Atlantic Division Preview: Florida Panthers
Florida in 2013-14
The Panthers finished in seventh place out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division with a 21-51-10 record (52 points) at the conclusion of the campaign. Florida struggled early last year, collecting just three wins through its first 16 games, which caused an organizational change, as head coach Kevin Dineen was fired and replaced by Peter Horachek. However Horachek was unable to change the tide in Florida, posting a 26-36-4 record through the last 66 games of the regular season.
The Lightning dominated their intrastate rival by going a perfect 4-0-0 last season. That included scoring the most goals against any opponent last season during a 7-2 home-opener win, highlighted by a Steven Stamkos hat trick. Tampa Bay outscored the Panthers by a combined total of 22-10 in those four contests.
Drafted 19th overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, center Nick Bjugstad led all Panthers skaters with 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 76 games played, while veteran blueliner Brian Campbell and forward Scottie Upshall each amassed 37 points. In his sophomore campaign and first full NHL season, third overall selection at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Jonathan Huberdeau, had nine goals and 19 assists for 28 points.
Key Acquisitions and Departures
The Panthers were not only one of the most active teams in the Atlantic Division, but in the entire NHL as free agency is concerned. For starters, unrestricted free agent forward Jussi Jokinen signed with Florida after a bounce back season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in which he amassed the second-highest point total of his career with 57 points (21 goals, 36 assists). The Finland native is expected to be a good compliment for youngster and fellow Fin Aleksander Barkov. Two-time Stanley Cup-winner with the Los Angeles Kings, Willie Mitchell, also could add some veteran leadership to the Panthers young defensive core, including Dmitry Kulikov, who recently signed a three-year contract extension. Tom Gilbert parted ways with Florida and could be considered a player under the radar and a much bigger loss than anticipated. With the theory that teams cannot be built through free agency however, the Panthers offseason moves can be seen as a wild card, but intriguing with a lot of young restricted free agents recently locked down on their roster.
In the System
Second overall draft pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, Barkov is eager to get back to the ice after suffering a season-ending knee injury during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, while playing with Team Finland. His first year in the NHL was deemed a success though, as he recorded eight goals and 16 assists in 54 games. Fellow first-round pick Huberdeau is also looking to rebound after a Sophomore slump where he record three less points than in 2012-13, despite playing 21 more games. The Panthers picked first in this year’s draft and selected Aaron Ekbald from the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts. They have now selected a Top-3 pick in four out of the last five drafts.
Florida comes to town for the Bolts home opener for the second straight season on Thursday, October 9 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The two clubs do not meet again until March when the Bolts visit BB&T Center on March 1 for the first time, followed by the Panthers returning to Tampa Bay at the end of the month. The last visit of the season will be held in Sunrise on April 4.