With the 2021-22 NHL season coming up, there is a lot of anticipation for the upcoming season. We’re already seeing some of the storylines develop, so with just a week to go before the Florida Panthers open up against the Penguins, it’s time to make our preseason predictions for which of their players will be in award talk this year.
We are going to look at which Panthers will fit the requirements for all of the major NHL awards.
Calder Trophy: Spencer Knight
The Panthers will not have many rookies on their team this season.
Anton Lundell is one of the team’s most promising prospects but after missing the first half of camp due to injury, he could start this season in the AHL.
Lundell returned to the regular skating group on Monday after suffering a minor injury in the Prospect Showcase tournament.
However, the two preseason games remaining this week may not be enough for him to start the season in the NHL. Florida could give him at least the first few weeks of the season to get used to the North American game with the Charlotte Checkers — which opens the door for someone else to emerge.
Knight, however, has been dominant throughout training camp and even has a shot of taking over the No. 1 spot from Sergei Bobrovsky as the season rolls on.
In his first preseason game, Knight stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced, stopping high-danger opportunities at every corner. It’s more of the same dominance that we saw from him when he first entered the NHL for four games last season, going 4-0-0 with a .919/2.32.
Knight gave up two goals on Tuesday as he was impressive against the Lightning.
He’s still Calder eligible with only four games under his NHL belt so he looks like the front runner to be the Panthers’ best rookie.
Norris Trophy: Aaron Ekblad
Ekblad is back on the ice after missing the end of the 2021 season with a leg fracture and he looks just as good as he was last season — if not better.
The 2014 first overall pick is showing that same mobility he’s had for his whole career, covering his assignments defensively while firing his beloved slapshot offensively.
Last year, he had 11 goals and 22 points in 35 games.
Ekblad will step into a bigger role on the power play with Keith Yandle now in Philadelphia.
Yandle had the most points on the power play from a Panthers defenseman with 18 last year, with Ekblad following at 11. Now, his power play ice time will get a boost. He’s the guy now.
This could be the year Ekblad has a 30-goal season, with the power play operating through his booming slap shot, and if he adds 30 assists to go along with it, he should be in the NHL’s Norris Trophy conversation as he was last season before being hurt.
While the emergence of MacKenzie Weegar, who had six goals and 36 points in 54 games last year, makes it a bit of a harder conversation, Ekblad looks to return to his spot as the Panthers’ cornerstone on the back end.
Selke Trophy: Aleksander Barkov
This is probably the easiest award to hand off on the team just because of how good Aleksander Barkov is on the back end. He won the Selke Trophy last season after receiving votes for every single season he played aside from his rookie season.
Barkov does it all for the Panthers, leading the team in goals with 26 last year while serving on the penalty kill and breaking up big plays on the back end.
He is likely a favorite to repeat in the NHL’s Selke Trophy race for the league’s best two-way forward, so it’s a no-brainer that he will be the best forward in the back end for the Panthers this year.
Vezina Trophy: Spencer Knight
While Bobrovsky is showing signs through training camp of bouncing back from his 1-2-0, .841/5.33 showing in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Knight has it in him to win the starting job and be the best goaltender on the team this season.
As I said in the Calder Trophy section, Knight looks comfortable at the NHL level, and at the young age of 20, he is looking to assert himself in the starter’s crease this season.
He showed his potential during his two-game stint in the playoffs last season against the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, going 1-1 with a .933/2.06. With his performance in the preseason and through training camp, it looks like that performance wasn’t a fluke: he is ready to break out as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.
Even if Bobrovsky starts in the starter’s crease on Oct. 14, which is entirely likely, Knight has it in him to break through and take over if Bobrovsky struggles. He’s comfortable enough to be the guy at this point and it is bound to happen at some point this season.
Maurice “Rocket” Richard: Carter Verhaeghe
Verhaeghe might not be the favorite to lead the Panthers in goals this season, but based on what we’ve seen from him so far, he looks like he’s ready to go. He sits on the wing on a line with Barkov, who led the Panthers in goals but also possesses a great playmaking ability, and Sam Reinhart who can also set up Verhaeghe for some sweet goals.
Last season, Verhaeghe had 18 goals in 43 games, coming in third on the team despite missing 13 games. This preseason, the chemistry he had with Barkov last year is back after scoring a goal off of a beautiful pass from the captain in his first preseason action.
Verhaeghe broke out last year after having just nine goals and 13 points in 52 career games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He fit perfectly into the Florida lineup and the 2021-22 season looks to be more of the same from the 26-year-old.
General manager Bill Zito rewarded Verhaeghe with a three-year contract extension worth $4 million per season and the Cats could get a return on investment with a huge season.
Art Ross Trophy: Jonathan Huberdeau
When in Sunrise, there are three things you can count on: death, taxes, and Jonathan Huberdeau having a big season. This year looks to be more of the same with the chemistry between Huberdeau and his linemates, Sam Bennett and Owen Tippett, looking like it’s in midseason form during the preseason.
We saw it in overtime of the team’s first preseason game, where he hit Bennett with a beautiful no-look, between the legs pass to take the victory in overtime. We’ve seen Tippett score some goals off of some beautiful passes from Huberdeau during training camp, it’s more of the same from what Panthers fans have seen from Huberdeau throughout his career.
Last year, Huberdeau led the Panthers in points with 61 in 55 games; in 2019-20 he led the team with 78 points in 69 games. Huberdeau looks to show more of that dominance throughout the 2021-22 season.
He can make plays, he can score goals, he carries play so well, which makes him a great candidate to lead the team in points in the upcoming season.
Hart Trophy: Aleksander Barkov
Barkov is the best all-around player on the team, being both one of the best offensive and defensive players in the entire league. While Huberdeau is pegged ahead of him in points and Verhaeghe is ahead of him in goals in my predictions, he likely finishes as a close second in both categories while showing that dominant ability on the defensive end.
Barkov is one of the most impactful players in the entire league, and for good reason. Since 2018-19, he ranks 20th in the NHL in goals (81) and 12th in the NHL in points (216) while finishing in the top 5 of Selke Trophy voting in two of the three seasons.
2021-22 could be the year where he breaks out as a prime candidate for the league’s MVP, especially after finishing sixth in Hart voting last year, so he is most likely the favorite to being the most valuable player on the Panthers.
Colby Guy is our newest writer at Florida Hockey Now. Colby spent the last four years covering Florida Atlantic Athletics and currently serves as a football reporter for FAU Owl’s Nest.
Colby is currently a senior at FAU and previously served as Editor-In-Chief for the university’s student newspaper, the University Press. Guy grew up on Long Island before moving to South Florida.