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 🤝

Projecting the forward lines for the 2021 Florida Panthers season

For the most part, Bill Zito accomplished what he wanted.

Goalie Chris Driedger and center Alex Wennberg went to Seattle, Zito signed and extended several key overachievers from last year’s squad.

Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Gustav Forsling, and Sam Bennett all received new contracts to stay in Florida long term.

Notably, the team also traded for star forward Sam Reinhart, rounding out the forward corps, while also cut ties with veteran defensemen Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle.

Recap the Magic

The Top 6

The best two forward lines last season were the Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair top line and the “9-1-1” second line comprised of Huberdeau, Bennett, and Duclair.

The Barkov line had an expected goals percentage of 65.6% over 230 minutes, while the Huberdeau line had an expected goals percentage of 71.4% over 60 minutes.

While the sample size for the Huberdeau line is quite small, those numbers are still remarkably difficult to maintain over the course of even a few games.

Keeping one of these lines intact for the upcoming season would be a smart move for the Panthers, as no teams have yet shown an ability to slow them down. The better bet here is to keep the “9-1-1” line together simply Barkov’s star power allows for extreme flexibility among the wingers playing next to him.

This leaves one spot open in the top 6, and it ultimately comes down to two players.  

Patric Hornqvist played consistent top 6 minutes last season (and did so quite admirably) until his injuries began to pile up.

While he can certainly play next to Barkov on the right side, newly acquired forward Sam Reinhart is the better option there.

Reinhart scored 25 goals and had 15 assists while maintaining a 55.6% on ice expected goals percentage on an abhorrent Buffalo Sabres team.

He has the talent to play top line minutes and should do so on this Panthers team. As a goal scorer next to Barkov, the fit is seamless, and will free up Barkov, allowing him to focus on playmaking and defense.

As for the bottom 6, things are looking slightly murkier.

Locks for the bottom 6 next year include Noel Accari, Mason Marchment, Frank Vatrano, Patric Hornqvist and highly touted prospect Anton Lundell.

That leaves one spot for Owen Tippett, Gregori Denisenko, Aleksi Heopniemi, and newcomer Maxim Mamin.

Anton Lundell projects most comfortably as the third line center, with goal scorer Frank Vatrano and power forward Patric Hornqvist on his wings. That third line would provide an incredible balance of scoring, defense, and grit — a matchup nightmare for most teams.

The fourth line, Noel Accari and Mason Marchment provided very strong minutes last season in that role.

Both played minutes on higher lines, but their skillsets are best suited to be fourth line grinders and they should be slotted there again next season.

As for who should play beside them, Maxim Mamin is the one.

Mamin came from Russia’s CSKA Moscow team and brings a physicality and selflessness that fits this bottom 6 role perfectly.

Owen Tippett showed flashes last season, but his skillset would be wasted playing on a lower line. He could also be used as trade bait since his play style is replicable on this team.

Denisenko and Heponiemi are both young and should spend time as extra skaters, or on the AHL team.

Shore up the Defense

Looking at the Panthers defense corps, much of the questions were resolved in the offseason.

The two most effective defensive pairings last season were Weegar-Ekblad and Weegar-Forsling. Gustav Forsling was bumped up to the top pairing with Mackenzie Weegar after Aaron Ekblad sustained a season ending injury. With Ekblad coming back this season, I expect the Ekblad-Weegar pairing to return.

That leaves Gustav Forsling in need of a new defense partner.

Forsling is aggressive on offense and the first to jump up on the rush, so a reliable defense-first defenseman would be the best choice here.

There aren’t many great options here, but Radko Gudas is the best. Together, the pair played over 200 minutes together registering a good but not great 51.9% expected goals percentage.

The most encouraging aspect of the pair, however, was their performance in the first round series against Tampa. In that series, they played 54 minutes over 6 games and has an expected goals percentage of 58.3%.

Lastly, Markus Nutivaara and Brandon Montour should play as the final pairing.

Over a small sample size last year, the two played exceptionally well together and could possibly recapture some of what worked well. As a bottom pairing, it is certainly a low-risk-high-reward gamble.

The goalie spot for the Panthers is arguably the easiest part of the roster to figure out.

Sergei Bobrovsky is a lock for one of the two goalie spots, and phenom prospect Spencer Knight is the frontrunner for the other.

Common logic would dictate Bobrovsky, with his experience and $10 million cap hit, is the clear choice to start most of the games.

However, Elliot Friedman on his 31 Thoughts podcast noted that Knight could very well be the starter next year if he outperforms Bobrovsky. That is just one situation which the Panthers will work out in training camp.

On paper, the roster is significantly better than last year’s team, but hockey is unpredictable, and players underperform.

Injuries are certain and lineups will change, but the Panthers have the personnel to weather the obstacles and put together another successful season of hockey in South Florida.

Only time will tell.

Follow Samuel Schetritt on Twitter

How the Panthers Attacked the 2021 Offseason

Bill Zito and the Panthers front office have been busy over the past several months, working to improve a team that finished 2nd in the Central Division and put up a great fight against the eventual cup champions in the first round of the playoffs.

The Expansion Draft

The first hurdle the Panthers had to clear this offseason was the Expansion Draft for the NHL’s new team, the Seattle Kraken. For the draft, each team (besides the Golden Knights) had two options for player protections.

7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goalie

OR

8 skaters (forwards and defensemen) and 1 goalie.

After utilizing the 8-1 protection for the Vegas draft, the Panthers opted for the 7-3-1 here.

The protected list was as follows:

Forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mason Marchment, and Carter Verhaeghe

Defensemen: Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling, and MacKenzie Weegar

Goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky

The one surprise on the Panthers protected list was actually the omission of Defensemen Keith Yandle. Yandle was set to be the 3rd defensemen protected because of his NMC, but the team opted to buy him out and protect Forsling instead.

By protecting Forsling, the Panthers locked up their core while still leaving Seattle with some good players to choose from. This included forwards Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari, defensemen Radko Gudas, and goalie Chris Driedger.

Former Panthers goalie Chris Driedger meeting the fans at Seattle’s Expansion Draft

Ultimately, the Kraken ended up selecting Driedger to be their franchise’s first goalie, which is exactly what Florida wanted. Driedger was in line for a pay raise and the Panthers weren’t going to be able to keep him. With the emergence of Spencer Knight and Bobrovsky’s large contract, this selection was a win-win for both teams.

NHL Draft

After the Expansion Draft on July 21st, it was time for the Entry Level Draft on July 23rd. The Panthers had 6 picks in the draft, and chose forward Matthew “Mackie” Samoskevich out of the University of Michigan with the 24th overall pick. Other notable players selected by the Panthers were defensemen Evan Nause of the Quebec Remparts and goalie Kirill Gerasimyuk from the MHL in Russia. These prospects won’t see the ice in South Florida for a few years, but it is nice to see the team address all areas of the ice and continue to build a strong foundation for the team.

Free Agency

This was the busiest portion of the offseason for the Panthers, and for a good reason. The team had a two-fold approach.

First, they had to worry about rewarding their guys with new contracts to keep this core together.

Then, they needed to go out and add some more talent. We’ll start with the departures, work our way through the many contract extensions, before rounding it out with the newcomers.

Packing their bags:

As I mentioned above, Keith Yandle is no longer a Florida Panther. The veteran defensemen, who has put his Ironman streak ahead of his play on the ice over the last few years, heads to the City of Brotherly Love and reunites with Kevin Hayes on the Flyers for a 1 year 900k deal (and a NMC of course). He’ll definitely be missed in the locker room by the guys, but the fans certainly enjoyed this move (myself included).

Chris Driedger, part of the goalie carousel last season, gets a chance to be the first #1 for Seattle, signing a much deserved 3 year deal worth 10.5 million dollars. Chris wasn’t the only Panther to join the Kraken, as Alex Wennberg signed with the team for a 3 year deal worth 13.5 million dollars. Wennberg, who started as the 2nd line center on the team, had a great season with the Cats and probably would have been back with the team if Sam Bennett and Anton Lundell did not exist.

The trade details for Anton Stralman

Anton Stralman, a defensemen brought in to help change the culture in South Florida for the 2019-2020 season, was traded to Arizona in order to free up cap space. Stralman featured a ton during his first year with the team, but saw his role diminish this season due to on-ice performance before rebounding in the playoffs after Keith Yandle was scratched.

Staying in South Florida:

As I mentioned above, the key for the Panthers was keeping their core together, and they did just that. Carter Verhaeghe (3 year/12.5 mil), Anthony Duclair (3 year/9 mil), Sam Bennett (4 year/17.4 mil), Gustav Forsling (3 year/8 mil), and Brandon Montour (3 year/10.5 mil) all received new contracts this offseason (more information on contracts can be seen at Spotrac).

Also, the Panthers decided to keep a few of their restricted free agents around with guys like Sam Montembault, Juho Lammikko, and Eetu Luostarinen

While other teams in the division lost key pieces of their teams, the Panthers kept theirs. This along with team friendly deals allowed them to maximize their cap space and help build this budding contender.

The Newcomers:

Going into free agency, the Panthers had two crucial holes to fill. A top six forward and a top four defensemen.

Real G’s work in silence like lasagna and Bill Zito did just that, dropping a bomb on the hockey world as the first round of the draft was wrapping up.

Yep, Sam Reinhart is a Florida Panther. The biggest move made by the Panthers this offseason and all it cost them was Devon Levi and their 2022 First Round Pick. Reinhart’s flexibility as a winger and center is crucial for the Panthers, as he can play on the wing alongside Barkov and Verhaeghe or center the second line next to Huberdeau.

Along with Reinhart, the Panthers also brought in goalie Chris Gibson and forward Zac Dalpe as added depth.

What’s Next?

While we wait for the offseason to conclude and for pre-season to get here, there are a few things the Panthers need to do:

  • Re-sign Aleksander Barkov. This one is obvious and will get done, it’s just a matter of when. Huberdeau’s extension is looming, and getting a deal done now will make that process much easier.
  • Sign Sam Reinhart. While the Panthers didn’t pay much to acquire him, they will have to pay a lot to keep him. Like Barkov, I expect a deal to get done, it’s just a matter of when.
  • Sign a Top 4 Defensemen. The last hole the Panthers have to fill. While some personnel decisions remain, they still need to fill the fourth spot.

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