NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three questions facing the Florida Panthers.
The Florida Panthers are confident they can rebound and return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a season of regression when they finished with 81 points, 22 behind their total from 2015-16, when they had the most points (103) and wins (47) in their history and won the Atlantic Division.
The chances of that happening depends on the answers to these questions:
[PANTHERS 31 in 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the numbers]
1. Can new coach Bob Boughner make a difference?
The Panthers were 11-10-1 under Gerard Gallant, who was fired Nov. 27 and replaced with general manager Tom Rowe. With the exception of a 5-0-0 West Coast trip in mid-February, Rowe didn't fare much better; Florida was 7-16-1 in its final 24 games.
Rowe was reassigned following the season and Boughner was named coach on June 12. Boughner was an assistant for two seasons with the San Jose Sharks and arrives with the reputation as a no-nonsense coach. It will be up to Boughner and his staff, which includes former New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano, to get the most out of what appears to be a talented roster.
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2. Can the top young players take the next step?
Dale Tallon, who regained the GM title after last season, said he was counting on his young core to carry the Panthers this season. That likely imcludes forwards Aleksander Barkov (turns 22 on Sept. 2) and Jonathan Huberdeau (24), and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (21).
All have played superb hockey at times but also appear capable of more if they can avoid injuries. Barkov and Huberdeau will have a different linemate with the Panthers having moved away from Jaromir Jagr, 45, but that shouldn't stop them from putting up points if they can stay in the lineup. Ekblad struggled after he sustained a concussion last season and Florida needs him to perform like the player who won the Calder Trophy in 2014-15.
The Panthers also need strong contributions from centers Vincent Trocheck, 24, whose 54 points (23 goals, 31 assists) led them in scoring last season, and Nick Bjugstad, 25, who was protected in the NHL Expansion Draft despite scoring seven goals in 54 games.
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3. Can they find enough scoring?
The Panthers had seven forwards reach double digits in goals last season but four are gone, including Jonathan Marchessault, who led them with 30, after he was chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Also gone are Jagr (16 goals), Reilly Smith (15) and Jussi Jokinen (11).
Florida is counting on Evgeny Dadonov to make an impact after playing the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, hopes for another solid season from veteran free agent acquisition Radim Vrbata (20 goals, 35 assists with Arizona Coyotes last season), and is counting on a rebound from Bjugstad, who led the Panthers with 24 goals in 2014-15.
Tallon also is confident Boughner's system will produce more offense from the defensemen. Ekblad (10 goals), Jason Demers (nine) and Michael Matheson (seven) scored 26 of the Panthers 37 goals from defensemen.
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