SUNRISE - After the best season in franchise history, the Florida Panthers are back to work this week as training camp opens.
Expectations are high as camp begins. For a team that had 122 points; the most in the NHL, the most goals scored by a team in a quarter century, and won a playoff series for the first time in 26 years, the Panthers made quite a few changes in the offseason.
Perhaps stunning many, Jonathan Huberdeau is no longer a Panther after 10 years. Also sent to the Flames, defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
Huberdeau had the best season of his career. At age 29, he only has one year left on his current contract. Calgary gave him eight years, taking him to age 38, at $10.5 million per season. Weegar also has one season left on his deal. Age and contract situations played a factor but equally as big of a reason for the trade is the player the Panthers got in return.
Let's clear it up now, it's "Kuh-Chuck"!
At 24 years old, Matthew Tkachuk is the rare complete NHL player that can do everything and play a nasty game. Players like him rarely become available this early in their carer. The Panthers gave him a huge contract as they are clearly all in on Thachuk teaming with Aleksander Barkov as the franchise players.
The fact is this team has never had, in one player, Thachuk's type of personality; hard-nosed play, talent, and leadership. And make no mistake, as much as the talk about Tkachuk is his feistiness on the ice, he is an ultra-talented player with great hands and the ability to get to the net to score.
General Manager Bill Zito also made a coaching change. Andrew Brunette did a great job taking over the team seven games into the season when Joel Quenneville was forced to quit. The team didn't come close to matching its phenomenal regular season in the playoffs.
Brunette paid the price and was not offered the interim tag removal. The alternative? The most experienced coach available - Paul Maurice. He's coached the 4th most games in NHL history and is 7th all-time in wins. The Panthers clearly felt they needed an experienced hand and voice behind the bench and Maurice wanted to coach this team in particular.
The motivated Maurice hasn't won a Stanley Cup and knows this is a team and situation that gives him a chance. Most of the coaching staff is new as well.
How's The D?
With Weegar gone to Calgary, the Panthers must replace his minutes on the blue line. It would seem Gustav Forsling is up to the challenge of pairing with Aron Ekblad to lead the defense. Forsling can skate, move the puck, and plays a solid smart game.
Brandon Montour and Radko Gudas return and will have to play key roles. Veteran Marc Staal comes in as a stay-at-home defenseman and looks to provide steady play in his own zone.
Two more players will make the roster, likely between Lucas Carlson, Matt Kiersted, veteran Michael Del Zotto and perhaps Swedish free agent Calle Sjalin. There's a chance one of the other many young defensemen can jump up and grab a spot. At some point, the team could also make a trade.
Sergei Bobrovsky had a good season and will again combine with 21-year-old Spencer Knight in goal. The only question is how the games will be split. Knight had a strong second half of the season and while still very young, could push for more playing time in the best case scenario for the team.
What To Expect
The Panthers should again be a solid playoff team. Repeating last season's regular season is nearly impossible and while it was tons of fun for fans, really not necessary. The goal for this team is to play more "playoff style" games in the regular season so they're prepared for the tougher style of play in the postseason. They won't change their offensive identity but Paul Maurice will stress a less risky game and attention to defensive detail which are musts to win in the playoffs.
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