a big move in season, I think it’ll be to shore up their bottom four defensemen. We already know Mackenzie Weegar, Aaron Ekblad, and Gustav Forsling are locked in on defense. Radko Gudas plays the enforcer role, leaving Brandon Montour and Markus Nutivaara. Their play early in the season will tell Zito and Quenneville whether or not a personnel change is needed, and the front office has shown they’re willing to make moves.

Goalies

With Chris Gibson heading to Charlotte, the Panthers begin the season with Sergei Bobrovsky as their starter. Rookie phenom Spencer Knight as his backup. The word all offseason has been a goalie by committee approach, similar to last season, with Bob getting the bulk of the starts. However, I believe Bob will have a shorter leash than he used to. Knight’s development and play last season has accelerated the timetable for him to become the #1. As he went from winning the World Juniors with Team USA, playing at Boston College, to starting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs within a calendar year.

If Bob can figure it out in Year 3 here, that’s a good thing for the Panthers. The goalie by committee approach worked last season and if the former Vezina winner can get back to that level. The Panthers can ease Spencer Knight into becoming a full-time starter. This will be his first full season in the league.

Opening Night Line Predictions

Take these with a grain of salt, as Q loves to throw his lines in a blender throughout games and change things up.

*Original predictions from a few weeks ago have been scratched out and replaced with those now occupying their spots*

(also shoutout the voice of the Florida Panthers Steve Goldstein for taking the guessing work out of it)

LWCRW
1st LineCarter VerhaegheAleksander BarkovSam Reinhart
2nd LineJonathan HuberdeauSam BennettOwen Tippett
3rd LineFrank VatranoAnton LundellAnthony Duclair
Patric Hornqvist
4th LineNoel Acciari
Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton
Eetu Luostarinen
Patric Hornqvist
Anthony Duclair
LDRD
Defensive Pairing 1Mackenzie WeegarAaron Ekblad
Defensive Pairing 2Gustav ForslingBrandon Montour
Defensive Pairing 3Marcus NutivaaraRadko Gudas

When the team is fully healthy, I expect the guys with their names crossed out to return to their spots.

Line 1- Verhaeghe, Barkov, Reinhart

By the end of the season, this might be the best top line in the league. I wrote earlier this offseason that the team needed another Top 6 forward, and Reinhart is exactly that. Not only that, but Reinhart offers roster flexibility with experience playing at Center. He can help the team should Lundell or Bennett miss any significant time. If that were to happen, Anthony Duclair can be elevated to the top line and we’ve seen what 23-16-10 can do together. Reinhart’s skills should mesh with Verhaeghe and Barkov nicely, and I’m excited to see what they can do throughout the year.

Line 2- Huberdeau, Bennett, Tippett

Huberdeau and Bennett are locked into this line, but it’s the RW position where the debate begins. After finding his footing last year and having a strong preseason camp, I believe 74 has earned the right to start on the 2nd line. The chemistry they showed together in the postseason brought out the best in Owen Tippett, and the franchise needs to find out whether it was a fluke or the real deal. If it doesn’t work, Anthony Duclair is still there for the return of the 9-1-1 line (although it’ll need a new name with Duclair now wearing 10)

Line 3- Vatrano, Lundell, Hornqvist // Vatrano, Lundell, Duclair

I’ll break this into two parts, one to talk about early in the season and the other about the playoff push. Vatrano, Lundell, and Hornqvist isn’t a sexy line but I think it can work. You have a proven goal scorer in Vatrano with a guy who has made a career out of parking himself in front of the net in Hornqvist. Those pieces can complement Lundell’s style of play and help him settle into the NHL. I think the Duclair/Hornqvist swap was made to add some speed to the fourth line, and should swap once Acciari comes back.

If we get to see Vatrano, Lundell, Duclair later in the season watch out. We saw how well Duke played with Barkov last season, so we can expect similar results playing alongside Barkov Jr. With Vatrano playing for a contract (and most likely his last as a Panther) he’ll be even more inclined to produce and potentially be an attractive trade chip for the team as the deadline nears.

Line 4- Thornton, Luostarinen, Duclair // Acciari, Thornton, Hornqvist

With the team shipping away Lammiko, we found out Luostarinen is the team’s preferred 4th line center. I’m interested to see how much Thornton plays this season, as Ryan Lomberg and Mason Marchment are younger and can handle the wear and tear of an 82 game season. I’d expect Hornqvist to get similar treatment too, as he and Thornton are going to be more beneficial to the team once the playoffs roll around.

Once Acciari gets back, we’ll have a true grit line. Especially if guys like Lomberg and Marchment get regular playing time. Acciari, Thornton, and Hornqvist are capable of setting the tone and will be a tough line for opposing teams to play against. They’re capable of making teams frustrated and have enough offensive power to make a play when the game is on the line. Thornton came to South Florida to chase a cup, so we know he’ll be hungry and give his all.

Power Play Units

The first Power Play unit is already out there, and it’s lethal. Barkov, Huberdeau, Reinhart, Bennett, and the return of Aaron Ekblad. Like the top line, the power play has a chance to finish on top of the league. Tampa’s power play gave them the edge in the playoffs last season, and the Panthers upgrades should level the playing field.

The second Power Play isn’t set yet, but it’s going to include players like Verhaeghe, Tippett, Duclair, Hornqvist, Montour, or Weegar. That’s an upgrade from last season and should create some good scoring chances if the first unit isn’t able to get it done (which I suspect will not be often)

Penalty Kill Units

Off all units affected by the roster changes, the Penalty Kill took the biggest hit. Alex Wennberg is no longer here and Acciari is out for a portion of the season. I’m not saying that there will be a significant decline in the PK %, just simply stating that the personnel is going to change and we don’t know how effective it will be. Will be interesting to watch how Q and his coaching staff handle the personnel decisions here as the season goes on.

Quick Takes:

  • Barkov leading goalscorer
  • Huberdeau points leader
  • Owen Tippett breakout season
  • Knight takes over as the 1 before the Olympic Break
  • Everyone in the Top 6 finishes with 20+ goals
  • Panthers win the Atlantic

Season Prediction:

As I sit here today writing this, I can see this Florida Panthers team winning it all, which has never been a thought I’ve had as a Panthers fan going into a season. The teams bond is so strong, and that’s accredited to the culture change that’s taken place inside the building since Q arrived. They’re highly motivated to win together, and they’ll play harder than most teams across the league.

While this is just year one of the team’s newly formed Cup Window, I think this may be their best shot. The Cats kept their core together, had the best offseason of any team in the NHL, and have the prospect pool and roster flexibility to be buyers at the deadline. On top of that, this is probably Joe Thornton’s last year in the league, and he chose to chase a cup here.

Personally, I’d just love to see us win one playoff series, but the expectations are higher than that. This is a team that can make and win the conference finals, and this is a team that can win the Stanley Cup.

We’ll have to see how the team navigates through the season and the moves they make at the deadline, but it’s going to be a special few years in Sunrise.

Until next time, we move 🤝

Florida Panthers’ Media Day Takeaways

The unofficial start to any team’s season is its media day. On Wednesday, the Florida Panthers had theirs. Several key players addressed the media for the first time this season, including Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart. Here are some key takeaways from the 2021 media day.

Aaron Ekblad is ready to go

The last we saw of Aaron Ekblad, he was carted off the ice after suffering a major leg injury.

The experience was gut wrenching for teammates and fans alike, and severe injuries always carry the risk of setbacks.

Thankfully, Ekblad calmed the collective hearts and minds of Panther nation today. During his press conference, the star defenseman said he feels “99.99%” in regards to his injury. He continued to say that he feels great and he cannot wait to get back on the ice.

“I’ve never been more excited for training camp or an exhibition game in my career, I’m happy with all of my progressions to this point and confident that I can reach the same level of play from last season and exceed it.”

Aaron Ekblad

If true, Panthers fans should rejoice, as Ekblad’s presence was sorely missed in the Playoffs. A healthy Ekblad may be the biggest X factor coming into this season, as he could have swung the Tampa series last year.

Sam Reinhart will fit right in

Most Panthers fans needed no sales pitch for Sam Reinhart as a player.

The perennial 20 goal scorer fills a need for this team with incredible offensive talent and an amendable play style.

During media day, Reinhart found a way to endear himself even more to fans and teammates alike. He noted that he chose to wear number 13 for the Panthers “to follow a former club legend like Mark Pysyk.”

Pysyk, of course, played for the Florida Panthers from 2016 to 2020, and was teammates with Reinhart for 2 years before that. Reinhart’s tribute to the widely popular former Panther will not be lost on the fanbase.

Joe Thornton sees something special with this group

When Joe Thornton signed with the Panthers this offseason, it took almost everybody by surprise.

The former Hart trophy winner is coming off a season in Toronto which ended in a disappointment. The team lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Thornton is still chasing that elusive Stanley Cup, and now entering his age 42 season time is running out for him.

To choose to sign with the Panthers over other cup contenders such as the Lightning or Avalanche speaks volumes as to what Thornton thinks of the roster. He expressed some of those thoughts during media day. “I think this is going to be a special year” Thornton said.

He noted how last year was such a huge step forward for the organization, and how he hopes to build off that momentum. If Joe Thornton has confidence in the team, Panthers fans should too.

The Barkov Extension will be done soon

Yes, Aleksander Barkov is scheduled to be a free agent after this season.

Many had hoped an extension would be done by now, the lack of a deal has led to some increased anxiety.

With out giving away too much information, Barkov did his best to calm the collective nerves about his contract situation during media day. “I love playing hockey here, I love what were building here,” Barkov said.

“Hockey in South Florida is getting bigger and better. I’m really excited about everything that’s going on here. I haven’t really thought about anything else. Wearing a Panthers jersey is a huge honor for me.” In regards to the contract extension itself, Barkov commented, “I think were for sure making some progress…It’s all good,”

Aleksander Barkov

Echoing similar sentiment from other parties involved such as Bill Zito. The bottom line is that Barkov loves playing hockey in South Florida, and Panthers’ fans have no reason to worry about his impending free agency. Whether it is this week or some time during the season, a deal will be done.

Side note: Barkov’s insight on a “typical Finnish Summer” of lake swimming and grilling sounds delightful.

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What you need to know about the Florida Panthers

By: Sam Schetritt and Andrew Levine

(New Panther Joe Thornton with Stanley C Panther/ IG stanleyc.panther)

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.

We’re not lying about the passes either, these were from last season and we expect a few more spin-o-rama’s from #11 this upcoming season: Panthers vs Canes Panthers vs Bolts

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: 

  1. Sam Reinhart (Samson) – newcomer on the team right on the verge of stardom
  2. 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)
  3. Carter Verhaeghe – all around player who does everything good, but nothing elite.
  4. Anthony Duclair (Duke) – offensive dynamo with defensive questions
  5. Mackenzie Weegar (Weegs) – Aaron Ekblad may be the best defenseman on the team, but Weegar is the best defensive defenseman 
  6. Gustav Forsling – Defenseman with impressive offensive skills
  7. Patric Hornqvist – Gritty veteran who scores gritty goals, one of the guys who helped flipped the culture
  8. Joe Thornton (Jumbo Joe) – Former superstar entering his age 42 season, it will be interesting to see how much he has left.
  9. 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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Joe Thornton’s Chasing a Cup, and he’s doing it in South Florida

Joe Thornton (Florida Panthers/Twitter)

What a headline to wake up to: Jumbo Joe Thornton is a Florida Panther.

The 42 year old has accomplished so much in his career, but he has yet to lift a cup. Thankfully, he and the Panthers agree on two things.

Both want to win and they both believe it can be done here.

Seeing a cup chasing veteran sign with the Panthers is surreal, an indication of where this franchise is headed.

The franchise’s cup window is here, and as the great Jedi General Anakin Skywalker said in Episode III, this is where the fun begins.

Why Thornton? No one really knows yet.

He absolutely brings veteran experience to a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since he’s been in the league and enters his 24th season.

Having that type of veteran presence in the locker room, especially with Hornqvist there, can only be a positive for the Panthers as they expect to go on deep playoff runs.

On top of that, he bolsters the bottom six center position.

While we’re very excited about the arrival of Anton Lundell, there’s the chance that he’s not ready for the NHL yet.

An adjustment period or a stint in Charlotte might be needed, and the Panthers are prepared for it and have Thornton or Acciari they can play as the third or fourth line center.

Also, just going to take a moment to appreciate some of his quotes from this morning, because it’s still surreal that the Panthers are at the point that cup chasing veterans (notably Thornton) want to sign here to win.

When I started playing hockey as a wee lad, my first stick was a Joe Thornton stick. Now, he’s playing on the Cats chasing a cup. I don’t know how those two things relate, but they are important IMO.

Until next time, we move.

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