Three questions facing Florida Panthers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

What even more on the Cats? PHT has you covered today:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Will their goalies hold up?

If this was “NHL 19,” the Panthers would just turn injuries off and the goalie issues would be pretty much fine. After all, Roberto Luongo is a probably Hall of Famer and James Reimer has frequently been an analytics darling who’s probably a platoon-level goalie more than a backup.

Luongo enjoyed a fantastic per-game season in 2017-18, generating a sparkling .929 save percentage. Unfortunately, he was limited to just 35 games played, and while Reimer was better than you’d expect a backup to be (few No. 2 goalies would generate a .913 save percentage, at least in 44 games), it wasn’t enough.

Injuries have been an unfortunate issue for Reimer during certain spans of his career, and they might just be an inevitable reality for Luongo, who’s now 39 and has played in 1,001 regular-season games. That’s a lot of hockey for a skater, let alone a goalie. Considering Luongo’s two stints with mostly-mediocre Panthers teams, many of those games were tough ones where he faced a barrage of shots, too.

Before you send out a Luongo-level snarky tweet, yes, it’s true that Panthers management is aware of the problem.

They went as far as to sign respectable former Jets backup Michael Hutchinson to a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

Such a signing should help avert total disaster, yet despite spending $9.23M on goalies (according to Cap Friendly), the netminder position remains a question for a team that is probably counting every penny spent.

2. Was last season’s hot finish a mirage or a sign of better things to come?

Since Jan. 1, the Panthers generated 57 points (in 44 games), tying them for the seventh-most in the NHL. Their 27 wins ranked fifth during that same span.

Appropriately enough, Florida got hotter as summer neared. From Feb. 1 to the end of the regular season the Panthers went 24-8-2, generating 50 points, second only to the Nashville Predators’ 52. The Panthers scored 111 goals while allowing only 87.

In many cases, struggling sports teams allow themselves to get duped into weighing success in a small sample size as a sign of bigger things to come.

Still, there are some reasons to wonder if Florida might actually be onto something special. Still-new head coach Bob Boughner seemed to find a nice formula, as Nick Bjugstad found nice chemistry with Aleksander Barkov, allowing Jonathan Huberdeau to combine with Vincent Trocheck to form a potent second scoring option.

Naturally, some of that late success also came from question 1 working out, as goaltending was a strength, too.

3. Will Florida’s depth become a strength?

One of the most exciting thoughts for Florida is that, generally speaking, they didn’t suffer any major subtractions (*cough* like last summer *cough cough*), while they made a very interesting trade in landing Mike Hoffman.

Hoffman could slide into one of the Panthers’ top two lines and provide a significant upgrade. If he ended up with Barkov, Hoffman could easily enjoy his first 30-goal season.

The winger with all that drama isn’t the only player who might be able to give the Panthers a boost.

Depending upon how training camp battles go, the Panthers could really buttress their forward corps with some intriguing young talent. Both Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could land spots on Florida’s roster, thus possibly opening the door for the Cats to go from a top-heavy team to a fairly deep scoring attack.

Could Hoffman and others come together to create a third line? Might the Panthers spread the wealth in some other way?

These are good problems to have, and the Panthers bring an enticing mix of talent to the table in 2018-19.

Of course, the Atlantic Division is rugged at the top, and the Panthers have only made the postseason twice since 2000-01 and didn’t win a playoff series during that span, so this franchise still has a lot to prove.

That said, they also have Barkov …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.