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Panthers open season with high hopes

Florida to play first game Saturday in Tampa

(Associated Press)

SUNRISE, Fla. – If there is a word to describe the 2018-19 Florida Panthers season before it begins Saturday night, that word would be "expected."

The team is expected to be one of the top four in the Eastern Conference. They're expected to make the playoffs. They’re expected to be the most skilled Panthers team the franchise has ever seen. 

The problem with expectations is they're just that, expectations. Sure, they're based on stats and what we've seen from them previously, but did anyone expect the front office to be torn apart immediately after making the playoffs in the 2015-16 season? Did anyone expect they'd fire the head coach that led them to that playoff berth (and a record-47 wins) after only 22 games? Did anyone expect them to be one of the best teams in the entire league after the All-Star break last season?

Nope. 

The point is, the Florida Panthers have always found a way to defy expectations. 

So why does this year finally feel different?

The Youth Movement 

There has been so much talk about the young core of this squad, and it is definitely deserved. 

Aleksander Barkov is their leader on and off the ice. He's a quiet guy, but he is also one of the best forwards in the league and has a work ethic that causes his teammates to look up to him and, more importantly, want to emulate him. That's why the 2013 second-overall pick has been named captain and is already a favorite to with the Selke Trophy (award for the NHL's best defensive forward). 

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) celebrates with teammates Nick Bjugstad (27) and Evgenii Dadonov (63) after his goal during the third period against the New Jersey Devils, March 1, 2018, in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers won 3-2.

Oh, and did I mention he's only 23?

In fact, the average age of the top six forwards is only 26-years-old, and they are a highly regarded group; arguably one of the best in the league.

Let's Get Deep

Another issue the Florida Panthers have always had is depth in the organization. They have a LONG history of high draft pick busts (remember Kenndal McArdle? Yeah, neither do I). It may not even be entirely the fault of the draft picks themselves; but because the pool of genuinely skilled players was so shallow and the team was so mediocre, new high draft picks had to be slotted into the NHL roster right away. 

FINALLY, that is no longer the case. 

Dale Tallon has done a good job of building from the bottom, developing young players in the AHL and other professional leagues to help them prepare for the grind of the NHL. There are at least six guys who are on loan to lower-level teams who are nipping at the heels of players on the opening night roster.

Just a few years ago, a guy like Henrik Borgstrom would have been playing Saturday. Honestly, a lot of us thought he might be this year. He has unbelievable potential and would have flashed moments of greatness throughout the 82-game season; but he's also skinny and young and in need of some experience in professional-level competition. So instead of throwing him into the fire, the team chose to send him to the AHL. 

Because. They. (Finally). Can.

Mind the gap

I already talked about the top six forwards being impressive. But a major issue for the Panthers, as recently as last year, was the drop off between the talent of the top six and the bottom six. This year they may finally have begun significantly closing that gap.

Jared McCann has emerged as a high-end third line center and on opening night he will likely be flanked by Denis Malgin on the right and Frank Vatrano on the left. That is, in my completely unqualified opinion, one of the best third lines this franchise has seen in a very, very long time if not ever. 

McCann and Malgin have a chemistry that has grown impressively, and Vatrano didn't earn the nickname "The Tank" for playing cautiously in the corners.

That all being said, the fourth line is still a work in progress. Bob Boughner still prefers the experience from Derek MacKenzie and Troy Brouwer over the youth and talent from the likes of of Maxim Mamin (who will be dressed to play on Saturday), Borgstrom, Juho Lammikko or Dryden Hunt. 

But Colton Sceviour is, at the very least, an above average fourth line player who has a nose for the net and can grind out a shift against any player in the league. I'm a huge Sceviour fan. Just wanted to put that out there.

Room for growth

There is one concern for this team and it's on the blue line. I'm not entirely sold on the defense right now. Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad are exciting for their offensive abilities but when they're matched up with other teams' top lines night in and night out, they get worn down. 

Mike Matheson may be the team's best all around defenseman and Mark Pysyk is solid, but average.

Bogdan Kiselevich was signed from the KHL (Russian pro league) and is supposed to be impressive, but he broke his jaw a few days ago and likely won't play opening night. 

MacKenzie Weegar and Alex Petrovic have a lot to prove. 

The most intriguing guy in this group is probably Jacob MacDonald who was a pleasant surprise in camp and the preseason. He has a wicked shot and lots of potential.

Get to the point, Margol...

So what does all of this mean? I think there are some exciting things to come for this franchise and they are definitely moving in the right direction.

Here is my expectation of this year's Panthers team: 

99 points, 46-29-7 + a playoff berth


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