The Florida Panthers surprised a lot of people this season. Picked by many to miss the playoffs, the Panthers instead came within a point of first place in a revamped NHL Central Division. Despite seeing their season end Thursday night with a 4-2 series loss to the Lightning, the future of this team definitely looks promising.
In this 2021 season, the Panthers finished with their highest point percentage of all-time (.705, ranked fourth in the entire league), winning 37 of 56 games.
These Panthers were legitimately good.
And they are legitimately good. As Sasha Barkov said after it all came to a disappointing end Wednesday night in Game 6 against the Lightning, the Florida Panthers are contenders now.
The team does have some things to figure out in the offseason. There are players to be re-signed, drafted and wooed. Then there is Barkov, who can sign a long-term contract in the summer.
The building up of the Panthers is not done — but it is close.
These do not feel like the ‘same old Panthers.’
“We’re disappointed but it was a great regular season by us, we had a lot of fun,’’ Barkov said. “We enjoyed playing with each other. … This year felt way different. As I said all year, this felt like a new start for me and a new start for everyone in the organization. That’s how we felt and we played like a fresh team, a fresh organization. It sucks it had to end.”
What will general manager Bill Zito tackle first?
At the end of a season, teams always look back at what happened.
In Florida’s case, it may be best to look at the strides the team made in 2021 and where this team can be in the future.
With the talent here, most of which is under team control for the near future, the future of the Panthers looks bright.
”We go home in the summer here and look at it,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “There’s a lot of positives and you are always looking to get better. Can’t be satisfied with the success we had which, this year, was significant.
“Let’s keep thinking that’s the rate we want to keep getting better at. Outside expectations were not high and internally they grew throughout the season. That’s a healthy thing.”
Yes, the Panthers looking ahead with something to build on is definitely a healthy thing.
The Panthers have much to look back on with fondness although it may not feel like it on Thursday morning.
Barkov is the favorite to win the Selke Trophy which would bring the franchise its first major player award since Aaron Ekblad won the Calder Trophy for top rookie in 2015.
Jonathan Huberdeau, playing his way into elite status, won Florida’s first Calder in 2013.
The Panthers are not only looking like contenders as Barkov said, they proved it this season.
Florida gave the defending champion Lightning all it could handle in a six-game series which felt like it should have gone the limit.
Both teams won games in which they were never really threatened, but for the most part, this series was tight.
It really could have gone either way. The Panthers are as close to being elite as they have been in decades.
”We had a great year, we played a really good team and got beat but they had a hard time,” said Huberdeau, who was tied with Tampa Bay star Nikita Kucherov for the NHL lead in postseason scoring coming into Game 6.
“Organization-wise, it was good to see that, to see the fans and get back into a winning culture. That’s what we want. Playoffs matter and we have to win there, but this is what we want. Next year, we’ll come back with a better attitude and can be a better team. …
“In two weeks, we probably look back on these things. We had a good team this year, had a lot more depth and we don’t know what’s going to happen with guys who have to be signed and all, but I like our group. I like the chemistry on the ice and in the room. I like what we’re doing, it just didn’t go our way this series. We’re optimistic about the next year for sure.”
The Panthers definitely have questions which need to be answered this offseason although the building of this team seems to be well on its way.
Although there was a report in the New York Post that Quenneville could be going to Seattle as the new coach of the expansion Kraken, no one is taking it too seriously.
Quenneville, one of the highest paid coaches in the NHL, appears very happy to be leading this franchise forward.
Had the Seattle story come out last summer when the Panthers were kicked to the Toronto curb by the Islanders without much fight, perhaps it would have more legs.
Right now, why would Quenneville want to go anywhere else?
This is a team on the rise.
PANTHERS BUILDING UP
With solid work done already from Zito and the strong front office he has built in less than a year on the job, the Panthers feel good about where they are — and where they are headed.
”Before the playoffs, we were one of the contenders. We played really good hockey,” Barkov said.
Florida will lose a player, perhaps a good one, to Seattle in the expansion draft.
Chris Driedger, the backup goalie everyone in South Florida loves, is a free agent and will almost assuredly be leaving as well.
That, really, is the least of their concerns.
In Game 6, the Panthers had their two highest-paid players — Sergei Bobrovsky and Keith Yandle — as healthy scratches. That was more than $16 million worth of salary sitting in the press box, or, wherever they watched the game from.
Both players have, at least in Bobrovsky’s case, a lot of years left on their contracts and no-movement clauses as well.
Even if another team did wanted to acquire them, the players would have to agree to the trade.
After seeing Zito move Mike Matheson and his six-year deal in the offseason, no one thinks it is an impossibility to make something happen this year.
Perhaps a backdoor deal has already been made with one of the players and another (Seattle?) team.
But that is complete speculation on my part.
Moving a big chunk of salary would be in Florida’s best interest with a flat cap remaining in place and a number of key pieces — Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Alex Wennberg, Brandon Montour, etc. — needing to be re-signed.
Oh, and you can bet the Panthers would like to dish off some big hunks of salary what with Barkov being up for an extension this summer. Next year, you start talking to Huberdeau about his long-term deal.
Keeping Barkov and Huberdeau is going to cost in the neighborhood of $18-23 million per season moving forward. It’s a nice neighborhood, sure, but if the Panthers could move some money it can be done.
The Panthers are a cap team because they are a talented one. This is a team being built for the very near future.
As much as people hate hearing about prospects on the way, Florida has recent first-round pick Anton Lundell coming up as well.
He could be Florida’s second or third line center next season. He is a star in the making and could give, if Wennberg and Bennett come back, the Panthers some of the best center depth in the entire league.
Florida also has some pretty good depth defensively.
And we haven’t even mentioned Spencer Knight; just figured he’s gotten enough pub in the past week to suffice.
ZITO’S SUCCESSFUL FIRST YEAR
The Panthers looked stacked for their future and that is said before we know what Zito is going to pull off next.
With rare exception, everyone he brought in during his first year behind Dale Tallon’s former desk has worked out. The ones who have not really worked didn’t cost anything.
There have been, for sure, many more hits than misses. Pete Rose-like numbers, actually.
This will be an eventful offseason as it always seems to be when it comes to the Panthers.
Owner Vinnie Viola is not happy the Panthers lost Wednesday, trust me.
But, don’t expect the craziness that transpired in 2016 when Florida lost to the Islanders in the first round and everything around here changed. Those moves had been in motion long before the Panthers lost Game 6 in Brooklyn and nothing of the sort is underfoot now.
The Panthers learned from those mistakes and are building, not tearing down to reimagine themselves this time around.
MORE BIG MOVES COMING?
Perhaps there will be some moves.
Could Huberdeau be traded? Maybe. If the team doesn’t think it could keep both he and Barkov long-term, Huberdeau would not have better value nor get a better return (two years left at $6 per which is an absolute steal) than he is right this second.
Florida should and will try and keep Huberdeau and Barkov together. They are cornerstone pieces of the franchise. Just throwing it out there that his trade value will never be higher.
Huberdeau’s star shone bright in these playoffs. You thought he was good before, well, he blew up against the Lightning.
Can the Panthers move one of their two biggest contracts in Bobrovsky and/or Yandle? The thought here is one of them will not be in Sunrise when training camp kicks off in September.
Yandle is the not-so-safe bet. He only has two years left on his contract and it should be easier to move, especially if the Panthers eat some money and throw in a sweetener.
Bobrovsky, when he signed as a free agent in 2019, only had two teams seriously trying to sign him — Florida and the Islanders. The Panthers bid against themselves and will have to live with it, for better or worse, in the near future.
Bobrovsky is not done, far from it.
Will he ever be worth a cap hit of $10 million? Was he ever going to be? Maybe not, but he can still be a guy the Panthers count on moving forward.
Again, these are all problems that will be worked out in the coming weeks and months of what may not be a long offseason on the calendar. The draft is coming, free agency as well.
The Panthers will be active.
They always are.
They have to be.
This team is really close and, after all these years, truly legitimate.