NHL 2014-15 preview: Florida Panthers

Roberto Luongo is regarded as one of the best personalities on Twitter from the sports world. (J Pat Carter/AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Florida is our 27th-ranked team.

Florida Panthers
Division: Atlantic
2013-14 finish: 29-45-8, 66 points, 29th overall; missed playoffs
Leading scorer: Nick Bjugstad (38 points)
General manager: Dale Tallon
Head coach: Gerard Gallant
Captain: Willie Mitchell
Opening night starter: Roberto Luongo
Key acquisitions: Coach Gerard Gallant, Aaron Ekblad, Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Derek Mackenzie, Shawn Thornton, Willie Mitchell, Al Montoya
Key departures: Tom Gilbert, Scott Gomez, Ed Jovanovski, Krys Barch, Scott Clemmensen

Off-season grade: B-. After kicking both Kevin Dineen and Peter Horachek off the bench with losing records, general manager Dale Tallon found himself what should be an excellent head coach in Gallant, most recently a respected assistant on a well-run Montreal Canadiens squad. Gallant will have plenty of new faces joining him in the sun, as veteran Cup hoisters Bolland, Mitchell and Thornton can help groom a young core that will be built around blue-chip draftees Aleksander Barkov and Ekblad, possibly the only guy from the 2014 class we’ll see make an immediate leap to NHL regular. Sure, Tallon had to pay a crappy-team tax to lure some of these UFAs, but with pressure to sell tickets and ice a winner, the Panthers should be noticeably improved. More important, Tallon resisted the temptation to trade the No. 1 pick last June and re-upped with promising talents Dmitri Kulikov and Brandon Pirri.

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Greatest strengths: The Roberto Luongo trade instantly gave the Panthers the starting netminder they so sorely lacked for years. When Tim Thomas left Florida mid-season with a .909 save percentage, Strombone1 came back and threw up a .924 in 14 games played and backstopped the club to its only shutout all season. Throw in the addition of Montoya, 29, and the crease is set. Another big plus here are the young pieces. Ekblad, 18, appears to be on the fast track to be a No. 1 defenceman. Big centre Barkov, barely 19, is a beast. And 23-year-olds Pirri—a smart, under-the-radar re-signing—and Kulikov will grow into dependable regulars. Toss in 2013 Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, seeking to bounce-back from a sophomore slump, and this team could be special in five years. For the now, Florida should be deadly in shootouts with Jokinen joining Brad Boyes in the bid for bonus points.

Greatest weaknesses: Offence and defence, two areas of some importance and two areas in which Florida ranked second-last to Buffalo in 2013-14. Last season’s Panthers surrendered 3.2 goals per game, a gaudy figure Luongo’s presence and Gallant’s tactics should bring down. But as far as defensive help, Mitchell can only play so much. The forwards should improve from their 2.29 goals per game, if only because Barkov is healthy and Huberdeau can’t produce fewer than his paltry nine goals scored last year. (Can he?) Ultimately, though, this roster lacks depth. And with all due respect to the newbies, the jury is still out on Bolland’s skating ability post-injury, and Jokinen’s eye-popping 2013-14 numbers (21 goals, 36 assists) were the result of playing for the talent-rich Penguins.

Biggest story line to watch: Tallon on the hot seat. To think, just two years ago Tallon was a finalist for General Manager of the Year. Now he’s seemingly down to his last lifeline, having dismissed three head coaches during his attempt to rebuild the Cats the way he gradually helped steer the Blackhawks back to life in the 2000s. Having overhauled the roster and bringing Luongo, a true No. 1 goaltender, back to the Sunshine State, Tallon is officially in win-now mode. Pressure from new owner Vinnie Viola dictates it. Can his new players and coach save his job?

2014-15 prediction: The Panthers have only qualified for the playoffs once in the last 13 seasons. Come April, make that 14. Despite Tallon’s best efforts, Florida just doesn’t have the talent to outduel eight teams and steal a spot in the East.

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