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 🤝