Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
This is the newest file in THN.com’s continuing “Three Burning Questions” feature. In this series, we identify three notable questions for every NHL team prior to the start of the 2022-23 regular season. Today, we’re asking Three Burning Questions about the Florida Panthers.
1. Is there anywhere to go but down in the regular season for this lineup? When you win the NHL’s President’s Cup as the league’s top regular-season team, the way Florida did last season with a phenomenal 58-18-6 record, you’ve raised the bar as high as any team can raise it. So there’s literally nowhere to go but down – unless you think you can be as good as you were in the previous season, but despite (or because of) a number of changes the Panthers had to/chose to make in the off-season, they’re not quite as awesome as they were in 2021-22.
Of course, the positive side of that statement is that Florida is still going to be fairly dynamic again this coming year. Despite GM Bill Zito changing the identity of the team – new head coach Paul Maurice, and marquee off-season acquisition Matthew Tkachuk will drastically alter the way the Panthers play night-in and night-out, while the Staal Brothers, Eric and Marc, could give them some experienced depth – Florida is still going to win many more games than they lose, qualify for the playoffs, and battle for home-ice advantage once they get there.
The challenging news is that many teams in the Atlantic Division have improved this summer, and Florida won’t have as many “gimme” games in their division as they did last year. Ultimately, that may only affect the gap in standings points, and once again, the Panthers’ rivals in Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston may be playoff teams for yet another year. But despite that familiarity, Florida may have to go through terrific teams in Manhattan and Carolina if they want to win a Stanley Cup. The Panthers will likely have to be asked to do more with less, but they’ve got enough elite talent to do so.
2. Sure, Florida’s top two forward lines are impressive, but what about those bottom two lines? Being salary cap-challenged as they are, the Panthers have been forced to say goodbye to proven stars, including forward Claude Giroux and winger Mason Marchment. Consequently, their bottom-six group of forwards is now comprised of worker bees (Colin White, Nick Cousins, Ryan Lomberg), talented youngster Anton Lundell, and spare parts (Eetu Luostarinen, Rudolphs Balcers). That’s not particularly intimidating.
They’ll get a boost from the domino effect that will happen mid-season when sniper Anthony Duclair returns to the lineup, but Florida will need to squeeze as much as they can out of their bottom-six, especially at playoff time. Depth matters come playoffs, and the Panthers don’t have nearly as much of it as they did last year.
3. Will Sergei Bobrovsky steal some games when they really matter? The Panthers got the best regular season yet out of Bobrovsky in his three years with Florida, as the 33-year-old posted a 2.67 Goals-Against Average and .913 Save Percentage in 54 games last season. Bobrovsky wasn’t terrible in the playoffs, either: in Florida’s first-round win over the Washington Capitals, putting up an SP of .909 or better in four of six games. However, against their arch-rivals in Tampa, Bobrovsky was outplayed by Lightning superstar Andrei Vasilevskiy as the Bolts swept the Panthers. That’s not what they’re paying Bobrovsky a team-high $10-million per season for (especially for three more seasons following this upcoming campaign). They need Bobrovsky to steal a couple of post-season games, and be excellent even when he’s not the best goalie every night.
Maurice is going to have understudy Spencer Martin to lean on when Bobrovsky isn’t at his peak, but Martin is only 21, and he has just 36 games of regular-season NHL experience, and two games of playoff experience under his belt. If Martin is forced to play significantly more games than he has before, something will have gone terribly wrong with Bobrovsky. Regardless, if the Panthers play Tampa Bay again in the playoffs, they need clutch performances from whoever is in net. If they don’t get that, another early post-season outster could be their most likely result.
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NHL Burning Questions: Florida Panthers – The Hockey News
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports