We all remember THAT guy, don’t we? Mr. Turtle himself. Good thing he’s out of the division now so we don’t have to play him as much.
The Panthers attack is led by what I would say is probably one of the most underrated players in the NHL, Alexander Barkov. 23-55-78 in 68 games last season. His wingers are Sam Reinhart, a sniper the Buffalo Sabres gave up on who has gone on to be two for two in 30 goal seasons since he became a Panther, although the -12 he had last season you hope is an aberration and not a new normal. Up against the cap, on the right side, the Panthers went shopping for bargains and signed Evan Rodrigues at $3 million a season for three seasons. He played for Colorado last season and has yet to crack the 20-goal mark or even the 40-point mark. Could he become the next Sam Reinhart and see his stats get a bump on this team? I’m sure the Panthers are counting on it.
On the second line, we have center Sam Bennett, rescued from the gongshow of the Flames, then scored 28 goals two seasons ago and regressed to 16 last season. I bet the Panthers hope he rebounds this upcoming season. On the right side, we have Tkachuk, who put up 109 points this season and finished seventh in league scoring. Can he do it again? That’s the million-dollar question but he’s a good bet to as he finished almost a full % point below his career shooting %. On the other side, we have Carter Verhaege, who set new career highs with 42 goals and 73 points last season. Not a lot of sexy names but not a bad top six overall.
The third line could probably use an infusion of talent on the right side, but they’re off to a good start with Anton Lundell at center (12 goals, 33 points) and Eetu Luostarinen (17 goals, 43 points). Gregori Denisenko had three assists in 18 games there. Hopefully for them that increases this year. The fourth line looks decent, with newcomer Steven Lorentz at center (19 points in San Jose last year), Ryan Lomberg at one wing (12 goals, 20 points) and Nick Cousins at the other (nine goals, 27 points).
At D, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword as Aaron Ekblad is technically there as the guy who stirs the drink but he’s out with injury for the entirety of the 2023-24 season. I’m starting to think his bones and muscles are just baking powder and rolled-up socks he’s injured so much.
That’s a huge blow to the top of the lineup but they still have Gustav Forsling on the left side who put up 41 points for the Panthers last season. The only other incumbent on D is Josh Mahura, who put up 16 points and a +17 last season, both career highs. This was his first season as a regular in the lineup so that bodes well for him. All the other spots have been turned over, though. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, fresh off the Canucks biting the bullet and buying him out, was signed to a modest cap hit to replace Ekblad in the lineup next season. Will he be an adequate replacement? For a healthy Ekblad probably not but he’ll probably be good for 20 or 30 points if recent performance is any indication. That’s something, anyway.
Rounding out the rest of the corps is stay-at-home guy Dmitry Kulikov, at one time a deadline pickup of the Oilers, ditto for Mike Reilly, and ditto again for Niko Mikkola.
Perhaps the least impressive defensive corps on the list of teams in terms of puck-moving, especially without Ekblad in the lineup.
Then there’s goal, where the Panthers have a Jekyll and Hyde type of starter in Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a regular season to forget with a .901 sv% and even that was buoyed by a strong second half of the season after he struggled in the first half. Come to the playoffs, however, he took the team on his back and was probably the #1 reason why they made it to the finals, as he finished with a .915 sv% and a 2.78 GAA – safe to say that’s probably the best uptick in goalie stats amongst any goalie between the regular season and playoffs.
Backing up Bobrovsky is Anthony Stolarz, who has only 81 NHL games played to his name and thus is very much an unproven guy. The Panthers better hope that a) Bobrovsky stays healthy and b) that he plays like he did in the playoffs all year long. Otherwise, they will be in big trouble.
Do I think the Panthers make it back to the Cup finals? Probably not. Give them credit for beating Boston and embarrassing them after they had a historically good regular season, but their next two opponents in the Maple Laffs and Carolina – whose ceiling seems to be the third round and that’s it – were very easy to beat. Once they encountered a better team again in Vegas, they couldn’t match up and only won a single game in the Finals.
I doubt they’ll be that lucky this time around. But, you never know. If last playoff’s Bobrovsky shows up he can single-handedly win them games when it matters. The one thing that can kill the Oilers is a strong goalie and Bob could be that guy.