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30 in 30

Reasons for optimism, questions facing Panthers

Defense will be faster; Roberto Luongo coming off hip surgery

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Florida Panthers:

The Florida Panthers surpassed expectations last season when they won the Atlantic Division with 103 points, the most in their history, but they're looking to take the next step.

That would be winning a Stanley Cup Playoff series, something they haven't done since their run to the Cup Final in 1996, the longest drought in the NHL. First, the Panthers will have to earn a second consecutive playoff berth, something they haven't done since 1997.

The Panthers expect to accomplish that goal, thanks in large part to their talented young nucleus.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Strength up the middle

With Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad, the Panthers have depth at center.

Barkov, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, led the Panthers with 28 goals last season despite missing 16 games because of injuries, and the 20-year-old already is one of the best two-way players in the League.

Panthers 30 in 30: Season outlook | Top prospects | Fantasy outlook

Trocheck emerged as a key player last season; his 25 goals were tied for the Panthers lead before his regular season was cut short because of a foot injury. He was so impressive in the second half of the season that Jaromir Jagr called him Florida's MVP.

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Bjugstad had a relatively disappointing season (15 goals, 34 points), but the 2010 first-round pick (No. 19) led the Panthers with 24 goals in 2014-15.

Fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie is one of Florida's top penalty-killers.

2. More speed on defense

The Panthers got solid play from their defense last season, but one goal in the offseason was to improve the speed on the back end.

Florida is confident it accomplished that goal by trading for and then signing veteran Keith Yandle, acquiring Mark Pysyk for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres that also involved draft picks, and signing free agent Jason Demers.

Yandle likely will skate with Aaron Ekblad on the first pair and help on the power play.

"We went after him because we like the way he plays the game," general manager Tom Rowe said. "We feel with the forwards that we have up front, he really complements our offensive attack. It's no secret, he averages 50 points a season. We thought adding a player of Keith's ability was going to make us that much more a playoff team and a serious contender going forward."

3. More prospects on the way

The Panthers have emerged as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in large part because of their impressive collection of homegrown talent, which includes Barkov, Ekblad, Trocheck, Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau, and there likely will be more names added to the list this season.

After playing his first three NHL games in the regular season, defenseman Michael Matheson, the No. 23 pick in the 2012 draft, earned a spot in the lineup in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders. Matheson, 22, played well enough that he was playing with Ekblad on the top pair by the end of the series. He followed that up by winning the award for best defenseman at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, helping Canada win the gold medal.

Defenseman Ian McCoshen, Matheson's former Boston College teammate, will battle for a roster spot during training camp, and 2015 first-round pick (No. 11) Lawson Crouse would bring a physical presence at forward if he can make the team.

4. Greater depth on offense

Along with adding speed on defense, another priority for the Panthers was adding depth up front.

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm5: Barkov ties the game on Petrovic's dish

Florida's top seven forwards -- Barkov, Huberdeau, Jagr, Trocheck, Bjugstad, Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen -- form an impressive group, but there wasn't enough production beyond that.

The Panthers signed forwards Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault in free agency, and added Jared McCann in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks for defenseman Erik Gudbranson to address the issue.

Prospects such as Crouse and 23-year-old Kyle Rau, who played nine games with Florida last season, also could end up contributing up front.

Here are three key questions facing the Panthers:

1. How long can Jaromir Jagr produce?

Jagr added another impressive chapter to his incredible career last season when he led the Panthers in scoring (66 points) during the regular season.

But Jagr had two assists in the six-game playoff series against the Islanders and will turn 45 on Feb. 15.

As fit as he is, age is bound to catch up to Jagr at some point, and that could prove problematic for Florida given his roles as the first-line right wing, with Barkov and Huberdeau, and on the first power-play unit.

Video: NJD@FLA: Jagr forces turnover, feeds Barkov for goal

2. Will the defense be improved?

It's hard to question the logic of what the Panthers did on defense, especially the acquisition of Yandle, who essentially will step into the role once filled by Brian Campbell.

But Kulikov and Gudbranson arguably were the Panthers' two best defensemen in the playoffs, and they're gone. Gudbranson's physical presence could be missed, unless the 6-foot-3, 217-pound McCoshen can earn a spot in the lineup.

The Panthers also will have to replace the leadership of captain Willie Mitchell, who didn't play after January because of a concussion but stayed with Florida through the playoffs. He is an unrestricted free agent.

3. Should there be concern about Roberto Luongo?

The July 1 signing of goalie James Reimer to a five-year contract was surprising until it was revealed that Luongo might miss the start of the regular season after having offseason hip surgery.

Luongo remained effective last season (his .922 save percentage was above his NHL career average of .919), but Rowe said Reimer was signed not only as a backup but potentially as Luongo's eventual successor.

Rowe said the Panthers want to lighten Luongo's workload, which makes sense considering he'll turn 38 on April 4 and his 62 games last season were his most since 2009-10 (68).

Although the Panthers expect Luongo to be back early in the regular season at the latest, the question remains how long he'll be able to perform at a high level.

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