SUNRISE, Fla. – Back in October, I wrote about the upcoming 2018-19 Florida Panthers season and made a guess on what their record would be. That guess was 46-29-7 and a playoff berth.
I wasn't even close.
Instead, the team ended the season a disappointing 36-32-14, once again missed the playoffs and fired yet another head coach.
If you needed to sum up the season in one word, it could easily be "inconsistent." As a couple of Panthers diehards on the Point to Point Hockey Podcast put it, everyone on the team either had their best season yet, or their worst season yet.
Think about this: In a year where the Panthers had two guys with 90+ points (only two other teams in the league had that), three 30+ goal scorers (only seven other teams in the league had that) and a player who set not only a Panthers record for assists by a defenseman, but also set the franchise record for power-play points, the Panthers still managed to finish the season with a -13 goal differential. That can be blamed almost entirely on subpar goaltending and a seemingly endless stream of defensive zone giveaways.
While captain Aleksander Barkov cemented himself as one of the NHL's top players and Jonathan Huberdeau re-emerged as the offensive threat we knew he could be, Mike Matheson led the entire league in giveaways, with Aaron Ekblad only a few spots behind him, and Keith Yandle also in the top (or bottom?) 10. People who like advanced stats will tell you those are imperfect numbers, but even they'll tell you they aren't pretty.
That all being said, I'm not going to spend this entire article picking individual players apart for how this season went. In fact, after such a disappointing season you might be surprised to hear (if you live under a rock) that Panthers fans are actually in a good mood right now.
Because for the first time in years, the Panthers will have a highly experienced head coach (not counting Gallant, who hadn't been a head coach for several years) in Joel Quenneville. Quenneville was fired by the Chicago Blackhawks in November, but from 2008-18, he led the 'Hawks to three Stanley Cups. Quenneville also has the second most wins in NHL history and is one of only 11 coaches to win three cups.
The Panthers' front office still has a lot of work to do this offseason to address the blue line and goaltending issues, but with Quenneville at the helm, a lot of people (including the players) now believe the team can be a contender right away.
"I think everybody liked [Bob Boughner] as a guy and as a coach, too," Barkov said in an exit interview Monday. "But everybody is going to respect coach Q. He's won a lot of games and he definitely knows what to do there. It's up to the players and everybody is going to listen to him. We're going to be good."
"We know he's a winning coach who wants to win every game," Huberdeau added. "We know we have the right group, so I think now we have the right coach. We have to have that mentality. It's going to be really exciting. It's obviously going to be a long summer, but really excited to come back and work with him."
So what's next for the Panthers? I expect a pretty active offseason.
According to reports, the Panthers are very interested in Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin. That doesn't necessarily mean Bobrovsky or Panarin are interested in the Panthers, but Panarin did play for Quenneville in Chicago and the two reportedly had a good relationship. Another big question is, if Bobrovsky ends up in Florida, what then becomes of Roberto Luongo, James Reimer and rookie Sam Montembeault? Lu still has another three years on his contract, but he also turned 40 on April 4.
The most sought-after unrestricted free agent of the offseason will most likely be San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson is unquestionably one of the best players in the entire league, but in order to make that deal, the Panthers would likely have to part ways with Mike Hoffman (36 goals, 34 assists) because of issues between the two during their time with the Ottawa Senators. There's also Jake Gardiner, a 28-year-old currently playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who could take a top-four slot on the Panthers blue line, but some might say his offensive ability isn't exactly what the Cats need back there right now.
I guess for now we just sit back, wait and, hopefully, enjoy the ride. Now excuse me while I go work on my golf game.