I bet you weren’t expecting to hear that so soon.
The Florida Panthers, under the guidance of general manager Bill Zito, have gone from a joke of an organization to a world-class franchise seemingly overnight. It was no accident. Zito put the team in a blender following its 2019-2020 campaign in the bubble. What came out of his offseason work was an absolute powerhouse that finished just three points shy of a first-in-franchise-history President’s Trophy, along with fourth overall in the league. While the Panthers were a powerhouse last season, they happened to run into the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in the first round of the playoffs. A disappointing end to a step in the right direction for the organization. The question now must be asked: are the Panthers truly contenders? To that, I say yes. The Panthers were only a few pieces away from beating the Lightning last time, but what players must step up this year for them to truly contend? Here are a few that come to mind.
Fresh off a 25-goal campaign, without Jack Eichel, mind you, Sam Reinhart will look to make a statement in South Florida right off the bat. Likely to be on Aleksander Barkov’s right-wing, with Carter Verhaeghe on Barkov’s left, Reinhart will be transitioning from one elite centre to another elite centre. Acquired in a trade for goaltending prospect Devon Levi and a 2022 top ten protected first-round pick, Zito had only positive things to say about the newly acquired winger. “Sam has established himself as one of the best playmaking scorers in the league, and we are thrilled to be able to add him to our Panthers lineup,” Zito told the media. “His competitiveness and hunger to succeed will fit seamlessly with the culture we are building here in South Florida.” All-in-all, Reinhart will be a massive piece to any potential cup run in South Florida
A shock to the entire hockey community, it appears that 2014’s fourth overall pick, Sam Bennett, has finally found his place and potential. A trade deadline acquisition, Bennett netted fifteen points in ten regular-season games since joining the Panthers, a rather incredible amount. It would appear that playing alongside left wing Jonathan Huberdeau has brought out the part of his game that was missing in Calgary for quite some time. The question remains: can Bennett keep up his pace? Realistically, a 1.5 points per game pace is likely unrealistic. Still, if he could stay above a point per game, that would certainly help the Panthers’ cup ambitions, especially with the one-two punch of Barkov and Bennett down the middle.
One underrated factor that could end up being the difference-maker for Bennett is his happiness level. “For me, four years was a no-brainer,” Bennett said immediately after he signed a four-year extension with the Panthers. “I’ve never felt so comfortable in my life playing hockey.” This comfort level clearly helped Bennett excel and become a version of himself that he was likely unsure he’d ever reach in his career. Bennett will be a huge key to the Panthers’ depth this year, which will, in turn, lead to a cup run.
Fresh off a season-ending leg injury, Aaron Ekblad will likely be hungry for another Norris caliber season. Racking up 22 points in 35 games with the Panthers before his injury, Ekblad was on track to at the very least be in conversations for the prestigious award. His slapshot electrified the powerplay, and his linemate Mackenzie Weegar has blossomed into a top-end defensive defenseman under his guidance. It was a tough loss, especially with how the locker room reacted to him going down, so naturally, it was going to hurt the Panthers for the rest of the season. That, however, is in the past, and now we must look towards Ekblad’s potential impact on his return. It was abundantly clear in the playoffs that without Ekblad, Weegar looked a bit lost, and in turn, was one of the worst defensemen for the Panthers throughout the series. With Ekblad back on the blue line, Weegar’s confidence will likely re-emerge, which will be important come postseason time.
All-in-all, it really seemed like the Panthers were missing something in their series against the Lightning. Many argue that if Ekblad stayed healthy, the series might have ended differently. While that is entirely up to speculation, we’re about to see Ekblad’s true impact on the team come October, as he is on track to report to training camp and be ready by the season opener. Although there is some slight concern about how he will recover from his leg injury and if his skating will suffer at all, it is safe to say that if he comes back 100% healthy, the Panthers could be a scary team to play against defensively.
The Panthers’ boy wonder, and the 20-year-old sensation that kept the Panthers alive in game five of the 2021 playoffs, is finally here. Spencer Knight, the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, has finally made it to the NHL, and what a performance he put on for us all. Knight posted a .971 save percentage in his NHL debut, making 34 saves on 35 shots against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He, naturally, looked a bit jittery but calmed down as the night progressed and quickly found his footing. He went on to start two more games, making 56 saves in those games. He came in for relief in one more game, where he allowed no goals. Knight started his NHL career 4-0, a feat not seen very often in the NHL. This would not be where his accolades ended, however. In fact, they were only beginning.
In game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Lightning marched into the BB&T Center with a commanding 3-1 series lead. All hope seemed lost for the Panthers until Knight was tapped on the shoulder. He became the youngest goaltender in Panthers’ history to start in an NHL playoff game. After making 37 saves and posting a .971 save percentage, he became the youngest goaltender in NHL history to win in his playoff debut. He would end up losing Game 6 in a heartbreaking 4-0 loss in Tampa, but he has started his career 5-1 and has a .926 save percentage in those games. The question right now on everyone’s minds has to be, “Will this kid really be the starter?”. To that, I say probably not. I think it is likely that Knight and Sergei Bobrovsky split time until Knight proves himself as a starter. He clearly has the potential, but the Panthers can’t rush him, or he may end up falling short of expectations. Knight could very well end up being the starter. But only time will tell. I believe if Knight can step up to the challenge, the Panthers will have no problems going on a deep run.
All-in-all, I believe this is the Panthers’ best look at a cup since 1996. If these four players and the rest of the team step up to the challenge, the Panthers are contenders, not pretenders. Although the zodiac may say that it’s the Year of the Ox, everyone from West Palm to Sunrise and all the way down to Miami knows that it is truly the Year of the Rat.
2 thoughts on “The Florida Panthers: Contenders or Pretenders?”
Especially with all of their acquisitions this off season and the good group of guys they already had, they have one of the best shots in the league. Can’t wait to see what they have in store this season.
This is a great read. Go Panthers baby just got season tickets i’ve never been this excited for a season