SUNRISE, Fla. – Those of us starving for a sense of normalcy in our lives may begin to see some hope on the horizon in the form of live sporting events.
Professional leagues such as the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League are approaching the three-month mark since play was stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials have been operating tirelessly behind the scenes, working with health professionals and formulating plans for resuming their respective sports. It's been an extremely difficult task as there is still so much unknown about the novel coronavirus and the way respective governments are combating it.
The NHL took a big step in the right direction last week, revealing its 24-team postseason blueprint and details on Phase 2 of its Return to Play Plan, which the league hopes to implement in early June.
The goal is to reach Phase 4, which would signify the league resuming the season, sometime over the summer.
Whenever that happens, almost every single player hitting the ice will be skating into uncharted territory. The majority of players will be putting on their skates for the first time in months, representing a longer absence from the rink than some have had since they were kids.
It's a situation no one has prepared for and nobody has experience with.
All of that doesn’t change one simple fact, though; someone is still going to win the Stanley Cup. If that’s going to be the Florida Panthers, they’re going to have to answer a few questions first.
1- Which Panthers team will show up?
If you've been following Florida all season, you've enjoyed quite the roller coaster ride.
They've been good, they've been great, they've been bad, and they've been frustratingly bad.
Keeping in mind the aforementioned inability to predict what teams will look like when hockey resumes, it's a safe bet that the Panthers will try to replicate the way they were performing in the days leading up to the pause.
Following a forgettable 5-9-2 stretch that came immediately after the NHL All-Star Game, Florida finally seemed to be getting their act together.
The Cats went 2-0-1 in what we now know were the final three games of the regular season, and everyone, from the front office to the coaching staff and down through the locker room, believed the team had turned a corner.
If the Panthers can pick up in the postseason where they left off in March, the Islanders are going to have their hands full.
2- Will Chris Driedger be called upon to save the day for Florida?
There isn't any question that Sergei Bobrovsky is the Panthers starting goalie.
He was recovering from what was believed to be a minor, lower-body injury when games were stopped. At the time, which was over 10 weeks ago, he was close to returning, and now he's completely healthy and ready to get back in net.
It's unfortunate for Chris Driedger because the AHL call-up had played extremely well when called upon this season, finishing with a 7-2-1 record, a 2.05 goals against average and .938 save percentage.
He played a big part in Florida's mini-resurgence and likely would've remained in goal until the team lost again, but now the 26-year-old will have to stay sharp as Bobrovsky's backup.
The question is how long of a leash Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville allows Bobrovsky, should the veteran struggle when the postseason begins.
Considering the shortened series length in the qualifying round, one or two bad periods could lead to Quenneville making a change before things get out of hand.
3- Have we seen the last of the Triple-H line?
The newly formed line of Erick Haula centering Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman clicked from the start. Not only was the trio producing on the scoresheet, but they were skating well in all three zones and making smart decisions while controlling the puck.
Hoffman scored in both games the line was utilized and picked up three total points (2-1-3), but it was the overall possession and smart 200-foot game that could see them lining up together when play resumes.
4- Who joins the Panthers when the league allows expanded rosters?
The NHL has said that teams participating in the postseason will have expanded rosters, accounting for injuries and allowing coaches some flexibility with their gameday lineups.
It's expected that the roster size will be in the upper-20s, but there is no official number yet.
Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon took away some of the mystery, saying last week that former first round picks Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom would likely join the team. He also named 23-year-old defenseman and former University of Maine standout Brady Keeper as a potential addition.
Another name to keep in mind as a possible roster add is rearguard Chase Priskie. The Pembroke Pines native was acquired earlier this season in the Vincent Trocheck trade and is having a stellar first pro year, logging 35 points (8-27-35) in 57 AHL games, including four points in five outings with the Panthers' affiliate in Springfield.
The expanded roster also keeps forwards Aleksi Saarela and Dryden Hunt with the team, the latter now healthy after suffering a lower-body injury in late February.
It's also worth noting that Florida could end up keeping three goaltenders on the roster, depending on whether the league counts goalies against the eventual new roster limit. If that's the case, the third goaltender would be Samuel Montembeault.
5- Will the struggles of Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov continue?
Barkov had zero points over Florida's final six games, his longest scoreless stretch since an eight-game funk that came early in the 2016-17 season.
The downturn was as surprising to Barkov as it was to those watching him, especially considering he had 8 points in the nine games prior.
Dadonov, Barkov's right winger, picked up an assist in Florida's last game, which snapped his own six-game scoring drought. Unfortunately, Dadonov's struggles this season have deeper roots than those of his linemate.
Starting in February, Dadonov has just 7 points in the 20 games since the All-Star Game. It's a stark contrast from his production prior to the break, when he accumulated 14 points in 13 games heading into the annual stoppage.
Barkov and Dadonov could very well find themselves skating on the same line when the team reconvenes sometime later this summer.
That being the case, they could do their buddy a solid and help one another break out of their respective slumps.
If Florida is going to do anything significant during the postseason, it's imperative the elite scoring pair unite their powers once again and get back to that place where they constantly wreak havoc on opposing defenders and goaltenders.
6- How fluid will Joel Quenneville’s lineup be?
As long as there are no injuries suffered during Phase 3 (training camp) of the NHL's Return to Play Plan, Panthers first year head coach Joel Quenneville will have every Panthers chess piece at his disposal when crafting Florida's battle plans.
That could lead to some interesting combinations, depending on how much he chooses to sprinkle in Florida's dynamic young players, such as Borgstrom and Tippett.
One thing that Quenneville has shown throughout his career is that he has never hesitated to shake up a roster when he felt it necessary.
An injection of youth is a very real possibility, especially if Quenneville feels the team needs a spark. Just don't expect it to come at the expense of a Bryan Boyle or a Mark Pysyk, someone that is out there as much for what they can do in the defensive zone as they are for what they add offensively.
7- What kind of impact will we see from Dale Tallon’s playoff veteran signings?
Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon made a point during last offseason to bring in players with some serious playoff experience under their respective belts. The time has arrived to truly see if those moves pan out.
Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle have been to the finals twice (both as teammates with the Rangers in 2014 and Tampa Bay in 2015) and each have made several deep postseason runs during their respective careers.
Brett Connolly won the Stanley Cup with Washington two years ago, Noel Acciari went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final with Boston last season and Sergei Bobrovsky has 34 games of playoff experience, his best performance coming last spring with Columbus.
Let's also not forget the Panthers new bench boss and his 215 career playoff wins and not one, not two, but three Stanley Cup rings.
There is no questioning the playoff pedigree, but will it help the Panthers advance?
8- How will players react to living in a quarantine bubble?
For every player, coach and essential person that ends up inside the league's hub city bubbles, life is going to be a little different.
It will include little-to-no contact with anybody other than coaches and teammates, daily coronavirus testing and many, many more restrictions and guidelines that the league is still working to put together.
This is the kind of thing that is impossible to predict, and fans will just have to hope that the internal makeup of their team (see: previous question and answer) is the kind that can handle this amazingly bizarre and unique situation.
9- Is revenge a dish best served cold?
The Panthers didn't receive much respect as a division winner in 2016; not from the talking heads, the fans or the hockey gods. Facing the Wild Card qualifying Islanders in the opening round that year, Florida lost three of the four games in overtime and has been haunted since by a missed call late in Game 6 that ultimately cost them the series.
Only Barkov, Huberdeau, Ekblad and Matheson remain on the roster from that 2016 team, but former captain Derek MacKenzie is now on the Cats' coaching staff, and Florida's front office currently includes Sean Thornton and Roberto Luongo, both of whom played big parts in the success of that '16 squad.
Point being, it's not just Panthers fans that would enjoy returning the favor and ending the Islanders season when play resumes in (we hope) a couple months. There are plenty still with the organization that remember how it felt the night that Trocheck was tripped.
Winning a playoff series for the first time in 24 years and doing it against the team that most recently evicted you from the postseason would be extra sweet, and a great way to kick off Coach Q's playoff tenure in South Florida.
10- What happens next?
Whether it arrives quickly for Florida or not for several months, the offseason is another eventuality.
The Panthers have several big decisions to make on players with expiring contracts, perhaps none bigger than on Dadonov and Hoffman.
Both will be unrestricted free agents and are likely to receive a fair amount of interest on the open market when the time arrives.
Whether Tallon tries to retain one, or both, will depend on his plans for other free agents that are looking to cash in.
Other UFA's include Erik Haula, Brian Boyle and Mark Pysyk.
Florida has several restricted free agents as well, and decisions will have to be made on hanging on to a group of talented, young players.
Lucas Wallmark, Dryden Hunt, Samuel Montembeault, Dominic Toninato, Aleksi Saarela, MacKenzie Weegar and Josh Brown are a pretty impressive group of RFA's. All except Saarela and Montembeault are arbitration eligible.
A case can be made for hanging on to each one of them, and it may come down to which men Tallon feels can play the biggest part in the future success of the franchise.