CORAL SPRINGS — A team coming off its best regular season rarely makes the kind of changes the Florida Panthers did this offseason, yet here we are.
The Panthers set franchise records for goals scored (340), points (122) and wins (58) as they won the NHL Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history.
Only a second-round sweep at the hands of the rival Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs led to numerous changes around the team.
Interim coach Andrew Brunette, who finished second in Coach of the Year voting, was replaced by former Carolina, Toronto and Winnipeg bench boss Paul Maurice.
Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer who scored 115 points last season, was traded to Calgary in a blockbuster July trade which brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Panthers.
Due to salary cap concerns, Florida was not able to keep key free agents such as Mason Marchment, Claude Giroux, Noel Acciari and Ben Chiarot.
General manager Bill Zito spent what little money he had under the cap as wisely as he could, bringing in Marc Staal, Nick Cousins, Colin White, Rudolfs Balcers and a few more players who will be fighting for a spot on the roster.
With the Panthers still about $400,000 above the salary cap once Anthony Duclair and his $3 million hit is placed on long-term injured reserve, a preseason trade could still be coming.
Of course, a player or two could get hurt during the three week preseason (Florida opens its season on Oct. 13 against the host New York Islanders) making roster decisions a little easier.
As it stands now, who makes the roster is one of the biggest questions going into camp.
Florida opens camp this morning at 9 with 56 players on its roster including 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goaltenders.
For the complete roster, click HERE.
For the questions facing the Panthers as camp begins, read on:
How many forwards will the Panthers keep? Usually, NHL teams carry 23 players on their active roster with 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies.
But with the Panthers staring down the salary cap, can they afford to keep two extra forwards?
For now, we’ll say yes.
If so, who gets those spots? Veteran Eric Staal is vying for one of them and is in camp on a professional tryout. He will be given every opportunity to make this team.
We’ll break down who we think are locks on the roster later, but a quick glance shows 12 who appear safe. Staal is battling the likes of Grigori Denisenko, Aleksi Heponiemi, Anton Levtchi, Chris Tierney and Logan Hutsko for one of those spots.
Now, Levtchi is a very popular pick to make the team — some think he’ll get a shot on the top line with Sasha Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk — but he can go to the minors without having to pass through waivers.
That alone may give the Panthers an easy, early out.
We shall see.
Who is the seventh defenseman? Barring any injury, the Panthers have five locks on the backend with Lucas Carlsson the likely sixth. Who gets No. 7 is definitely up for debate.
We think Matt Kiersted has the early lead in this roster battle although veteran Michael Del Zotto has an opportunity with a strong showing in camp to grab the spot.
Kiersted can go to Charlotte without going through waivers and Florida may decide it would be wise for him to get a lot more playing time in the AHL.
Santtu Kinnunen, who comes in from Finland, could make a push for the final spot as could Calle Sjalin who signed as a free agent from Sweden. Both players are waivers exempt and are making their North American debuts.
A start in Charlotte to get used to the smaller ice surface may not be the worst thing for either.
What does the power play look like? We don’t think new coach Paul Maurice will run five forwards as Andrew Brunette did at the end of the regular season especially with Giroux off to Ottawa.
Aaron Ekblad ran the power play last season before being hurt before the trade deadline, the first time he had been given the keys. Results were mixed but, again, he was replacing Keith Yandle after mainly getting just second-team time in the past.
We expect Barkov, Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart to be there, perhaps Patric Hornqvist up front. But what about Carter Verhaeghe?
How do the defensive pairings work? With MacKenzie Weegar off to Calgary, Ekblad needs a new partner. All signs point toward the obvious with Gus Forsling getting that spot on the left side of the top pairing.
The question becomes who else goes where? We like the idea of Brandon Montour getting more playing time perhaps on the second pair with Radko Gudas or Marc Staal. If Carlsson shows more consistency than he did last season, he could move up as well.
When it comes to Florida’s defensemen, we doubt how things look on Opening Night will be what we see in the weeks and months to come. This is going to be a work in progress all season.
Does J-F Berube earn the No. 3 goalie spot? The Panthers have a number of young goalies vying for a spot in Charlotte with Mack Guzda making the jump from junior and Evan Fitzpatrick in on an AHL deal.
Alex Lyon has plenty of experience with this being his seventh professional season.
But Berube was given the opportunity to come to camp and build on the season he had with the Blue Jackets and Cleveland Monsters last season. He is an experienced veteran goalie who could step in if Florida had an injury to Sergei Bobrovsky or Spencer Knight.