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Panthers relying on health, supporting cast for return to playoffs

New faces must support oft-injured Barkov, Bjugstad, Huberdeau

by Alain Poupart / NHL.com Correspondent

The Florida Panthers have a new coach, a new general manager who's not so new, and a new look at forward. They're hoping it all leads to a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a disappointing 2016-17 season.

Former San Jose Sharks assistant Bob Boughner takes over as coach replacing Tom Rowe, who was fired as coach and GM after last season. Dale Tallon, who was replaced by Rowe as GM, returned to that position on April 10. He is also the president of hockey operations.

Five of the Panthers' top eight scorers from a season ago are gone, including forward Jaromir Jagr, who wasn't re-signed after he played 82 games and finished fourth on Florida with 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists).

Here is a look at the five keys for the Panthers, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season: 

 

5 KEYS

1. The Boughner effect

Boughner came to Florida after spending the past two seasons as an assistant in San Jose under former Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. Boughner, who coached Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League to the Memorial Cup in 2009 and 2010, impressed Tallon during the interview process with his detailed approach. He's looking to put an emphasis on speed and said the Panthers will be tough to play against. "The guys understand all the changes and they understand which way this organization is going," Boughner said. "We're going to pay a price to win hockey games and we're not going to be an easy game."

Video: NHL Tonight discusses the future of the Panthers

2. Staying healthy

The Panthers are counting heavily on forwards Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad to produce offensively, and for that to happen the three of them must stay in the lineup. Bjugstad (hand) and Huberdeau (Achilles) were injured last preseason and, combined with Barkov, missed 100 games. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad missed 14 games because of a concussion but said the injury affected his play even after his return.

3. Production from supporting cast

The Panthers have a solid nucleus up front with Barkov, Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, who led them with 54 points (23 goals, 31 assists) last season, but they need contributions from other sources. Along with Jagr, the Panthers are also without their leading goal-scorer from last season, Jonathan Marchessault, who was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft after scoring 30 goals in 2016-17. Also gone are second-line forwards Reilly Smith (traded to Vegas) and Jussi Jokinen (contract bought out). Evgenii Dadonov was signed from the Kontinental Hockey League with the idea he would skate on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau. Veteran Radim Vrbata is expected to join Trocheck on the second line.

Beyond that, there are a lot of options but few sure things at forward. There's competition for positions between Owen Tippett (chosen with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft), Finnish Elite League scoring leader Henrik Haapala, prospects Denis Malgin and Jared McCann, and tryout players Brandon Pirri and Harry Zolnierczyk. Pirri scored 22 goals in 49 games for the Panthers in 2014-15 and could stick because of his offensive ability.

4. Solid goaltending

Roberto Luongo, 37, enters the season as the League's winningest active goalie with 453, but he's coming off a season that ended a month early because of a lower-body injury. Luongo started 39 games, his lowest total in a full season since 2008-09 with the Vancouver Canucks (53), and his 2.68 goals-against average was his highest since 2005-06 (2.97). James Reimer was solid after joining the Panthers as a free agent to help them finish tied for 14th in the League with a .911 save percentage, according to ESPN.com. A return to form by Luongo could go a long way toward helping the Panthers return to the playoffs.

Video: FLA@PHI: Luongo turns away Weal's drive to the net

5. Can Dadonov deliver?

Dadonov played 55 NHL games over three seasons after the Panthers selected him in the third round (No. 71) of the 2007 NHL Draft. The speedy forward is a different player after spending the past five seasons in the KHL and returns after he had 66 points (30 goals, 36 assists) in 53 games for St. Petersburg SKA last season. Dadonov, who agreed to terms on a three-year contract reportedly worth $12 million on July 1, was Florida's most significant offseason acquisition.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Barkov, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is about to start his fifth NHL season; he turned 22 on Sept. 2. His 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists) were second on the Panthers last season despite missing 21 games because of injuries, and he's established himself as one of the top two-way centers in the League. He has all the attributes to reach elite status if he can avoid injury.

Video: Aleksander Barkov takes the No. 49 spot

Biggest battle

There's competition on defense, where the Panthers created an opening with the trade of Jason Demers to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Jamie McGinn on Sept. 17. Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Mike Matheson, Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic are back from last season, and the battle for that sixth spot should come down to Ian McCoshen, Florida's second-round pick (No. 31) in 2013, and MacKenzie Weegar. Each played three games for the Panthers at the end of last season.

McCoshen has the size (6-foot-3, 217 pounds) to bring a physical presence, and Weegar possesses the kind of offensive ability that could make him a candidate for the power play. Both could end up on the opening night roster.

Most intriguing addition

One of the Panthers' under-the-radar offseason moves was signing Haapala after he had 60 points (15 goals, 45 assists) in 51 games for Tappara Tempere, where Barkov played two seasons before joining the Panthers. Haapala is undersized at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, but he brings a lot of playmaking ability for a team looking for more scoring.

Biggest potential surprise

One of Happala's teammates last season was forward Sebastian Repo, who was selected in the sixth round (No. 184) of the 2017 NHL Draft. Repo isn't the offensive player Happala is, but he's got a solid two-way game, good size (6-3, 189) and plenty of professional experience after playing the past four seasons in the Finnish Elite League.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Jonathan Huberdeau -- Aleksander Barkov -- Evgenii Dadonov

Henrik Haapala -- Vincent Trocheck -- Radim Vrbata

Jamie McGinn -- Nick Bjugstad -- Brandon Pirri

Micheal Healey -- Derek MacKenzie -- Colton Sceviour

Keith Yandle -- Aaron Ekblad

Michael Matheson -- Mark Pysyk

Ian McCoshen -- Alex Petrovic

Roberto Luongo

James Reimer

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