Florida Panthers 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

florida panthers
Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Florida Panthers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 37-14-5 (79 points); second place in Central Division
• Postseason: Made First Round, lost in six games to Lightning
• Offensive leaders: Aleksander Barkov (26 goals), Jonathan Huberdeau (61 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Sam Reinhart (traded from Buffalo), Christopher Gibson, Zac Dalpe, Joe Thornton
• Free Agent Subtractions: Lucas Wallmark (CSKA, KHL), Keith Yandle (buyout), Nikita Gusev (PTO, Toronto), Devon Levi (traded to Buffalo), Alexander Wennberg (signed with Seattle), Anton Stralman (traded to Arizona), Chris Driedger (expansion draft)

Biggest question facing the Florida Panthers?

• When will Spencer Knight ascend to the No. 1 throne?

Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract — the one that carries a $10 million cap hit! — does not come to an end until after the 2025-26 season. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but Knight is clearly the future in goal. The 20-year-old left Boston College and played six times in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs. Over that small sample size he put up a .939 5-on-5 save percentage, per Natural Stat Trick.

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

The brief stint was encouraging, and with Bobrovsky getting outplayed and losing his No. 1 gig to Chris Driedger at times last season, it seems inevitable the Panthers will soon have a very, very expensive backup goaltender (his actual salary for the next two seasons is $12 million). It will be interesting to see head coach Joel Quenneville’s plans in net, whether he decides to give them a close split of games or ride the hot hand when the situation calls for it.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Per Cap Friendly, the Panthers have a little more than $1 million in room under the ceiling after a summer of extending Gustav Forsling, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, Brandon Montour, Carter Verhaeghe, and Sam Reinhart. The rest of the business featured cheap deals, like Joe Thornton’s one-year, $750,000 deal.

The likely increasing of the salary cap ceiling by about $1 million for 2022-23 will be welcome news, but there are plenty of questions ahead for the Cats. Barkov, Frank Vatrano, and Noel Acciari are among those who can hit the unrestricted free agent market next summer. As important to keep tabs on, Jonathan Huberdeau will be a UFA in summer 2023, while Knight will be restricted in the same offseason.

Barkov, however, is the No. 1 priority and will see his cap hit rise greatly from its current $5.9 million total. It will take some cap maneuvering from general manager Bill Zito to make it all fit while continuing to push this team further. That Bobrovsky contract will cause issues until it’s gone from their books.

spencer knight
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Breakout Candidate

• Spencer Knight

There are expectations now in Florida. If you don’t count the 2020 Qualifying Round — the NHL does not! — the Panthers have failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1996 and 1997. Many seasons have ended early since that Cup Final appearance a quarter-century ago, but now the pressure is on to win. Ownership has spent the money and it’s time to deliver. The hope is that Knight is the one to take the goaltending lead, even with Bobrovsky there. A time-share split is likely, but as we saw against the Lightning there needs to be some consistency at some point.

Best-Case Scenario

Aaron Ekblad returns from his broken leg and picks up where he left off last season when he had 11 goals and 22 point in 35 games. That would help solidify a backend that added Montour at the trade deadline and saw MacKenzie Weegar breakout and earn Norris Trophy votes. Getting a Barkov extension done during the season would go a long way to alleviating fears that this could be his final season in Sunrise. Moving back to the old division alignment will be a big part of the Panthers’ push for a second straight playoff appearance. There are enough points in that division to be had to give them enough of a cushion to ensure another postseason berth.

Worst-Case Scenario

How much of a distraction might the Barkov situation be as the season drags on and he remains unsigned? And should the Florida Panthers be out of a playoff spot come trade deadline time, does Zito look to get something for a potential UFA or take the risk and let extension talks continue into the summer for the franchise’s most important player?

PointsbetFlorida Panthers Stanley Cup odds

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    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

    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

    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

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports

    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

    matty beniers
    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

    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.