Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Florida Panthers…
The Florida Panthers are quickly becoming one of the most enjoyable young clubs to watch. If you’re flipping through all the games on a night when your team isn’t playing, they’re certainly worth a look.
Former general manager Dale Tallon has a great eye for talent and — coupled with the many early picks Florida had been stockpiling for awhile there — he’s been able to assemble a pretty skilled lineup. Aaron Ekblad is already one of the best young defensemen in the world, Aleksander Barkov is emerging as one of the top young snipers in the league and Jonathan Huberdeau is just three years removed from winning the Calder Trophy.
Given the impressive lineup, it feels a little weird to use the phrase “former GM” when describing Tallon — especially since he’s still entrenched in the organization’s front office. And it’s not as if this group struggled to maximize its abilities last year. If anything, they may have exceeded expectations by winning the Atlantic Division so quickly. That made for a somewhat strange summer, but it could also lead to a fun season.
Why all the change?
There might not be a better example of analytics clashing with old school values anywhere else in the NHL right now. Not that it necessarily got contentious, but Tallon was getting the job done pretty well by doing what he has done for years — and now he finds himself in a different role as the franchise goes with a more numbers-based approach.
Will it work? It certainly could, as long as both evaluation styles have a say. And it obviously helps to have a strong roster to fall back on, if things start to go sideways. But it was a definite eye-opener to see Tom Rowe take over the GM duties in May. Isn’t there a saying about not trying to fix things that aren’t broken?
That could extend to the blue line as well, where former No. 3 overall pick Erik Gudbranson was shipped to Vancouver, and Brian Campbell left as well. Meanwhile, Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk were brought in to shore up what looks like a completely different defense corps around Ekblad.
If the Panthers continue to trend upward, all of this will be forgotten pretty quickly. But if they hit a snag — even if that snag might have been inevitable anyway, given all the youth on the roster — there are going to be questions.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Keith Yandle (from: NYR)
He’s the headliner on a lengthy list of new faces making their way to Florida this season. Yandle was an offensive force during his time with the Coyotes, but never quite found his groove with the Rangers. When used properly, he can run the point on the power play about as good as anyone. The key is finding the right defensive partner to pair him with, so he can utilize his offensive gifts without getting burned in his own zone.
Lawson Crouse (drafted: No. 11 overall in 2015)
The Panthers already have a plethora of young talent being showcased at the NHL level, and Crouse is next in line. Nicknamed “The Sheriff”, he stands 6’4″, weighs in at 210 pounds and is well-known for an incident in which he ate worms on a tour of the Everglades just before the 2015 Draft.
Crouse is more than capable of throwing his weight around, but he can also put the puck in the net — as evidenced by the 23 goals he scored in 49 games with Kingston of the OHL last season. And even with a pretty full roster in front of him, there’s a decent chance he works his way into at least a fourth line role this year.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Keith Yandle ($6.35 million)
This year, it’s the new guy. But that will change pretty quickly a season from now, when Aaron Ekblad’s annual income jumps from $925,000 to $7.5 million.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
How long will he play? Nobody knows! But Jagr himself has joked that he might hang around until he’s 50. At age 44, he led all Florida scorers with 66 total points, and was just one goal behind Barkov for the club lead in that department as well. It’s not like he led some random, struggling team in scoring either — remember, the Panthers took first place in their division.
Jagr continues to sign one-year deals, and continues to produce offense while being someone the younger players on the roster can look up to. Nobody really knows what a 45-year-old winger is worth because, well, nobody really remembers the last time a 45-year-old winger was consistently contributing like this.
Really, the only negative stat on Jagr is kind of a strange one: for all the points he has tallied in his lengthy career — both in the regular season and playoffs — he somehow hasn’t scored a goal in his last 37 postseason contests.
Reimer continues to look for a starting gig, yet continues to end up behind established goaltenders that won’t be giving up that No. 1 role anytime soon.
That said, he could still prove to be important for Florida in 2016-17. Harvey Fialkov of the Sun-Sentinel joined the Natural Hat Trick Podcast on Wednesday, and noted that the 28-year-old netminder might very well play 30 or so games this season. He looked good in San Jose late last year, and the Panthers didn’t bring him in just to sit on the bench.
Yes, Luongo is the clear-cut first option. But winning a best-of-seven series is the next step for Florida, so giving him the occasional rest in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs wouldn’t be the worst idea.