What is old is new again. Is that how it goes?
Only two years removed from their last playoff appearance, the Florida Panthers have not improved whatsoever and I think that's kind of a shame. Instead of improving, they fell down to the 30th position in the 2013 season and now the 29th position after the 2014 season. I mean, that leaves them with great drafting capability, losing the lottery in 2013 gave them Alexander Barkov, while they won the lottery for this Summer and have their choice of a few top prospects.
But speaking from a hockey pool draft perspective, the Florida Panthers are not exactly the first well you would tap for talent. The team, as individuals, has a remarkable amount of talent, but when you take the sum of all the parts, it really hasn't added up to too much, but there is still a glimmer of hope that GM Dale Tallon knows what he's doing there.
In the 2014 season, the Panthers were not a hotbed of hockey pool talent and by my scoring, at the end of the regular season, there was only one player in the top 200 in overall scoring and that was Roberto Luongo, who spent the better part of the season with the Vancouver Canucks. Luongo finished with 58 points between Vancouver and Florida, good enough for 72nd overall in pool scoring, 17th in goalie points.
Everyone else that finished the 2014 season in a Florida Panthers jersey was below the top 200, as Nick Bjugstad was the top forward and he finished 204th with 38 points in 76 games. Scottie Upshall was 2nd in forward scoring on the team, finishing with 37 points, good enough for 213rd overall.
Also of note would be their top defenseman, Brian Campbell, who had a cap hit of $7.14 million and finished with 37 points in 82 games, good enough for 219th overall in pool scoring. Campbell was 32nd in defenseman scoring, which should be considered well-below expectation.
Injuries to Sean Bergenheim, Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Tomas Kopecky, Erik Gudbranson and Ed Jovanovski were certainly solid reasons for a lack of production throughout the season, but it could be more a lack of depth that was unable to keep the team a float, an issue the team will be looking to address in the off-season.
2015 Pool Outlook
There are going to be a lot of trust issues with the Florida Panthers at next year's draft, I can already tell. Luongo is an elite goalie in the NHL, but when the team in front of him fails to excel, we all know how that goes and it isn't very good. The Panthers are stacking up with talent up front, with Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Barkov already in tow and Quinton Howden & Vincent Trocheck not far behind. By no means, will they have playoff expectations, but with the way free agency will clean out their roster, there is a chance they'll start to make some noise.
Right now, I cannot see any Panthers player picked higher than the 4th round in the draft, assuming we have the same 24 teams in next season, as Luongo's stock goes as high as the team in front of him plays. I don't think any of their young scorers are ready to break out yet, because they have little help, although they should see some improvement in their numbers.
I think I might be bumping Nick Bjugstad up the pool rankings, possibly near the top 150 mark, as he has established himself on a poor team to be someone to watch. The last time I wrote a Pool Outlook for the Panthers, Quinton Howden's name did appear as someone to watch, but he never really panned out, until the 2014 season. With 16 games under his belt, scoring 4 goals, Howden may have finally reached the point where he could be a reasonable bet for a final forward taken on your draft team. Acquired during the year, Brandon Pirri also showed some reason to possibly get a bump in the rankings.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Tom Gilbert, Jesse Winchester, Scott Clemmensen, Scott Gomez, Krys Barch, Matt Gilroy, Mike Mottau and Ryan Whitney will all be hitting unrestricted free agency on July 1st and other than Gilbert, I fully expect them all to find new homes.
By my count, the Panthers only have about 16 semi-locks to their roster, as of May 6th, which rounds out to be 11 forwards, three defensemen and Luongo in net. With buyouts and retained salary, this brings their current cap hit to a shade below $49 million, giving the team about $22.2 million to the projected $71.1 million salary cap ceiling. That should be plenty of room, if the Panthers decide to clean up the dregs of the free agency pool, like they did last Summer.
The Florida Panthers finished 29th in the NHL overall standings in the 2014 season, but won the draft lottery after the season, giving them the 1st overall pick in June. For as much potential that Jonathan Huberdeau may have to realize in his career, it may still be somewhat of a gamble to lean on him to become a franchise player, so I believe it would be in the Panthers' best interest to find the player that has the potential to be a franchise guy. The scouts are all torn on who the number one guy is, but there seems to be a number of good candidates in forwards Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart or defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Personally, I would go with one of the forwards in their case.
Now, to offer up my early prediction for the 2015 season. It has been a few years since I've done these, so I won't go back to my prediction for the 2011 season, because that'd be moot.
GM Dale Tallon has done a good job to slowly build up his prospect pool and gain some stable pieces to his puzzle, but his franchise is far from ready to compete for the long-term. As good as Luongo may be, an unstable blueline can and will be the death of this franchise. Dimitri Kulikov, Dylan Olsen and Erik Gudbranson are all under 25 years old, but are coming along. Finding some solid veteran help for these kids will be key, since Campbell and Jovanovski haven't been able to fill those qualifications of late. Unless the Florida blueline can improve with veteran leadership and experience, I cannot see much improvement in the standings for 2015. Today, I still expect to see the Panthers in the bottom five of the league, come 365 days from now.