Expectations should be at all-time high for Florida Panthers

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The best sign that the perception of the Florida Panthers has rapidly changed came this past week when veteran forward Joe Thornton signed a one-year contract with the team in free agency.

Why is that signing so significant? Just consider the context around it. Thornton is a 42-year-old future Hall of Famer that is chasing the Stanley Cup that has eluded him for his entire career. He is not signing a one-year deal with a team that, in his mind, has no shot of winning it all. He is almost certainly there because he believes this Panthers team has what it takes to win, and win right now.

It should be an exciting time for Panthers fans because this is probably the first time in the history of the franchise they could actually have that high of an expectation for their team.

This is a franchise that has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs just six times in its 28 year existence, and only once has made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — and that was all the way back in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. It is a team that has not won a single playoff round since a miracle Stanley Cup Final run in 1996, its third year in the league, when it came out of nowhere to stun the league (and probably themselves). Nobody expected that run.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

But now? With this team? Fans probably should be expecting something significant this season. That does not necessarily have to mean a Stanley Cup, or even a deep run into the playoffs, but the there should an expectation for this group as constructed to make an impact in the league. All of the ingredients are certainly there.

They have a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach in Joel Quenneville. There are two All-Star level players and elite scorers at the top of the lineup in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. They have also given that duo a strong complementary core of forward depth with Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, Frank Vatrano, Sam Bennett, and now Thornton. There is also the emergence of a potential star in goal with Spencer Knight inching his way closer to being the team’s full-time starting goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is still on the roster with that contract, but Knight is clearly the future and made a strong first impression this past season.

They are also coming off what is the best regular season in franchise history with what should be the their most talented roster ever.

Their .705 points percentage was by far the highest in franchise history and only the second time they ever finished a season with a mark over .600 for a single season (their previous high was .628 during the 2015-16 season). They followed that with an impressive performance (even in a losing effort) against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the First Round of the playoffs. They may have lost in six games, but it was probably the most competitive and entertaining series of the First Round and could have very easily gone in the Panthers’ favor with one or two breaks going their way. They more than held their own against the league’s best team.

[Related: Panthers sign Joe Thornton to one-year contract]

The question is if they can repeat all of that over a full 82-game season in their normal division.

The Panthers return to the Atlantic Division where they will have to face Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto at the top, while also having to play the rest of the top teams in the league that they did not have to face a year ago with the divisional schedule. While they still had to play a significant portion of their schedule against Tampa Bay and Carolina (9-10-4 record, including playoffs) they also had a healthy dose of Chicago, Columbus, and Detroit (19-4-1 record) mixed in.

Having to compete for a playoff spot with the Lightning, Bruins, and Maple Leafs will not be easy, while also getting regular games against the rest of the league’s top teams. But this is definitely a Panthers team that took a big step forward this past season and has the roster to maybe take another step this season. Are they a Stanley Cup team just yet? Maybe not. But this the most reason for optimism Panthers fans have probably ever had.

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    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.

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    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.