Now, I wouldn't say that the Panthers couldn't start the season, because they have a lot of talent signed and ready to go, but without one of their best forwards locked up to a new deal and more than their fair share of open roster spots for their youth, I guess the better terminology to use is that the Panthers are the least decided team heading into the 2016 season.
Even with all of that uncertainty, the Panthers are not too far off the pace, when it comes to challenging for that playoff spot. The Panthers were only 7 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and their young core has a lot more upside to realize and they have some veteran talent to help guide them there.
Panthers fans are going to have lots to cheer about in the 2016 season (and probably longer) and us poolies have a decent team to pick from this season. Let's just hope that everyone gets signed and ready to go, before the puck drops or else the Panthers may drop a few points to start the year.
Table last updated on August 15th
Most Intriguing or Breakout Player
An early Summer concussion had me scared off from making the move and saying that Aaron Ekblad was the most intriguing Panthers player last year, but a Calder Trophy win last year has me thinking otherwise, heading into the 2016 season.
Yes, yes... I know. It has been a recurring event in these projection posts, that I'm posting a sophomore for a team as an intriguing or breakout player, something that I really wouldn't want to be buying into, but Ekblad's poise in the 2015 season certainly has me enticed, even just a little.
Now, to be fair, I do have Ekblad taking a bit of a turn for the worst, jinx and stuff, but my level of intrigue is about whether or not he can be better than the jinx. After watching him a bit at the end of the year, the kid certainly played beyond his years and even showed that he should be with some of the big boys at the international level, playing for Canada at the World Championships, picking up 7 points in 10 games, not to mention the gold medal.
When it comes to the sophomores, you can always avoid some disappointment, if you select them according to your projections of them. In Ekblad's case, I would be pretty happy to get him in the 30-point range and hope that he has a great year.
First Round Picks
I don't see the Panthers making that leap quite yet, trying to vault themselves into the playoffs, as the competition is going to be fierce again. With that being said, I don't think we'll see any 1st round worthy players from the Panthers, nor do I believe anyone will take the risk on the Panthers in the early part of the draft.
Other Pool Worthy Forwards
Having no 1st round picks and a defenseman as the intriguing player means that all the pool worthy forwards are going to be here in this section. I would say that Florida has six forwards ready to be picked in the draft this year and maybe some fringe players for later on in the season. An unsigned Jonathan Huberdeau leads the way, but only if he gets his deal done before puck drop. Nick Bjugstad, last year's intriguing player, won't be too far behind, as he has looked good in a Florida uniform. The old vet, Jaromir Jagr, ready to go one more time, should be worthy again. A newcomer in Reilly Smith has some real pool upside, coming from Boston, while Jussi Jokinen and Alexander Barkov are bringing up the rear.
Other Pool Worthy Defense
Florida is not short on help from the blueline, as Brian Campbell and Dimitri Kulikov will be around to ease the pressure off of young Ekblad and their veteran presence will be a huge lift for this team, especially if they go above and beyond their expectations from this post. Campbell doesn't quite score like some of his best years, but he still moves the puck quite well, so he will be a safe pick this year. I think a 23-year old Erik Gudbranson will finally make it out to be a reasonable, late round defender pick-up this year, someone to keep in mind.
You're going to have to drag Roberto Luongo's cold dead body out of the crease, before he gives it up easily for the Panthers. No, just kidding. He should play a whole boat load of minutes again this year and if Florida is going to steal a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, there is more than a chance that Luongo will have to steal more than a few games. Nevertheless, he'll win games, he'll pick up points, but I'm not quite banking on a playoff spot yet.
I can see a little bit of a lighter load for Luongo in the dog days, which could mean a few more wins for Al Montoya as his back-up, expecting him to be a decent second choice this year.
Possible Entries Into the Rookie Race
The Florida roster situation leads me to believe that there is going to be room for a rookie to shine this year. 2011 2nd round pick, Rocco Grimaldi, has been hanging around a little too long to be that impact guy, while 2015 1st round pick, Lawson Crouse, has the elements (size, speed & hands) that could make the Panthers a whole bunch better. I could see Crouse making it and I could see him as a mid-season add, helping a team with some last minute rookie points.
Team To Pick From Late?
How excited would you be to take a Panthers player late on in the draft? It's a reasonable question, I suppose. By the projections, you might be able to find a player that could exceed those numbers and turn into a bargain pick, possibly a Brandon Pirri, Dave Bolland or Vincent Trocheck. They would certainly be gambles, but if they are your last forward, it might not be too bad.
Unsigned Players and Salary Cap
It has already been mentioned once in the post, but it is worth mentioning again. The biggest free agent still left on the books for the Panthers is Jonathan Huberdeau and he's a player that has a slight bit of pull, when it comes to the long-term versus bridge deal argument. The Panthers are not hurting for cap space, but I'm sure the top brass of the team wants things to be kept at a reasonable level. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
The Panthers were one of a few teams that took on an injured salary to get a deal done, as they took on Marc Savard from the Bruins, helping some of their cap calculations, trying to reach the floor of $52.8 million. Savard's $4 million inclusion means that this team won't have cap floor concerns, especially since they don't have to put him on the Long Term Injured Reserve, but they still have to pay him.
Without Huberdeau on the books, not counting Crouse or Grimaldi, and even without Savard against the active total, the Panthers have a projected roster of only 16 players, coming in at $53.6 million. The cap floor crisis averted. Still, the Panthers still aim to be young, still want to grow from within and now they can do that with relative ease.