Published On: Wed, Apr 18th, 2018

Better Luck Next Year: Florida Panthers edition

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As NHL teams are eliminated from Stanley Cup contention, theScore NHL freelance writer Katie Brown looks back at the highs and lows of their seasons, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 14th edition focuses on the Florida Panthers, who missed the playoffs by one point.

The Good

Barkov and Co. The Panthers had three players under the age of 24 score 60 or more points in 2017-18, an encouraging sign. Aleksander Barkov led the way with 78 points, Vincent Trocheck scored 31 goals and 75 points, and Jonathan Huberdeau had 69 points.

Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon plans to go younger next season, and players like Tippett and Borgstrom will get ample opportunity to prove themselves at the NHL level. Tippett scored 36 goals in 51 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads and played seven games with the Panthers at the start of the year. Borgstrom played in the last four games of the season after two years of NCAA hockey in Denver, where he had 45 goals and 50 assists in 77 games.

Solid defense. Keith Yandle might have been the most improved Panthers defenseman in Bob Boughner’s first year, with 56 points as the elder statesman next to counterparts Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson. Ekblad scored 38 points, including a career-high 16 goals. Matheson capped off a career year with 10 goals and 27 points.

Luongo’s milestone. Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo celebrated his 1,000th game April 5, joining Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy as the only netminders in NHL history to reach the milestone. Next on the list: 600 wins; Luongo enters the 2018-19 season just 26 victories shy.

The Bad

That sluggish start. The Panthers got off to such a slow start (4-8-2) at the beginning of the season that not even a tremendous late surge – specifically, a 25-8-2 run after the All-Star break – could lift them into a playoff spot for a single day. Just one point would have done the trick. In most years, a 96-point team would make the playoffs, but not this one, and they’ve now missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.

Poor puck possession. The Panthers had a goals-against average of 3.01, in comparison to their 2.97 goals scored per game. In addition, they gave up the third-highest shots on goal per game (34.4), were a negative possession team, and ranked in the bottom half of the NHL in goal differential at even strength.

The power play. Aside from a six-week stretch from Jan. 30 to March 10 – when the Panthers’ power play was converting at an incredible 29.5 percent rate – this was one of the worst man-advantage units in the league, finishing 21st overall at a dismal 18.9 percent.

The Questions

What do they need? Well, that depends. Tallon is confident in the Panthers’ young core and doesn’t want to end up blocking them by doing too much this summer. He’ll keep a close eye on the playoffs to see if any upcoming free agents fit the team’s needs – players who can add offense and maybe some help on the blue line.

Is goaltending a problem? Luongo said he will be back for another season, his 19th, and though he missed stretches of the season with several injuries, backup James Reimer held his own. Even with Antti Niemi in goal for a handful of games, Florida still finished above the league average in save percentage. Do the Panthers want Luongo and Reimer as their goalie tandem next year? That might be another question entirely.

Who comes back? Radim Vrbata announced his retirement from the NHL after 16 years and 1,057 games, but other than that, most of the same players will return for the 2018-19 season. The good news is that aside from maybe a player or two to boost the team’s offensive production and possibly a defenseman, there’s not a ton of shaking up to be done.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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