Florida Panthers out to prove they are Stanley Cup contenders

Florida's top line of Nick Bjugstad (left) Aleksander Barkov (middle) and Evgenii Dadonov celebrates a goal. (Joe Skipper/AP)

CORAL SPRINGS, FLA — Bob Boughner can’t help but chuckle when explaining how the Florida Panthers came to deploy an all-forward power play unit. A minor upper-body injury to defenceman Keith Yandle in the final exhibition game cleared the path to try it, but that wasn’t the first time the concept was floated.

“We were kidding around with [Paul] McFarland earlier on in camp: ‘Let’s try it,’” says Boughner, referencing the assistant coach who runs the PP. “He never wanted to try it. And then the other night he was forced to do it and he liked it. Now, all of a sudden, he’s a fan of it.”

In all likelihood, the Panthers will stick with the look when they kick off their 2018-19 season Saturday night in Tampa Bay versus the Lightning. It was against those same Bolts that newcomer Mike Hoffman buried a power play marker that — along with another menacing man advantage stretch — helped McFarland latch on to the notion Florida could get a little experimental when the other team heads to the box.

And just as the good result convinced the coaching staff they may have stumbled upon something, each game of this new campaign brings the Panthers an opportunity to legitimize the idea this is a club that can do major damage in the Eastern Conference.

The skepticism around South Florida hockey is no less warranted than sun screen in these parts. It’s a bleak history, but also one that has little — if any — bearing on the group of young studs who led the Cats to the seventh-best record (27-14-3) in the NHL from Jan. 1, 2018 through the rest of last season. They wound up missing the playoffs by a single point, done in by a cruddy road record (17-19-5) and the type of poor start Boughner is determined to have the club avoid in his second year behind the bench.

“You can’t sit here after the first 20 games and look up at a bunch of teams and you’re out of it by six, seven points,” says Boughner, whose troops will have to fight through their customary road-heavy October and November.

Falling behind is especially tough when you play in a division with prime outfits like Tampa, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. The Lightning and Leafs are getting their share of Stanley Cup buzz, with Boston a not-to-be-counted-out club in the conversation.

The Cats, meanwhile, remain more of a curiosity than a contender in the minds of many. If that changes, it will start with the play of freshly minted captain Aleksander Barkov, whose ongoing development into one of the very best two-way players in hockey was a big factor in the initial talk about a five-forward power play.

“Barkie wasn’t getting enough puck touches, he was a net-front guy,” says Boughner, who now unleashes the 23-year-old at the point. “Even though he was one of the best [in] that position, it’s nice to see him having more puck touches. He’s our best player, put the puck in your best player’s hands.”

Makes sense, especially when his options with the rubber have never been better. On the man advantage, Barkov can look to 25-year-old Vincent Trocheck — who registered 75 points last year — and former Ottawa Senator Hoffman — a born shooter — as options up high. Down low, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgeni Dadonov lurk. Huberdeau, 25, set a career high with 69 points last season, while Dadonov — who played 55 games for Florida at the start of this decade, but spent the past five years in the KHL — made a triumphant return to the Panthers by netting 28 goals last year.

Beyond the gunners, Florida is hoping a healthy Roberto Luongo — even at age 39 — can provide quality goaltending, while the blue line remains anchored by 22-year-old Aaron Ekblad, a first overall pick who could very well find another gear soon.

There’s also increased familiarity with the coach, who’s now had a full year to implement his systems. All that makes it more possible Florida can advance past the first round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history, though verbal statements to that effect are often still accompanied by an upward inflection that implies a presence of doubt that’s hard to completely ditch.

Either way, these tone-deaf Panthers are not bothered.

“I think we’re more respected, but we don’t really care about what people think,” Huberdeau says.

At the very least, fans should be entertained by a club clearly willing to take some risks. Barkov’s tremendous defensive capabilities provide a bit of a safety blanket for the power play, but there’s no denying things are different when all six D-men are planted on the bench.

“People say we can get scored on, too,” Huberdeau says. “Sometimes forwards, you want to be too aggressive. We need to be smart about it; we’ll see how long it goes.”

Maybe a shorthanded marker or two against will change the immediate plan. The season-long track, though, certainly appears headed somewhere good.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.