Other than the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers might be the team among the NHL's bottom-10 finishers from the 2013-14 season most likely to vault into playoff contention in 2014-15.
Florida did not make dramatic improvements through offseason additions, and how the Panthers play for a third coach in less than a year remains to be seen, but there are plenty of exciting young players to build around.
There were signs of serious improvement in the second half of last season, particularly in puck possession, after Peter Horachek replaced Kevin Dineen as coach. Horachek was not retained, though, and Gerard Gallant and his 147 games of NHL head coaching experience remains a bit of a mystery.
It was a curious offseason for the Panthers as well. Jussi Jokinen and Willie Mitchell look like solid additions, but the $27.5 million contract for Dave Bolland was panned as one of the worst of the offseason by a considerable portion of the hockey community. There are lots of prospects on the precipice of becoming NHL regulars, but not a lot of spots available unless veterans on one-way contracts are removed from the equation.
If a few young players turn into stars, Florida can fight for a playoff berth. If more growing pains are needed, it could be another long season.
Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Panthers:
Elite centers are the most valuable currency for teams looking to build a championship contender, and the Panthers might have their top two for the next decade in Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. It is easy to envision them becoming one of the top tandems in the League in the next few seasons.
What makes the Bolland contract more perplexing is the addition of Derek MacKenzie and Brandon Pirri's success after arriving in the middle of last season. It's possible that either or even both of them could outperform Bolland if given third-line minutes.
This could be a huge season in Jonathan Huberdeau's development. He played for Gallant with Saint John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Panthers need him to evolve into an elite scorer to complement Barkov and Bjugstad. There are interesting veteran parts on the wing, but none are going to be counted on for elite offensive production.
There are several prospects who could make pushes for jobs during training camp, including Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore and Rocco Grimaldi. The Panthers have 11 forwards on one-way contracts plus Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau on their entry-level deals. MacKenzie signed a three-year contract worth $1.3 million per season, and giving Shawn Thornton two years and $2.4 million also was puzzling.
Dylan Olsen - Aaron Ekblad
Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert comprised one of the NHL's most underrated defense pairings in 2013-14, but Gilbert is gone to Montreal. Four of the nine defensemen who played at least 16 games for the Panthers are no longer with the organization.
Dmitry Kulikov had an incredibly unlucky 2013-14, and might be the best option to pair with Campbell in place of Gilbert. The one to watch is obviously Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson also were high picks but have yet to show elite ability at this level. Ekblad, who sustained an offseason concussion, could develop into that type of player and allow them to slot in behind him.
A full season of Roberto Luongo, not to mention a quality backup like Al Montoya, could do wonders for Florida's goal-prevention problems. Tim Thomas, Jacob Markstrom, Scott Clemmensen and Dan Ellis combined for 68 starts and a dreary .896 save percentage last season, while Luongo logged a .924 in 14 starts after arriving in a trade from the Vancouver Canucks.
Montoya posted a .920 save percentage in 28 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, and has at least a .920 in 20 or more games played in two of the past three full NHL seasons.
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