SUNRISE, Fla. – The National Hockey League's 2019-20 regular season is officially over.
We've known that for a few months.
Coming while the league is currently in a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time where the main, and really only focus has been on starting the postseason safely and awarding someone the Stanley Cup, it's easy to see how the cut-short regular season isn't at the forefront of many people's minds.
Back in March when the league hit the brakes on everything, the Florida Panthers were a team facing an uphill climb to a playoff spot following a historically bad February in which they went winless in eight home games.
The season was full of ups and downs, and it appeared to be turning back in a good direction when games were halted due to the coronavirus outbreak hitting North America.
Now, with a chance to look back on the regular season as a whole, it provides the opportunity to judge the players for both their individual accomplishments and how their play impacted the team throughout the campaign.
I decided to do just that, and who better to come along on my journey into the not-so-distant-past than former Panthers forward and current radio analyst Bill Lindsay. We discussed the superlatives on the Chirping the Cats podcast, which can be found by clicking here, and some of Billy’s comments on each of the options can be found in the quotes below.
Most Valuable Player
Jonathan Huberdeau – Consistently producing and playing at a high level all season, Huberdeau showed that he can put the puck in the net while remaining an elite contributor. He led all Panthers with 78 points in just 69 games, and he ranked seventh in the NHL with 55 assists.
"Jonathan Huberdeau to me is the MVP. When you watch him upstairs from the pressbox and you see the plays that he makes and the patience that he has with the puck, and all of a sudden, he's got this strength on his skates, it's a new dynamic."
Mike Hoffman – A steady, consistent source for scoring all season, Hoffman filled in for lulls of top line and was a major threat on the power play. Constantly looking to shoot the puck, he led team in shots (214) and goals (29).
"Hoffman really stepped up. Lot of goals, lot of production. Skates well, doesn't get a lot of credit a lot of the time for his skating ability. The production was there, and it was consistent production."
Aaron Ekblad – Ekblad had the best defensive season of his career while carrying tons of responsibility, often matched up against the opposition’s top scorers. His offensive numbers were right there with Keith Yandle despite not getting nearly as much time on the power play. He finished with career highs in points (41) and assists (36). Ekblad also led all Panthers in TOI (22:59) and logged more minutes than any other player, despite missing two games.
"When you've got that kind of defensive responsibility, it's hard to put up offensive numbers. So to do that, Aaron Ekblad is the real deal."
Noel Acciari – He finished with 20 goals after never having more than 10 in a season and logged back-to-back hat tricks in December, becoming just the second player in Panthers history to accomplish the feat (Pavel Bure). Acciari also led the team in blocked shots (103, which topped all NHL forwards), hits (121) and game-winning goals (5).
"He was slated basically to come in and be a fourth line player and play 12 minutes a night and kill penalties. All of a sudden, he found himself playing 19 minutes a night under Joel Quenneville at certain points during the season."
Mark Pysyk – After struggling to crack the lineup during the first few weeks of the season, Pysyk found himself a home in an extremely unlikely place; right wing. The rearguard-turned-forward was exactly the kind of smart, defensively responsible winger that head coach Joel Quenneville loves to employ in his bottom six. As an added bonus, Pysyk began to show off some of his lesser-seen offensive skills, and he ended up with a career best nine goals and 18 points despite playing in only 58 games.
"To move from a position that you've played your whole life, and to go up front and play forward, that is extremely challenging. He made a pretty seamless transition."
Chris Driedger – He only played 12 games but was pretty stellar in every one of them, finishing with a 7-2-1 record, .938 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average. Driedger won some big games for Florida, and he did it at a time where the season may have been lost without picking up those valuable points.
"You come up, you impress, all of a sudden you find yourself with an NHL job. You can turn a good stint of 10 games like that into a career."
MOST TO PROVE NEXT SEASON
Sergei Bobrovsky – After signing his massive $70 million contract, Bobrovsky was supposed to be the answer to Florida’s recent inconsistent goaltending issues. He wasn’t. Bob finished with a 23-19-6 record, .900 save percentage and 3.23 goals against average to go with a single shutout. The last time he finished a season with only one clean sheet was 2015-16, when he played just 37 games. Last season, on an expiring contract in Columbus, he backstopped nine shutouts.
“He’s the only active goaltender to have two Vezina Trophies, so when you come in with those kinds of expectations and you sign that contract…when much is given, much is expected.”
Mike Matheson – Injuries and illness had Matheson in and out of the lineup a few times this season, hindering his ability to gain traction and establish some consistency in his game. It wasn’t a bad year by any stretch, but this was a season Ekblad and Matheson were expected to each take big steps forward in their respective careers. Ekblad did, Matheson did not.
"When you see him at his best and he's skating at his best, it's a guy that can be a real impactful defenseman. He gets into a lot of problems when he hangs on to the pucks and he makes turnovers through the middle of the ice. When he plays smart hockey, simplifies his game, gets the puck off his stick, moves, skates up the ice, becomes the fourth man on the attack, he becomes a very effective hockey player."
Samuel Montembeault - Before the season, the 23-year-old was basically told the backup job was his to lose. Unfortunately for Montembeault, he lost it. A few bright spots are overshadowed by several rough outings as Monty ended up surrendering 39 goals on 356 shots (.890 save percentage), compared to Driedger, who gave up 22 goals on 354 shots (.938 save percentage).
"He's going to have to earn his right to get back into the NHL because at this moment, Driedger has earned the job."
BIGGEST MOMENT OF THE SEASON
Coach Quenneville joins 900-win club – Joel Quenneville has the second-most wins of all time (925) behind only Scotty Bowman (1244). He notched his 900th win back in November when Florida defeated the Rangers at the BB&T Center.
"Quenneville coming on…wow. The accomplishments. And when you meet him, what a class guy to talk to, and the players respect him in the room. You can see why he had the success in Chicago. There's going to be success with Quenneville here in Florida, there's no debating that in my mind. So, to see him get that win, he's the real deal as a coach."
Jonathan Huberdeau becomes franchise points leader – Jonathan Huberdeau passed Olli Jokinen (419 points) for the all-time scoring lead in Panthers franchise history with a goal and an assist in an 8-4 win over Toronto in January.
"He put up a lot of points in a short time, didn't he? He moved up (Florida's scoring list) quickly and it seems like he's just getting bigger, better, faster and stronger every year."
Roberto Luongo jersey retirement – What ended up being the final home game of the season was a pretty special night. Luongo’s No. 1 jersey was raised to the BB&T Center rafters before the game in a touching ceremony, and Florida picked up a huge win, it’s first at home in over a month, over the Montreal Canadiens afterwards.
"He embedded himself in the South Florida community. He loves it down there and he wants to be a part of it. That was a night that was emotional for a lot of fans and a lot of people."
Vincent Trocheck traded at deadline – In an attempt to jolt the team out of a nightmarish February tailspin, GM Dale Tallon traded fan favorite and popular locker room guy Vincent Trocheck to Carolina.
“He was a guy that, ever since the ankle injury, to be honest, wasn’t the same. He didn’t have that first step and didn’t seem to be able to get to pucks and have that skating ability.”