It was hard for anyone to know what to expect from the Florida Panthers last season. That includes the Panthers themselves.
Years of underachieving had piled up. They had a first-time general manager and about a dozen new faces competing for roster spots. The COVID-19 pandemic meant Joel Quenneville, who was coming off a rocky first season in Florida, had a significantly abbreviated training camp and preseason to figure everything out.
They became one of the surprises of the league, in some ways even shocking themselves with how well they integrated all their new pieces to go from wire to wire as a playoff team in the NHL’s toughest division. Now, Florida won’t catch anyone off guard.
It’s a good change of pace.
“It’s been nice to see some love around the league for us,” said star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, who has been to the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs once in his first five seasons. “It’s about time.”
The Panthers, of course, have high hopes internally, but they can also feel the lofty expectations from the outside. With training camp set to begin Thursday at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, they’re embracing the near-unprecedented level of excitement about the team’s potential.
Florida finished the 2020-21 NHL season with the fourth-most points in the league and was one of only two teams to take multiple games from the eventual-champion Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.
To follow it up, the Panthers brought back 11 of the 12 forward to play in the Cup playoffs, five of seven defensemen and two of three goaltenders. They also added forwards Joe Thornton and Sam Reinhart, will have star defenseman Aaron Ekblad back after he missed the playoffs with a leg injury, and expect goaltender Spencer Knight and center Anton Lundell to contend for the Calder Memorial Trophy for league’s top rookie.
They also simply have more familiarity with each other and a young core that is, theoretically, still on the rise with 15 major contributors under 30, including star forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. If last year was supposed to be a transition year, it’s reasonable to expect Florida to be even better in the 2021-22 NHL season.
“It’s tough to say right now, but we can definitely build off a lot of things from last year,” said 25-year-old forward Carter Verhaeghe, who signed with the Panthers before last season. “We can’t come in this year and just think it’s going to be easy and like we had a good year last year, so we’re going to expect to have a good year this year. We really can’t take anything for granted. There’s always expectations or whatever, but they don’t really mean anything until you get on the ice and you start playing. We’re on the same page, we all want to have a great year and have a good playoff run, but we’ve got to get there first, so I think we’ve got to keep that in view.”
Said Weegar: “To be less than what we did last year, is going to be a disappointment.”
Aaron Ekblad at ‘99.9’ percent
Ekblad’s return may be the single biggest difference from last year. Florida gave up 24 goals in six playoff games against the Lightning and struggled to find a reliable bottom defensive pairing.
The Panthers bought out Keith Yandle in July after they benched the defenseman in the playoffs. Ekblad, who could be a dark-horse contender for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, should be a massive upgrade.
Ekblad had surgery in March to repair a left leg fracture and he accelerated his rehab in case Florida made a run to the Stanley Cup and could return for the later rounds of the playoffs. The 25-year-old Canadian started skating in June and now he’s at “99.9” percent and “not limited at all,” he said.
“Obviously, it’s not perfect,” Ekblad said. “I continue to work on it every single day, but I’m happy with all of my progressions to this point, and I feel very confident that I can reach the same level of play and exceed my level of play from last season.”
Joe Thornton chasing Stanley Cup
Thornton’s arrival signals just how high expectations are in Broward County.
At 42, Thornton is the oldest active player without a Cup and one of the best players in NHL history without a championship. After years of close calls with the San Jose Sharks, Thornton signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2020 to chase a ring with their young core and now he’s doing the same with the Panthers.
“The depth here is something special,” the forward said, “and, like I said before, just building off last year to make a big step this year.”
Barkov likened the signing to Florida’s acquisition of Jaromir Jagr in 2015. The center still credits his time with Jagr as critical in his development and the right wing helped the Panthers set a franchise record for points in the 2015-16 NHL season.
“A lot of other teams you look at that are contenders — a lot of guys go there, older guys at the end of their careers that are looking to win,” forward Carter Verhaeghe said. “It says a big thing about our group and I think we’re ready.”
Barkov extension? ‘Making some progress’
On the eve of camp, Florida has still not struck a deal for an extension with Barkov, although the Finnish captain said the two sides are “making some progress.”
“I’m not the guy who you want to talk to,” the 26-year-old said. “I have people who take care of it and I think we’ve been on good terms, so it’s all good.”
Barkov is entering the final year of his contract and is the only one of the Panthers’ top seven forwards set to be a free agent next year. With Florida in the midst of a window of contention, locking up Barkov is a priority for the organization.
Barkov said he would like to stay with the Panthers moving forward.
“Right now, that’s the only thing that I think about, playing with the Florida Panthers,” he said. “I love playing here, I love what we’ve started building here. The team is getting better, organization is getting better, hockey in South Florida is getting bigger and better, so I’m really excited about everything that’s going on here.”