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Team Reset

Panthers thinking big, thanks to retooled defense

Signings of Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, plus Aaron Ekblad's long-term contract, fuel optimism

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

After the NHL Draft, free agency and other offseason moves, NHL.com is taking a look at where each team stands. Today, the Florida Panthers.

Though the Florida Panthers didn't finish last season the way they, or their growing fan base, would have hoped, they showed remarkable progress. This was not a team that was supposed to win the Atlantic Division, at least not yet. But it did, finishing the season behind only the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference before they lost to the New York Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then came the offseason and a flurry of moves for the Panthers. That now means bigger expectations, bigger chances to succeed, bigger chances to fail. The Panthers invested heavily in the idea they will succeed; they remade their defense by signing two of the top free-agent defensemen available (Keith Yandle and Jason Demers), signed Aaron Ekblad to a long-term extension, and signed their goaltender of the future (James Reimer) to solidify the back end.

Ultimately, the Panthers weren't quite ready last season to be a postseason force. But this season? This could be their year. And they could be good for years to come.

Video: Jason Demers Talks Signing with Panthers

Here is what the Panthers look like today:

KEY ARRIVALS: Keith Yandle, D: This signing was the first sign the Panthers were indeed going for it after they traded a sixth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2017 for the 29-year-old defenseman. And they made it count, signing Yandle to a $44.45 million, seven-year contract before he hit the free agent market. He had 47 points last season and will certainly improve a power play that finished 23rd in the NHL last season (16.9 percent). … Jason Demers, D: The Panthers also wooed and landed Demers, who has played with the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars. He is another puck-moving defenseman and had seven goals and 16 assists in 62 games for the Stars last season. The Panthers signed him to a five-year contract. … James Reimer, G: With Roberto Luongo uncertain to start the season recovering from hip surgery, the Panthers needed a backup they could count on. They also need a goaltender for the future. They got both in Reimer, who signed a five-year contract when free agency opened. The 28-year-old spent six seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs before finishing last season with the Sharks, backing up Martin Jones. Reimer has never played in more than 37 games in a season. He has a career 2.78 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. … Jared McCann, F: The young center was acquired earlier in the offseason in a trade for defenseman Erik Gudbranson as the Panthers attempt to increase their scoring ability and skill, as well as their depth. The 20-year-old is coming off his first full season in the NHL, when he had nine goals and nine assists in 69 games for the Vancouver Canucks.

Video: We chat with Tom Rowe, the GM of the Florida Panthers

KEY DEPATURES: Brian Campbell, D: The Panthers wanted to keep the 37-year-old, a defenseman who can move the puck and create chances, but Campbell was committed to the Chicago Blackhawks and reportedly took less money to head back where he won a Stanley Cup (in 2010). Campbell had 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) for Florida last season. … Dmitry Kulikov, D: Kulikov was traded to the Buffalo Sabres at the 2016 NHL Draft for defenseman Mark Pysyk. Kulikov, 25, was the No. 14 pick in the 2009 draft and played seven seasons for Florida. He had one goal and 16 assists last season and likely will be used in a top-four role in Buffalo. … Erik Gudbranson, D: The Panthers opted to part with Gudbranson, the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft, in a trade with the Canucks for McCann. That set off the remaking of their defense. The 24-year-old shutdown defenseman played 309 NHL games, with 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) while building a reputation that indicated he could participate in a team's leadership for years to come.

ON THE CUSP: Michael Matheson, D: The 22-year-old has played more Stanley Cup Playoff games than regular-season games. That will soon change. The emergence of the top defenseman prospect was part of what allowed Florida to trade Gudbranson, and Matheson soon will figure in the future of the Panthers, likely this season. He had eight goals and 12 assists and was plus-14 in 54 games for Portland of the American Hockey League. Florida president of hockey operations Dale Tallon has compared Matheson to Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. … Lawson Crouse, F: The 19-year-old will get a look for one of the few open spots the Panthers have this season. The 11th pick in the 2015 draft, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound forward spent last season with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League, with 62 points (23 goals, 39 assists) in 49 games. … Kyle Rau, F: Rau, 23, got to see some time with the Panthers last season, spending nine games in the NHL in February and March. He was a third-round pick (No. 91) in the 2011 draft. He had 31 points (17 goals, 14 assists) in 63 game for Portland.

Video: Aaron Ekblad talks eight-year extension with Panthers

WHAT THEY STILL NEED: Results. Tangible results. Yandle and Demers each cited the potential to win the Stanley Cup as a reason to sign with Florida, other than the money, of course. But the Panthers have made the postseason twice in the past 15 seasons and have not made it out of the first round since 1996, when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final. Florida has shown it is not afraid to spend or make sweeping moves this offseason. It looks as if the front office has constructed a team with a significant amount of potential. Though this isn't something that can be accomplished in the summer, the most important thing for the Panthers to do is to capitalize, to win, to play deeper into the summer. To get results.

PETE JENSEN'S FANTASY FOCUS: When you talk about possible draft bargains among my top 30-40 fantasy forwards, Aleksander Barkov is possibly the most glaring candidate. Barkov's Yahoo average draft position should be much lower than it was last season (165.7), but he'll still likely be available outside the top 50-60 overall players. Barkov, who plays on the first power-play unit in Florida, should benefit from the distributing of new defenseman Yandle and take the next step as a fantasy breakout player this season. He was close to a point-per-game player through 66 games last season (59 points). If this 20-year-old center finally stays healthy for a full season, expect him to outperform his ADP and finish in the 70-75 point and 25-30 power-play point range.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr

Jussi Jokinen - Vincent Trocheck - Reilly Smith

Jonathan Marchessault - Nick Bjugstad - Jared McCann

Lawson Crouse - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Michael Matheson - Jason Demers

Alex Petrovic - Mark Pysyk

Roberto Luongo

James Reimer

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