Florida Panthers could surprise next year

Updated: July 3, 2014
credit: photos.nj.com

Seemingly every year, there is one team that defies the odds and leaves the NHL and its fans collectively surprised. One team that, on paper, isn’t the most talented but seems to have the right mix of skill, grit, age and youth.

In 2014/15, that team could very well be one that no one ever considers. That team could be the Florida Panthers.

Since Pavel Bure left town way back around the Y2K era, the Panthers have struggled. Actually, they’ve been a laughing-stock; struggling would be a nice upgrade for them. They’ve made the playoffs exactly one time since the 2000 postseason, with an incredible eight sub-.500 seasons in that span. The only blip on the radar is when they won the Southeast Division in 2011/12, only to bow out in the first round to the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.

Other than bad hockey, the Panthers have become known over the last decade for swinging and missing in the draft, signing aging free agents to big money deals in an effort to simply meet the cap floor and just generally being awful. Oh, they’re also known for their *ahem* attendance issues, but that’s another story for another time.

But like that 2011/12 season, the Panthers have a chance to surprise the league. Full of veteran players that now call other places home, the Panthers didn’t blow anyone out of the water and certainly were benefitted by playing in the weaker Southeast. Their roster is again full of solid, if unspectacular, players and a nice mix of developing youth. They won’t benefit from the weak division format again; the Atlantic division features the powerhouse Boston Bruins, playoff teams in the Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings. The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs are non-playoff teams, but not as far away as some think. Only the Buffalo Sabres are among the truly putrid teams in the league.

Up front, they won’t have a dynamic offense, but they have the potential to get the job done. Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau are the youngsters with the explosive potential, but the forward ranks are permeated with solid palyers: Tomas Fleischmann, Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Brad Boyes and Scottie Upshall won’t lead the league in scoring, but they’ll all chip in equally and consistently. They also provide a nice mix of speed and grit that should make the Panthers better defensively.

Speaking of the back end, the Cats will have a sneaky amount of talent. If they can re-sign Dmitri Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, those two will join Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell and the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft Aaron Ekblad to form a fivesome with a ton of talent, size and mobility. Finding another veteran or two to help the kids grow will go a long way in their development, but will also help the Panthers in the short term.

And finally, perhaps their greatest strength is in the crease. Roberto Luongo returns to South Beach after an eight year, up-and-down stint in Vancouver. He played with the Panthers from 2000-2006 before signing a huge new deal with the Canucks. When he’s on his game, there are few better than him in the league and he will no doubt benefit from being out of the bubbling cauldron of pressure that is Vancouver. His laid back, goofy personality will be welcome in the Panthers locker room and he won’t face nearly the amount of scrutiny.

The Panthers will have some gelling to do, but on paper, they have all the ingredients to make a return to the playoffs. Talented, veteran goalie? Check. Deep, solid forward group with exciting young talent sprinkled in? Check. Big, mobile defensive corps? Check. Playoffs? The Panthers hope to add a “check” to that column, too.

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