Where does the time go? It’s hard to believe that October is already well underway, and with it, the beginning of hockey season. Florida is set to embark on the 2015-2016 season with its home (and season) opener against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at 7:00 at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. But before the puck drops, and the season officially begins, here are a few key things to keep in mind:
Ekblad the X Factor
Aaron Eklbad’s franchise record breaking season was one for the ages. He broke nearly every offensive statistical category for a Panthers’ rookie defenseman, and was near the team lead in time on ice per game night in and night out. To the surprise of some, he beat out fellow rookie standouts Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and Mark Stone of the Ottawa Senators for the title of Rookie of the Year, bringing home the Calder Trophy at this past summer’s annual NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas. This of course does not come without a cache-22 however, as the dreaded phrase “sophomore slump” is bound to be on the lips of hockey analysts everywhere in the early goings of this season. Many rookie stars fall prey to complacency in their second season, and Ekblad is by no means immune. If the Panthers are going to have a successful season and find themselves competing for the Stanley Cup this season ,number 5 will not only need to avoid the pitfalls of many of his predecessors, he will need to continue to build on the stellar effort he put forth last season.
Out with the Old
Although Florida GM Dale Tallon has kept a strong veteran presence on his roster with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell, and Roberto Luongo, it is clear that youth is the name of the game in south Florida. Gone are the likes of veterans Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, and Thomas Fleischmann. In their stead, fans will likely see a number of young hopefuls, who are being given a chance to prove themselves worthy of a full-time roster spot. Florida’s official opening day roster includes the likes of Rocco Grimaldi, Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, and Connor Brickley. With so many players competing for only a few spots, these kids should come out swinging. Hopefully, they find chemistry with their fellow line mates early on and bring the fans some fast-paced and exciting hockey.
4 is better than 3
The powerplay was a sore spot for Florida last season. Although its powerplay did finish 24th overall in the league, Florida started to find its way in the latter half of the season. Following the all-star break, the Panthers switched from a 3 forward, 2 defensemen setup, to 4 forwards and one lone defender. The results were immediate. Although a 24th place finish doesn’t seem like much, the Panthers found themselves in dead last in powerplay efficiency prior to the switch, so a six spot jump in a short amount of time is worth noting. The question remains whether or not they will continue with the 4-1 setup, and if a full season of it will pay dividends.
The Road Ahead
The Florida Panthers will play game 1 of 82 in just a few short hours. Every season seems to start with renewed optimism, only to end in bittersweet disappointment. Hopefully, the success, and chemistry that the team found in the latter half of last season will push them over the hump, and back into the playoffs. Strap yourself in, because it should be an exciting year of Panthers hockey. Let’s go Cats!
That’s a wrap!
Not bad, boys. The 2014-2015 regular season has officially drawn to a close for the Florida Panthers, and unfortunately it will not involve them chasing Lord Stanley’s chalice. While you are not alone if you are disappointed by the fact that the Panthers will miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 13th time since the century’s turn, you cannot help but be optimistic about what they will do next year. While the phrase “there’s always next year” has been used ad-nauseam in the better part of the last decade, even detractors are forced to admit that this team is on the cusp of something big. Florida’s 91 point campaign was not only a 25 point leap over last year’s dismal 66 point effort, (or a 38% increase in point output if you want to get technical) it was the biggest improvement by any team this season. Period. There is a lot of work to be done, but the Panthers are in great shape heading into the offseason.
Consistency is key
Florida general manager Dale Tallon addressed several needs last season starting with the acquisition of Roberto Luongo at last year’s trade deadline, and capping things off by adding a cornerstone on defense in budding star, and Calder Trophy hopeful Aaron Ekblad. He added a key cog in the machine in Jaromir Jagr, who defied expectations and father time himself in his 20 game appearance at the tail end of the season, but in spite of all this one need stood unfulfilled: consistent offense. I’m not lobbying for a blockbuster for a superstar like Stamkos, Ovechkin, Crosby etc. Though the Panthers have not had an electrifying presence on the ice since the days of the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure himself, the answer to their scoring conundrum might not lie in putting all of their eggs into one basket. At the risk of sounding like an armchair gm, I do believe that the team lacks a strong scoring presence on the wing, a void which they are rumored to be looking to fill this summer. Jaromir Jagr, as previously mentioned, was worth his weight in gold in the 20 games he played since being picked up just days before the trade deadline. As stoked as I am to see him in a Panther jersey again next season after signing a one-year contract earlier this week, one can only defy time for so long. At 43 going on 44, whether he can sustain the pace he set over a 20 game span for a full 82 remains to be seen. The real question lies in whether young forwards like Brandon Pirri (22 goals in 49 games) Nick Bjugstad (24 goals in 72 games) Jimmy Hayes (19 goals in 72 games) can add to this year’s totals. If they can each increase their output to 30 or more goals, Florida will not want for a 50-goal superstar.
The Florida Panthers had some defining moments this season as a team. Most nights it took everyone pulling on the rope to get them over the hump, but sometimes one player stood alone as the difference maker. It was difficult to pick one MVP, so here’s a list of my three stars of the season, starting with star number three:
Jaromir Jagr: 20GP 6G-12A—18P +/-: +7
Man. Myth. Legend. One can only wonder what Jaromir Jagr could have brought to the table had he been acquired sooner. His impact both on and off the ice was evident from the moment he landed in south Florida. Through 20 games, he posted a +/- of +7 and contributed nearly a point per game. His incendiary chemistry with and continued tutelage of young and impressionable line mates Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexander Barkov proved invaluable as both found their game in the latter half of the season. At 43 years-young, he will likely see a dip in production over the course of a grueling 82 game season, but should be no less effective off the ice.
Aaron Ekblad: 81GP 12G-27A—39P +/-: +12
Florida has drafted some solid players in its past few entry drafts, but few have entered a season with such high expectations placed upon them as rookie defender Aaron Ekblad. As the number one overall pick in last summer’s draft, he was expected to not only be a key piece of the team’s defense, but step in and make an immediate impact as an 18 year-old in arguably the hardest position to play in the NHL: defense. Aaron Ekblad shattered everyone’s expectations, along with a few franchise records for a rookie defenseman. His goals, assists, and points all stand as the new mark to beat for a rookie defenseman, and his games played and plus-minus rating were not too far behind. His two-way game grew with every shift, and he was rewarded for it; his 21:48 average ice team was second on the team. So long as number 5 is manning the blueline, Florida’s defense has a bright future ahead of it.
Roberto Luongo: 61GP 28W-19L-12OTL 2.35 GAA .921 SV% 2 SO
Defense wins championships. That defense begins and ends in net, and Roberto Luongo is about as solid as you can get between the pipes. Much like Jaromir Jagr, Luongo’s impact was immediately felt when he was (re?) acquired from the Vancouver Canucks at last year’s trade deadline. A full season with Luongo back in net proved just how valuable he is to the Florida Panthers. He gave the team a chance to win almost every night he was in net, and was one of the main reasons Florida was part of the playoff conversation for 79 games. While third stringer Dan Ellis filled in admirably when both Luongo and back-up Al Montoya went down to freak injuries during a March 3rd matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, you just can’t replace Bobby Lu. As the defense in front of him continues to grow stronger, he will only look better and better. Here’s to hoping when he hoists the Cup above his head, that he’s doing it in a Panther uniform.
The Road Ahead
Though the offseason is officially underway for all but a lucky 16 teams, we haven’t reached the dog days of summer just yet. The NHL draft lottery (aka the McDavid Derby) is just days away and is set to take place this Saturday at 8:00pm est. Florida, being a non-playoff team, is a longshot with a scant 3% chance of obtaining the top pick and getting a crack at one of two uber prospects in OHL phenom Connor McDavid or NCAA standout Jack Eichel. Can Florida go two for two? The hockey gods may just show them favor. I know I’ll be watching. I hope you all enjoyed the season as much as I did. Here’s to next year. Thanks for reading!
The Florida Panthers announced today that they have signed legendary forward Jaromir Jagr to a one year contract. Jagr was acquired by Florida on February 26th from New Jersey for a 2nd round pick in this year’s draft and a 3rd round pick for 2016. In 20 games with the Panthers #68 was almost a point per game player, registering 6 goals and 12 assists. Overall, Jagr finished the 2014-2015 season with 47 points.
(Update, 4/13/15): Florida signed Jaromir Jagr to a one year, $3.5 million dollar contact.
Moment number five in our countdown focused on a night that honored one of the legends of the game, Jaromir Jagr. The next favorite event of ours from the 2014-2015 season puts the spotlight on a Panthers legend who returned to Vancouver for the first time since being traded back to Florida. It is not every day that a packed arena in Western Canada cheers for a visiting team, but that just goes to show how special Roberto Luongo is to Canucks fans.
#4 – Louuuuu Returns To Vancouver
On June 24th, 2006 the Florida Panthers completed one of the worst trades in NHL history, shipping all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman Lukas Krajicek, and a sixth round pick to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for forward Todd Bertuzzi, goalie Alex Auld, and d-man Bryan Allen. Luongo would go on to play the better part of seven seasons with the Canucks, which included a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, while Bertuzzi only competed in seven games for the Panthers. Goaltender Alex Auld was also a bust for Florida, as he lost the starting job to veteran Ed Belfour. It would take almost eight years before the Cats could right the wrong they made back in 2006.
The Panthers would correct the biggest mistake they ever made on March 5th, 2014, by reacquiring Roberto Luongo from the Canucks for goaltender Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias. This was a trade Canucks fans were not to pleased with, because just like in South Florida, Luongo became a fan favorite during his time in Vancouver. “Bobby Lou” would not return to Rogers Arena until January 8th, 2015, and he received the ovation he deserved.
Luongo was cheered all night, even when he would stop the home team players from scoring. Chants of “Louuuuu” were shouted by the fans, to the point that it sounded like a Panthers home game. “They were cheering me on all night, it was pretty cool” Said Luongo. Roberto and the Cats would get the best of the Canucks on that night, winning 3-1.
This week started with an all-important matchup against the 8th place Boston Bruins, and things looked good for roughly 55 minutes. You had to know it was going to take a complete 60 minute effort to defeat the Bruins though, and the Panthers came up short. Florida’s 2-1 lead slipped away after a deflection by Ryan Spooner with a little more than ten minutes left to play tied the game, and Milan Lucic’s drive to the net resulted in the game winning goal with just 1:09 left in regulation. While a bitter pill to swallow at the time, the loss didn’t initially seem to break the Panthers’ spirits; they responded just 48 hours later with a 6-1 drubbing of the Carolina Hurricanes. The energy would not last however, as Florida was officially eliminated from playoff contention the following game, coming out on the wrong end of a 4-0 blanking to cross-state rival Tampa Bay on Saturday night. The Panthers would not have to wait long for a chance at redemption as they faced off against the divisional powerhouse Canadiens the very next day. They wouldn’t fare much better. A visibly deflated Florida just couldn’t shake the “no post-season blues”, and wound up falling 4-1 to the tune of three unanswered Montreal goals.
Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo were both poised for milestone achievements this week; Jagr started the week at 1,796 career points (two shy of former Penguin teammate, and 4th all-time scorer Ron Francis) and Luongo could practically taste win number 400. Though the playoffs may elude them this season, it was nice to see the two veterans get over the proverbial hump in last Thursday’s win over Carolina. With his goal and assist, Jagr moved into a tie with Francis, and with the win, Luongo secured career win number 400. Not too shabby.
The kids are alright
Florida Panthers’ general manager Dale Tallon made a few ripples in the free agency pool this past week; signing prospects Kyle Rau (pictured above: left) and Michael Matheson (pictured above: right) to entry level contracts. Rau, a versatile center, finished his senior year with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, serving as team captain and amassing 20 goals and 21 assists through 39 games. Matheson, a defenseman, also had a fine showing during his junior season at Boston College; netting 3 goals and 22 assists, all while wearing the “C” for the Eagles. Both players have been assigned to the AHL and made their debut with the San Antonio Rampage this past week.
The Road Ahead
While the Panthers have faded out of the playoff picture, the season is not yet over. Florida still has two games remaining in its season-ending home stand. The Panthers will play the second-to-last game of the season this Thursday at 7:30 against (who else?) the Boston Bruins, and will finish with game number 82 coming full circle at home against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday at 7:00.