Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pool Outlook for Florida

The Florida Panthers were coming into the 2017 season on the heels of a very good 2016 season and they would be bringing a brand new look to the table, with new logos, jerseys and a slightly changed colour scheme.  There was lots of excitement around these Panthers, but it slammed itself into a wall pretty quick and they really had to scramble to recover... which failed, by the way.

A dreadfully slow start for the cats, ultimately cost the coaching staff their jobs, which brought management down from their perch to try and right the ship moving forward.  Age was certainly a factor, when it came to their more veteran players in Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo, who just weren't able to carry the team as well as they had the year before.  Injuries were also a major factor, losing Jonathan Huberdeau in the preseason to an Achilles injury, Aleksander Barkov not being able to play a full season, nor was Nick Bjugstad to a shoulder injury, three key young players on their roster, missing considerable amounts of time.

All of these expectations may have caught up with the team as a whole, as there is going to be a restructuring on the bench and in management, as Dale Tallon has assumed the General Manager's role and they are still looking for a new head coach, but more importantly, if the Panthers can make it to the start of the 2018 season with healthy bodies, they have overcome half of the battle right there.

The pool was certainly feeling the excitement from the Florida Panthers' 2016 season, as there were 13 players taken back in October, with Luongo being the top-billed cat, taken 32nd overall in the 2nd round of the draft.  Huberdeau was also taken in the draft, initially, but since his injury happened between the end of the draft and puck drop to start the season, Stacey M. was able to swap him out for a healthy body.  The slow start only swapped one for one at the first Waiver Draft, which wasn't too bad, while the second Waiver Draft saw another lone drop.  The Panthers were still in the playoff mix at the deadline, so they did well to acquire Thomas Vanek from the Red Wings, rounding their active lineup in the pool to 12 players.

Among all the players in Florida, Vincent Trocheck was about the only player to really make any strides in the 2017 season, as he led the Panthers in points, picking up 23 goals and 54 points in all 82 games.  That placed him 90th among all players in pool scoring, making him a late 4th round pick, which really identifies how bad the season was for Florida, as a whole.

The Panthers had five more forwards worthy of the pool in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Marchessault, Thomas Vanek, Jaromir Jagr and Reilly Smith, but none of them could crack the top 100 in pool scoring, which meant offense came at a premium up front.  The blueline was far more impressive, as they featured five players on their back end to join the conversation, including Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson and Mark Pysyk.  Very reminiscent of Carolina's season last year.  The Panthers were in the playoff mix for the better part of the season, which meant that their goaltending had to find some points somewhere, so both James Reimer and Roberto Luongo were good enough for pool consumption.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

There is a lot to like about this Panthers team, heading into the 2017 season and there is nothing on paper that says they won't make the playoffs again next season, but you can make a lot of arguments about how they may not win the division again, but they will put up their argument for why they should be there again.  A good young core, a veteran goalie and lots of leadership should mean great things for this club.  One of these days, this young core will be ready to lead this group to a Stanley Cup, but it does seem a little early... or does it?

Way too early!  Oh my.  First, this team needed a way to stay healthy and then they needed to play as a cohesive group, neither of which seemed to happen and that great 2016 season was made into a distant memory in a big hurry.  Now, don't get me wrong, there is still a lot to like about this Panthers team, they have lots of good young pieces in place, but they will need to find their way with a new coach and likely a few new faces, before we can start elevating their expectations again.

2018 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Aleksander Barkov 5.900 Aaron Ekblad 7.500 Roberto Luongo 4.533
Reilly Smith 5.000 Keith Yandle 6.350 James Reimer 3.400
Vincent Trocheck 4.750 Jason Demers 4.500
Jonathan Marchessault 0.750 Michael Matheson 0.925
Jonathan Huberdeau 5.900 Ian McCoshen 0.925 Samuel Montembeault 0.726
Nick Bjugstad 4.100 Michael Downing 0.820
Jussi Jokinen 4.000 Linus Hultstrom 0.793
Derek MacKenzie 1.375 Thomas Schemitsch 0.718
Colton Sceviour 0.950 Josh Brown 0.658
Jayce Hawryluk 0.925
Jared McCann 0.894
Dryden Hunt 0.809
Juho Lammikko 0.718
Denis Malgin 0.690

The injuries to both Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad had a big impact on the overall success of the Panthers in the 2017 season and adding full seasons under their belts in 2018, should mean that they have more impact in the hockey pool next season.  The emergence of Michael Matheson may be met by some tempered expectations, since he's coming into his second full season, but his presence sure helped the overall balance of the blueline.  The Panthers have some potential for the 2018 season, if they can only realize it.

Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft

The Panthers will do well to protect many of their good core players up front and on defense, which will leave some of the elder statesmen exposed for the expansion draft and due to the limitations on defense, they will have to decide between Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic for protection, likely leaving one exposed and either/or could be a good pick-up for the Golden Knights.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

The Florida Panthers will get some much-needed flexibility through free agency, as they don't have a lot of contracts on the books and they could be a big player in the paperwork game this off-season.  The real question will be, do they have the cap space to play with?  Well, that's another story altogether, as they have 26 contracts on the board, three more than the roster max come the start of the season and they only have $4.4 million left under the $73 million ceiling.  That's not very much.

The Panthers have three pool worthy free agents this Summer, forwards Thomas Vanek and Jaromir Jagr are heading to unrestricted free agency, while defenseman Mark Pysyk is a restricted free agent this Summer.  I can't see Vanek head back to Florida, while Jagr may or may not return, it's hard to say, while Pysyk, who is my pick to protect at the expansion draft, should get a decent deal this Summer.

The Panthers have been expediting a lot of their top prospects up into the big squad and with their cap situation the way it is, they may have to dip into the 26 contracts they already have signed up to fill out this 2018 roster.  A couple AHL'ers in the 2017 season that could find their way up to a promotion include defenseman Ian McCoshen and forward Jayce Hawryluk, both 21 years old this Summer, it could be their time to finally break out and make the team.  They are going to be the ones that I watch at camp, looking for those young legs for my hockey pool team.

Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft

The Panthers don't have any major needs at this year's draft, which is good, because they only have five total picks at this point in the off-season, with still more than a month to go before the draft.  Nevertheless, they have the top pick, which will be the 10th overall selection and I have them going back to the well from Finland, picking up Kristian Vesalainen, who is scouted as having some very good size, range and offensive skills, much like his countryman and potential teammate, Aleksander Barkov.

There was a lot more working against the Panthers in the 2017 season, making the argument that they were not necessarily a bad team, they were just forced through some unfortunate circumstances in the year and it cost them their playoff spot.  Even if Jagr was to depart to a better chance at winning a Cup in this off-season, he may have had more than enough time to impart some of his leadership and experience to the key guys in Florida, which makes me believe that they'll be back in the playoff fight at this time next year.  The cornerstones are there, but goaltending could still be a question mark.  As long as the team plays well in front of the keeper, they should be in more games in 2018 and they will find their way back to the playoffs, barring a disaster.
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