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Season Preview

Season Preview: Florida Panthers

Aaron Ekblad, new-look defense key to taking next step

by Alain Poupart / NHL.com Correspondent
At a glance

2015-16 record: 47-26-9, 103 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost to New York Islanders in six games in Eastern Conference First Round

Additions: F: Jonathan Marchessault, Jared McCann, Colton Sceviour; D: Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, Keith Yandle; G: Reto Berra, James Reimer

Subtractions: F: Dave Bolland, Quinton Howden, Jiri Hudler, Teddy Purcell; D: Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Willie Mitchell; G: Al Montoya

 

Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Jonathan Marchessault -- Aleksander Barkov -- Jaromir Jagr

Jussi Jokinen -- Vincent Trocheck -- Reilly Smith

Jared McCann -- Denis Malgin -- Colton Sceviour 

Shane Hunter -- Derek MacKenzie -- Paul Thompson

Shawn Thornton

Defensemen

Keith Yandle -- Aaron Ekblad

Michael Matheson -- Jason Demers

Mark Pysyk -- Alex Petrovic

Steven Kampfer

Goalies

Roberto Luongo

James Reimer

 

The Florida Panthers are coming off their most successful regular season, but the news isn't all positive heading into the season.

Forward Jonathan Huberdeau sustained a lower-leg injury in a preseason game on Saturday and will miss 3-4 months. The loss of the top line forward will be hard to replace, but several young players, such as Jonathan Marchessault and Colton Sceviour, should get a chance to step up.

Florida also made significant changes this offseason. Among the front office moves, Dale Tallon was promoted from general manager to president of hockey operations, and assistant GM Tom Rowe was named as his replacement as GM. Changes also were made to the scouting staff and coach Gerard Gallant's staff. The Panthers also unveiled new uniforms and a new logo. 

The biggest changes to the roster came on defense, where the Panthers were looking to add more speed. They're hoping the goal was accomplished with the additions of Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk to a group highlighted by 2015 Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad and Michael Matheson, who performed well as a rookie in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before being named the best defenseman at the 2016 IIHF World Championship after helping Canada win the gold medal.

On July 1, the Panthers signed goalie James Reimer as insurance for Roberto Luongo, who had hip surgery in May but expects to be ready for the start of the regular season. Reimer will be used to lighten Luongo's workload.

The Panthers hope the acquisitions of Marchessault and Sceviour in free agency and Jared McCann in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks for defenseman Erik Gudbranson will help bolster the production of the forward lines and provide more offensive balance.
 
Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Panthers finished first in the Atlantic Division last season in part because of a strong nucleus of young players led by Aleksander Barkov (21), Huberdeau (23), Vincent Trocheck (23), Reilly Smith (25) and Ekblad (20). Each has improved every season of his NHL career, and the expectation is the upward trend will continue.

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The injury to Huberdeau could hurt. The Panthers made quite a few changes for a team that had 103 points, in particular when it comes to their defense. They are confident they will be faster in that position, but the question is whether they gave up anything defensively after allowing the 13th-fewest average shots per game last season. Though Luongo recovered from hip surgery faster than expected, he's 37 and needs to stay healthy, and get help from Reimer.

 

Breakout candidate

Marchessault. The speedy forward had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season and could be see more ice time with the injury to Huberdeau. He's a strong candidate to earn a spot on the third line with center Nick Bjugstad, who will be sidelined four weeks with a broken hand.

 

On the hot seat

Yandle. The Panthers' biggest offseason move was acquiring Yandle in a trade with the New York Rangers on June 20, and then signing him to a seven-year contract with an average annual value of $6.35 million. Yandle likely will play on the top defense pair with Ekblad, and the Panthers are hoping he can help make a difference for a power play that was 23rd in the League (16.9 percent) last season.

 

Video: Aaron Ekblad talks eight-year extension with Panthers

Trophy candidates

Ekblad (Norris); Barkov (Selke, Lady Byng); Luongo (Vezina); Matheson (Calder); Gallant (Jack Adams)

 

Quotable

"You're threading a fine line because we had two great seasons, but you try and get better every year too. So when teams are making decisions and people are making decisions, it's about trying to get better. Some people said, 'Well, did you get better? Or are you the same? Where you at?' I don't know. When the season starts we'll find out. But I like what we did. I like the players that we brought in; they're good hockey players. Players that we lost are good hockey players, so it's about the chemistry and the fit in your team. Last year was a real good year. The year before that was a real good year moving forward. I hope we're going to move forward again this year." -- coach Gerard Gallant

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