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 🤝

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.

Follow Andrew Levine on Twitter

Florida Panthers sign Sam Reinhart to three year deal

And just like that, the Panthers have opened their cup window.

The Florida Panthers and forward Sam Reinhart have agreed to terms on a three year contract extension.

Reinhart will earn a total of $19.5 million over three years, averaging $6.5 million a year.

The 25 year old winger marks the beginning of the cup window for the Panthers.

Totaling 25 goals and 15 assist in 54 games last season, Reinhart was a restricted free agent and needed a contract from the Panthers before he could play.

“It’s exciting and adds that extra level of motivation knowing the group of guys here, the talent level, and with what they’re setting up to do… I cant wait to do my part and fit into what they’re already building.”

Sam Reinhart

With Reinhart now signed, the Panthers have around 1.3 million in available cap space remaining. Being this close to the cap ceiling removes much of the team’s flexibility going forward. They will be unable to acquire a major player without trading one away.

Panthers’ GM Bill Zito made an effort to lock up his core for the future. He signed all of the major free agents on the team to similar three or four year deals.

Namely, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour all signed new contracts this offseason, each lasting either three or four years.

Barkov is expected to sign a long term deal with the team in the coming weeks.

Sam Reinhart is one of the pieces for a Stanley cup run as management believes this team can make it happen.

The front office’s vision of this team has manifested into a team which has three seasons to win the Stanley cup. If the Panthers are successful during this window, expect the same players to receive contract extensions.

If they cannot win the ultimate prize, expect major changes in the 2024 offseason.

Follow Sam Schetritt on Twitter

Stanley Cup Recap

The Tampa Bay Lightning were were able to take the first three games, but in the final game in Montreal, the Canadiens were able to take an overtime victory in game four. After going back to Tampa Bay, the Lightning were able to go back home and win the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

First Period

Montreal Canadiens: The Montreal Canadiens were coming off a overtime win, and were playing a strong defensive game in hopes of finding a way to comeback in the series. After an aggressive start, they appeared overmatched and scared to face Tampa head on. They were playing a defensive minded game for most of the first period in order to make things easier on Carey Price, I presume. Although they looked overmatched, they were able to stay in the game through the first period. There is a lot of missing parts to the Canadiens game, but they needed to continue looking on the backdoor against Vasilvesvisky.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Tampa Bay Lightning were looking extremely strong in the first period and were making it difficult on the Canadiens to have any control. Lightning having as good a team as they have, they were making sure that Point, and Kucherov were a big part of the offense. They had a lot of great scoring chances in the first period that put the Canadiens on full alert. After not taking advantage of certain opportunities near the goal, and not keeping Price shielded, they were not showing their best offensive performances. They needed to get Stamkos involved and let him get right after a first period that was underwhelming.

Second Period

Montreal Canadiens: The Montreal Canadiens played a very strong first period and were able to hold the Lightning scoreless. However, the were beaten on a backdoor pass by Savard that put the Lightning up 1-0. They looked extremely strong throughout the period but struggled to execute on multiple chances. The Lightning had a 3-1 and after a mishandle by Josh Anderson, there most likely chance was wasted. They needed to keep the Lightning in a period of unsafety though in order to stay in the game and create chances for some of their elite goal scorers and play makers.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning were able to strike first on a pass by Savard to Ross Colton. After a strong performance and catching lucky breaks they were able to get on the board first and keep the Canadiens scoreless. Playing with great defense and a strong offensive showing, it’s not surprise that the Lightning were the team to strike first.

Third Period

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens were finding themselves in the offensive zone for a large portion of the game, but were unable to finish anything. Vasilvesvisky was able to shut down the Montreal offense that left them scoreless in the game.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning were able to do what was needed in order to walk away with the cup. After winning it last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have now won it back-to-back years and will be looking to win again next season.

Game One Recap

Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning is officially started after the Lightning took game one. There were a lot of great performances from a lot of great players, but the standout was Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov was able to score both the third and assist the fourth goal that helped solidify their game one win.

1st Period

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens had a great first period, and showed great fore-checking and pressure in the offensive zone. Gallagher was adding lots of pressure on the defense early putting the Tampa Bay defense on watch. Offensively the Canadiens were shooting well that caused Vasilevskiy to make some great saves in goal, but were without a goal.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to run it back, and started hot with a great goal by Erik Cernak. From Palat, to Point, and the finish by Cernak, they were able to take the early lead as he was able to sneak it past Price’s glove. Tampa showed a lot of good shifts that was making it hard for Montreal to find any form of puck control.

Canadiens Stats:

Carey Price: 6/7, 1 goal allowed

Lightning Stats:

G: Erik Cernak(1)

A: Brayden Point(7), Ondrej Palat(6)

Andrei Vasilevskiy: 4/4, 0 goals allowed.

2nd Period

Montreal Canadiens: The Montreal Canadiens started a little slow that resulted into Tampa scoring against them, but after finding some fire they had a great finish to the second period. They were able to put themselves on the scoreboard in the final minutes of the second period off a slapshot by Jesperi Kotkaniemi that deflected off the skate of Ryan McDonaugh. Ryan Chariot was then credited with the goal.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Tampa played a great second period that resulted in them getting another goal in the middle part of the second period. The Lightning were applying a great deal of pressure on Carey Price with a numerous amount of speed, and strength in their offensive zone. Brayden Point is drawing a lot of defense leaving multiple shots open by other players on the ice.

Canadiens Stats:

G: Ben Chairot(1)

A: Jesperi Kotkaniemi(3), Shea Weber(4)

Carey Price: 17/19, 2 goals allowed

Lightning Stats:

G: Yanni Gourde(6)

A: Blake Coleman(7), Barclay Goodrow(2)

Andrei Vasilevskiy: 13/14, 1 goal allowed

3rd Period

Montreal Canadiens: Montreal struggled in the third period trying to create plays. Their timing was off when setting up plays in the slot that made execution a big problem. They played very physical all game, but the Lightning were playing a better positional game than Montreal was. Giving up three goals it’s going to be hard to top that when you aren’t executing off your opportunities and that was the downfall to the Canadiens in game one.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Tampa definitely bested the Montreal Canadiens in the third period. After all but solidifying a win after the third goal early on in the period, there wasn’t much hope to Canadiens fans. The positional zone that Lightning were playing in the defensive zone was fantastic and were playing a shut down defensive game against the Canadiens to help solidify the win in game one.

Canadiens Stats:

Carey Price: 21/26, 5 goals allowed

Lightning Stats:

G: Nikita Kucherov(6), Brayden Point(15), Steven Stamkos

A: Mikhail Sergachev(3), Nikita Kucherov(23, 24), Brayden Point(9)

Andrei Vasilevskiy: 18/19, 1 goals allowed

Conclusion

The Tampa Bay Lightning get the game one win against the Montreal Canadiens. In a one-sided performance the Canadiens couldn’t put anything together that the Lightning couldn’t handle. They didn’t execute passes in the slot and it caused them to not put much pressure on Vasilevskiy. On to game two in Montreal as the Canadiens look to bounce back at home.