Save for a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, the Florida Panthers haven't really won much as a franchise. Pair the lack of winning with an empty arena and what seemed like a market that didn't really need a hockey team, they became an afterthought.
Now? If the Red Wings ceased to exist as a franchise tomorrow, this is the team I'd hitch my wagon to. This is a fun hockey team with fun players and several young cornerstones who are going to be with the franchise for a very long time. It's just a roster built with a bunch of guys I enjoy watching and like on and off the ice.
This roster is propping open a Stanley Cup window. Is this the year they can take advantage?
What they did in 2015-16
Record: (47-26-9, 103 pts)
Atlantic Division Finish: First
Goals For: 239 (6th in NHL)
Goals Against: 203 (6th in NHL)
PP%: 16.9 (23rd in NHL)
PK%: 79.5 (24th in NHL)
The Panthers entered the season as a trendy wild card pick and sleeper and ended the season with an Atlantic Division title, taking the division by six points and finishing 10 points ahead of the third place Red Wings.
Prior to the deadline, Florida was almost entirely reliant on their top line of Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr, but a few deft deadline deals landed the team some forward depth with good hockey boy Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell. Those additions gave the Cats a formidable top 9 with some real scoring punch from top to bottom with Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen also contributing.
On the defensive end, the sexy defensive pairing of Ekblad and Campbell were a very nice top two for Florida while the bottom four with the likes of Willie Mitchell, Eric Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic and Dmitry Kulikov was less than inspiring.
In the net was everybody's favorite Twitter personality, who continues to defy age with another solid season, fending off .922 percent of opponent's shots. And Michigan Man Al Montoya had a solid season between the pipes backing up Strombone, allowing just 2.18 goals per game.
What They Did In The Offseason
They signed offensive catalyst Keith Yandle to a 7-year contract worth $44.5 million in what was a total overpay, but an overpay I can totally support. The dude creates offense and is going to be a huge addition to a power play that struggled at times last season.
Yandle joined what'll be a new look Florida defense with the addition of Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk, who came to the team via a trade that sent Kulikov north to Buffalo. Oh, and Jakub Kindl is still there.
On the offensive end, the Panthers let Purcell and Hudler walk while adding winger Colton Sceviour in free agency. They also took advantage of a Jim Benning special, somehow landing forward Jared McCann AND a second AND a fourth round pick for Gudbranson and a fifth rounder. This was a pure fleecing unless you're of the idea that a defenseman who has bad possession number but is "gritty" should be worth two draft picks and 20-year old former first round pick. If so, I have real estate on Jonathan Ericsson Island for sale.
In net, they signed James Reimer to a 5-year deal that'll pay him $3.4 million per season in what was a pretty clever move IMO. They added someone who could start in the right situation to a fairly reasonable contract and provided solid insurance to the possibility that the 37-year old Luongo begins to break down.
Aside from the additions, the Panthers locked up several players for a long time. Ekblad signed an eight year, $60 million contract while Smith and Trocheck each inked five-year deals.
They also were able to subtract Dave Bolland and his poison contract from the mix, sending out 2015 1st rounder Lawson Crouse and Bolland to Arizona in exchange for a third round pick and a conditional second rounder.
2016-17 Outlook and Projection
This team won the division last season and I think they're better than they were last season.
The addition of Yandle should spice up the power play and I'm an unabashed member of the Jason Demers fan club, so what was a mediocre bottom four last season should improve with his help.
Assuming Jagr continues to be a beautiful, ageless wonder, that top line should continue pumping pucks past goaltenders.
The forward group has a lot of scoring potential in the top nine and they have Shawn Thornton to punch people on the fourth line, which is neat I guess.
I think a repeat of the division title is more than within realistic with Tampa Bay being the only team that matches up (or exceeds them) on a talent basis.