This post is part of Panthers Day on PHT…
The 2016-17 season was a disappointing one for the entire Florida Panthers organization. A young team that seemed to be on the rise badly regressed, went through a tumultuous season on and off the ice, and struggled to keep some of its best players healthy. The offseason has left some pretty big question marks as well.
It was also a frustrating season on an individual level for one of the Panthers’ best young players, defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Ekblad burst onto the NHL scene in his first two years in the league and looked to be quickly developing into one of the top young defenseman in the league. And to be fair, he still is. But the 2016-17 season was probably his worst one to date. Along with missing 14 games due to injury, his production dropped across the board when he was on the ice. He admitted no Wednesday that he may have “cruised” through his first two years a bit too much.
Here he is talking to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen about it this past week:
“The last year of my rookie contract was by far the year that I learned the most,” Ekblad said, referencing last season. “I may have cruised through my first two years a little bit too much. The real work began this summer. I truly believe that and I truly believe I’m the most confident and ready that I have ever been to play the game.”
He also acknowledged that a season like this past one is where a player fully begins to understand how difficult the NHL is.
It is important to keep in mind that even though Ekblad did regress a bit this past season he still had a decent season by NHL standards. He was on a pace to score 12 goals, come close to 30 points and he was a 52 percent Corsi player on a mediocre possession team. It’s not like his game completely fell off the map in just his third season. But there is still a higher level that Ekblad can play at (and he has shown it) and the Panthers are going to need him to be at that level. Not only because he is a former No. 1 overall pick that the team is relying on to be a top-pairing defenseman, but because starting this season they are starting to pay him like one.
The 2017-18 season will be the first year of his eight-year, $60 million contract extension and for that sort of investment to be worth it the Panthers are going to need to him to be closer to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Ekblad (and probably beyond it) than the 2016-17 Ekblad.
This post is part of Panthers Day on PHT…
Whether or not the Florida Panthers made the right moves this offseason is certainly up for some level of debate.
They lost Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen and Jonathan Marchessault while bringing in Radim Vrbata, Micheal Haley and Evgeni Dadonov. On paper, that may not be a great trade off. Dadonov is a pretty big question mark, Haley isn’t going to provide any offense, and while Vrbata is still a very productive player he’s probably not a clear improvement over what Jagr or Marchessault provided this past season.
But what should make the Panthers better this season is just getting some better luck on the injury front.
It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to put all of the Panthers’ struggles in 2016-17 on injuries, but it certainly played a major role. Just consider that Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad combined to miss 114 man-games due to injury. That is three top-nine forwards and a top-pairing defenseman all missing close to a quarter of the season (or more). Sometimes at the same time. That is going to put a dent in any team’s potential for success.
Barkov is probably the Panthers’ best all-around player at this point and along with being a strong defensive forward, arguably one of the best in the league, he has scored at a 71-point pace per 82 games over the past two seasons. Losing him for a quarter of the season was a crushing blow.
The same is true for Huberdeau who was limited to just 31 games. When he was healthy and in the lineup he was on pace for what would have been his best offensive season ever while posting dominant possession numbers. Like Barkov, he was also on pace for close to 70 points over 82 games before the injury.
Bjugstad’s season seemed to be a lost season in general, but he has still shown the ability to be a 35-40 point middle-six player.
We don’t know yet if the Panthers’ roster moves make them a better team (an early guess might be no) but just simply getting more games out of the core players that were already in place would go a long way toward getting the team back closer to what it was in 2015-16 when it won the Atlantic Division and seemed to be a team on the rise.
The Florida Panthers are looking toward a bit of a youth movement this season after saying goodbye to veterans Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen this offseason. They have no shortage of options heading into the 2017-18 season, and one player that figures to get an expanded look is second-year forward Denis Malgin.
A fourth-round pick by the Panthers in 2015, Malgin was able to get a limited look with the team a year ago and was up-and-down a bit in 15 games, scoring three goals to go with nine assists.
Coming back for year two with a better understanding of what is going on around him — thanks to a better grasp of the language, as he explained to Alain Poupart of NHL.com recently — he should get a more consistent look in the Panthers’ bottom-six.
An early run of injuries forced him into the lineup probably earlier than the Panthers would have liked, but he showed flashes of skill that make him an intriguing prospect heading into this season.
Here is Panthers’ director of player development Bryan McCabe talking about his progress, via NHL.com.
“He’s a highly skilled individual,” Panthers director of player personnel Bryan McCabe said of Malgin. “He maybe played a little faster than we would have liked, but that was out of necessity, not necessarily because we wanted him here. We had a ton of injuries and he’s a really skilled player, so he was kind of thrust in the limelight.
“He maybe needed some more seasoning … that’s why [he attended development] camp. We’re trying to build him back up a little. He had an up-and-down year; we want to make sure his confidence is high when he comes into camp this year.”
Including Malgin the Panthers already have at least six players under the age of 24 on the roster for this upcoming season, while prospects like Owen Tippett and Jayce Hawryluk figure to have a chance to make the team and make an impact. The Panthers have a really strong young core built around Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Aaron Ekblad, but injuries and some regression across the board this past season resulted in a bitterly disappointing 2016-17 season. They are looking to rebound this season.
Entering the final year of his entry-level contract, Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart is eligible to sign a new long-term contract extension this summer.
The team is already trying to work out a deal with its other core forward in a similar situation — Jack Eichel — but to hear new general manager Jason Botterill talk there does not seem to be any rush to get a deal done with Reinhart before next summer.
“We’re always in dialog with [agent] Craig Oster, we just got a deal done with [Johan] Larsson and we’re in communication with him on [Robin] Lehner. It’s just an area where we’re excited with Sam, but I don’t think something from a contract standpoint will be happening this summer,” Botterill said, via WGR’s Paul Hamilton. “We have him under contract for another year and we’ll see how things play out and go from there.”
Given the negotiations that are ongoing with Eichel and Lehner (a restricted free agent that needs a new deal this summer) it is understandable that Reinhart might get pushed to the back burner a little bit. But another way of looking at that might be, we want to see what he does in year three before we commit to him.
Reinhart was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft, going one spot behind Aaron Ekblad. Reinhart will be eligible for restricted free agency next summer.
He was one of the signature picks of former general manager Tim Murray and one of the first ones that was supposed to make the organization’s complete teardown worth it in the long-run.
Two full seasons in to his career and the results have been okay, but nothing that really stands out. He has topped 40 points in each of the past two seasons which is not terrible production for a player that young — it is actually pretty decent — but isn’t exactly on the level of a franchise player yet, either.
Waiting another year to see where Reinhart’s career goes probably isn’t the worst idea for Botterill and the Sabres.
The Florida Panthers were extremely pleased to get forward Owen Tippett with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft because as general manager Dale Tallon said (via the Panthers’ official website), the team had a need for a “sniper” and a “pure scorer” on their roster.
They are hopeful that Tippett, coming off of a 44-goal season (in only 60 games) for the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League can provide that sort of presence.
After seeing what Tallon had to say about him this week it seems as if he could be making an impact with the Panthers as early as this season. At the very least, he is going to get a chance.
“He’s going to get every opportunity,” said Tallon (again via the Panthers). “I don’t have any problem and [head coach Bob Boughner] and our coaching staff don’t have any issues playing young guys. We’re building a team that’s going to be around for a long time and we’ll give him every opportunity to play this year.”
After winning just the second division title in franchise history in 2015-16 and setting themselves up for high expectations heading into last season, 2016-17 turned out to be a huge disappointment for the Panthers. But even though it was an obvious step backwards it is still a team that has a solid foundation in place with Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trochek as long-term building blocks. None of those players are over the age of 24 and should, in theory, still have some of their best days ahead of them.
Along with potentially adding another young talent like Tippett to the mix the Panthers were also able to snag free agent Radim Vrbata in free agency, while also bringing back Evgeny Dadonov from Russia, a player they seem to have huge plans for.