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5 Questions: Florida Panthers

Replacing injured forward Jonathan Huerbdeau, defensive upheaval top areas of focus

by Alain Poupart / NHL.com Correspondent

An NHL season is filled with twists and turns for each of the League's 30 teams. Here are five of the major questions that could define the 2016-17 season for the Florida Panthers:

 

Were the Panthers right to revamp their defense?

 

It's normal for a team to make changes from one season to the next, but what the Panthers did with their group of defensemen after a 103-point regular season was drastic. Keith Yandle was the marquee addition. He was acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers on June 20 and four days later signed a seven-year, $44.45 million contract (average annual value of $6.35 million) before he could reach unrestricted free agency. Also joining the Panthers were Jason Demers, who signed a five-year contract reportedly worth $22.5 million ($4.5 million average annual value) on July 2, and Mark Pysyk, who was acquired with two draft picks in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and a draft pick on June 25. Captain Willie Mitchell didn't return because of concussion issues, and Brian Campbell signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Panthers also traded Erik Gudbranson and a draft pick to the Vancouver Canucks for forward Jared McCann and two draft picks on May 25. Gudbranson and Kulikov arguably were the Panthers' most effective defensemen during their Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Islanders, and Gudbranson had been mentioned as a potential captain. Some of the rationale behind the moves had to do with NHL salary-cap maneuvering, but there was a desire to get faster at the position. The result is the Panthers will start the season without four of the six defensemen who began last season. But will new mean improved?

 

Can the bottom two forward lines contribute offensively?

 

WIth the injury to Jonathan Huberdeau who will miss 3-4 months because of a leg injury, someone needs to move up to the top line to play with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr and it could be Jonathan Marchessault.Jussi Jokinen, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith form the second line, but Florida will need more offensively from their other forwards. Nick Bjugstad once centered the first line, but he has been battling injuries since the middle of last season, when he missed 15 games because of migraines. He will miss at least the first three weeks of this season after breaking his hand during a preseason game against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 4. Bjugstad, who led the Panthers with 24 goals in 2014-15, is an important player if they are to achieve better offensive balance. The Panthers also are hoping to get production out of McCann, Marchessault and Colton Sceviour. A wild card is Swiss rookie Denis Malgin, who scored six goals in three games during the Panthers prospect tournament. Florida acquired Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell prior to the NHL Trade Deadline last season to add offensive depth but they left during free agency.

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm1: Smith scores a pair against Greiss

 

Can Jaromir Jagr continue to produce?

 

Jagr added another accomplishment to his career last season when he led the Panthers with 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists). In addition to playing on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau, Jagr also was a key member of the power play and continued to provide a great example to the Panthers' younger players with his work ethic. General manager Tom Rowe said he expects Jagr to continue to produce offensively, but the reality is Jagr did not score in the Eastern Conference First Round loss to the Islanders, and will turn 45 in February. As incredible as Jagr has been, there's bound to be a decline at some point.

 

Can Michael Matheson take the next step?

 

Matheson, 22, the No. 23 pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, made his NHL debut last season, and after being a healthy scratch in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the defenseman finished the six-game loss to the Islanders playing with Aaron Ekblad on the top pair. Matheson continued his strong play at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, where he helped Canada win the gold medal and was named the tournament's top defensemen. There's every reason to believe Matheson is ready to assume a role as a top-four defenseman. 

 

Will the young players continue their upward trend?

 

The biggest reason the Panthers are expected to be a Stanley Cup contender this season is most of their major contributors last season were young players who improved steadily. The Panthers think they're set for a long run of success, which is why they signed Ekblad (20 years old), Trocheck (23), Smith (25) and Huberdeau (23) to long-term contracts, and added veterans Yandle, Demers and goalie James Reimer to support them. If the young core can continue to progress, they could find themselves with a roster rivaling any team in the NHL.

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