This is the latest in THN.com’s ongoing analysis of the off-season plans for each NHL team, Today, we’re looking at the Florida Panthers.
2021-22 Record: 58-18-6
Finish In The Atlantic Division: 1st
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $774,166
Restricted Free Agents: None
Unrestricted Free Agents: Noel Acciari, F; Claude Giroux, F; Maim Mamin, F; Mason Marchment, F; Joe Thornton, F; Ben Chiarot, D; Robert Hagg, D; Petteri Lindbohm, D Markus Nutivaara, D
What Florida Has: A lineup that produced the NHL’s best regular-season record this past season; superstar forwards in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau; an experienced new head coach in Paul Maurice; a Grade-A first line in Barkov Huberdeau and Sam Reinhart; terrific secondary scoring from forwards Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett and Anton Lundell; depth on the blueline and in net, with defensemen Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzine Weegar, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour, and goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight; the league’s most potent offense at an average of 4.11 goals-for-per-game, 25 goals more than the next-most-potent squad
What Florida Needs: A turnaround on their penalty kill, which, at 79.5 percent effectiveness, was ranked just 16th in the league last season, and 12th out of 16 playoff teams at 71.8 percent; salary cap flexibility, and enough off-season change to have a chance at bringing back unrestricted free agent star forward and trade deadline acquisition Claude Giroux, as well as having a shot at young forward and UFA Mason Marchment, who generated 18 goals and 47 points in 54 games last year; an improved playoff performance from Bobrovsky, who had a pedestrian .910 save percentage in the 2022 post-season
What’s Realistic For Florida Next Season: Being the best team in the regular season last year, there’s nowhere to go but down for the Panthers, but GM Bill Zito has locked in virtually all members of the 2021-22 roster, and now he’s challenged to open up some cap room in order to retain one or both of Giroux and Marchment, which won’t be easy at all.
Nevertheless, Florida has an extremely skilled lineup, and a brand new head coach in Paul Maurice, one of hockey’s most respected bench bosses around. Maurice takes over for interim head coach Andrew Brunette, who did not struggle in his 75 games running the team last year, but who doesn’t have the vast range of experience Maurice has. The expectations on Maurice will be (a) immediate, and (b) very high. Nothing less than an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final will suffice for Maurice, who has gotten to that level three times in his coaching career.
The pressure isn’t only on Maurice. His veterans finally made it out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, but the way they were steamrolled and swept by their arch-rivals in Tampa Bay in Round Two left a sour taste in the mouths of management, ownership and fans. It wasn’t only that the Panthers lost to the Bolts, it was the way they lost that was deflating to the organization: in two of the four games, Bobrovsky allowed a total of nine goals; and in all of the games, Florida’s mighty offense was limited to a total of three goals. They were eliminated in a 2-0 shutout, underscoring how thoroughly their best players were outplayed by Tampa’s top players.
Therein lies the challenge for Zito this summer. He can’t trade the 33-year-old Bobrovsky, whose team-high salary cap hit of $10.5 million has four years remaining. He can’t unload more first-round draft picks, as he’s already dealt Florida’s first-rounders in the 2023 and 2024 drafts. So, any moves he makes will be legitimate talent – for instance, veteran winger Patric Hornqvist, who is in the final year of his contract and has a cap hit of $5.3 million – traded away to take a run at Giroux and/or Marchment.
Ultimately, the Panthers are likely to finish the 2022-23 campaign with a slightly poorer record, but they’re definitely a high-seed playoff team. Maurice’s task is clear, and he and his players know there’s nothing that will be considered a meaningful win if it can’t be replicated in the playoffs.