After making an improbable run to the Southeast Division title in 2011-12, the Florida Panthers stumbled badly the past two seasons, finishing with the worst record in the NHL in 2012-13 and the second-worst last season.
The Panthers still have an abundance of highly touted prospects, either on their roster or in the system, and they also have a new coach in former Columbus Blue Jackets coach and former Montreal Canadiens assistant Gerard Gallant. But they also have a lot of question marks heading into next season, and here are five that jump out:
1. Are the Panthers' promising young forwards ready to make a major impact? -- General manager Dale Tallon has maintained since arriving in Florida in May of 2011 that his blueprint would center around the NHL Draft, and he has accumulated some impressive prospects over the past few years, among them forwards Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau.
Because the Panthers haven't been able to land a high-scoring veteran forward to lead the way, the team will be relying heavily on those three players to help produce on offense after Florida tied for next-to-last in goals each of the past two seasons.
Bjugstad led the Panthers in scoring last season, but his 38 points were the fewest for a team leader since the last NHL expansion. Barkov shined as a rookie in 2013-14 before his season was cut short by a knee injury, but his all-around game stood out more than his offensive prowess. Huberdeau, meanwhile, will be looking to rebound after he followed his Calder-winning 2013 season with a disappointing sophomore effort.
The Panthers were busy in free agency on July 1, but their acquisitions brought leadership and complementary skills instead of pure offensive firepower. The Panthers could be looking at another long year offensively if their three young forwards don't deliver.
2. Can the Panthers tighten up their defense? -- In addition to their scoring woes, the Panthers also finished second-to-last in the NHL last season in goals allowed. The two big changes in the defense corps involve the arrival of veteran free agent Willie Mitchell from the Los Angeles Kings and the selection of Aaron Ekblad with the first pick in the 2014 draft.
Ekblad is expected to be on the Panthers roster from the start of the season, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact he can make early on. As for Mitchell, 37, the hope is brings stability to a group that features only one other player older than 24, Brian Campbell.
The Panthers defensive corps includes Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, each of whom was re-signed this summer as a restricted free agent. The two first-round picks need to take a step forward if Florida is to improve on the defensive end.
3. How much better can the Panthers special teams become? -- It won't be difficult for the Panthers power play and penalty killing to be better than last season because Florida was last in the League in both categories, and by a wide margin.
Offensively, the Panthers still are looking to replace point man Jason Garrison, whose big slap shot was the key to the power play's success during the playoff season of 2012. At the other end, the Panthers need someone to step in for top penalty-killing defenseman Mike Weaver, who ended up with the Canadiens at the NHL Trade Deadline last season.
4. Is Roberto Luongo still good enough to steal some victories for the Panthers? -- The Panthers' decision to bring back Luongo last March, despite his contract, was made not only to re-energize the franchise, but also to provide some stability in the net.
Luongo had a .924 save percentage in his 14 games with the Panthers last season, and the team gladly would take that figure again over the course of a full season.
5. What kind of a difference can a new coaching staff make? -- Tallon indicated after letting interim coach Peter Horachek go after last season that he wanted someone with NHL coaching experience, and that's what he got with Gallant.
Furthermore, Gallant was behind the bench for the Canadiens' run to the Eastern Conference Final last season and new assistant Mark Morris was instrumental in developing many of the players who helped the Los Angeles Kings win two of the past three Stanley Cup titles in his role as coach of the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League for the past eight seasons.
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