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
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.
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.
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?
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