April 17, 2018 | 1:35pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

PANTHERS LOOK TO BUILD OFF OF TRANSITION SEASON

 
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Roberto Luongo, goalie

 
 

MONTREAL, QC -- Two years ago at this time, the Florida Panthers were celebrating an impromptu Atlantic Division championship. Despite being ousted in the first round by the New York Islanders, there was reason for optimism in the Sunshine State. The team had finally begun to show signs of progression, as the young crop of talent in Aaron Ekblad (22), Jonathan Huberdeau (24), Aleksander Barkov (22), Nick Bjugstad (25) and Vincent Trotchek (24) had started to emerge.

But in the summer following the impressive season by the Panthers, which seemed poised to be the dawn of seasons to come, things got a little bizarre.

In a move that turned heads league-wide, ownership named Tom Rowe General Manager, effectively pushing the roster’s architect Dale Tallon to the sidelines. In an effort to go in an analytical direction (sigh), Rowe left his mark on the team in a massive way. Molding the team to his liking, he moved out analytical travesty Erik Gudrandson, while committing big money to defensemen Jason Demers (since traded) and Keith Yandle. Rowe locked up in-house talent to long term deals (some good, some bad), which began to draw criticism league wide.

The true cause for concern was when Rowe fired Head Coach Gerard Gallant in the most unprofessional and uncalled fashion imaginable, anointing himself to the position in the process. Rowe’s (infamous) reign of terror reign came to a screeching halt at the end of last season, leaving the Panthers a mess. Tallon has since re-taken over the role as GM, and has been doing damage control ever since.

Rowe’s infamous tenure as GM set the franchise back at least a season. In a desperate attempt to rectify the cap situation his predecessor had left him, Tallon had to make deals with Vegas and Arizona to rid the team of some hefty contracts, sacrificing future assets in the process. Additionally, Tallon had to introduce a new coach (Bob Boughner) to the team, the third coach in a calendar year.

After a tough first half of the season, the Panthers began to get rolling. Numerous forwards had sensational years, led by Barkov who represented the team at this year’s All Star game. Barkov ended the year with 78 points in 79 games, the best season of his career to date. Florida had three other forwards hit the 65 point plateau, as Trotchek (75 points), Huberdeau (69 points) and Evgenii Dadonov (65 points) all turned in good seasons.

The club’s 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett (19) and 2016 first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom (20) both joined the team late in the year after impressive seasons in the OHL and NCHC, respectively, and are expected to make the club out of training camp next year. Add in Bjugstad and 21-year-old Jared McCann, Florida’s forwards are stacked with talent for years to come.

Defensively, the team watched young defensemen Ekblad and Michael Matheson take the next step in their careers. After having a sub-par 2016-17 campaign, that started off with an injury at the World Cup of Hockey, Ekblad rebounded with his highest point total (38) since his rookie year. Matheson, 23, had a solid sophomore season, turning in 27 points in 81 games, while becoming a staple in Florida’s top four. Florida’s 2013 second-round pick Ian McCoshen, 22, played 38 games this season for the Panthers, and will look to become a mainstay on the roster next year.

But the biggest year from the back end came from the 31-year-old Yandle, who turned in the best offensive output of his career, tallying 56 points while playing in all 82 games. Yandle, who is two years into a seven-year contract (which carries a hefty AAV of $6.35 million), needed to hold up to his end of the bargain, which he has done in his first two years in Florida.

Between the pipes, the ageless wonder Roberto Luongo continues to provide stellar goaltending (when healthy). The 39-year-old finished the year with a sparkling save percentage of .929, his best since 2010-11. The only concern for Luongo and the Panthers would be his health, as he only played in 35 games this season.

With the Panthers finishing the year on such a high note, missing the playoffs by one point, there is much to build off of moving forward.  With the club having an incredible wealth of young talent up front, along with a solid defensive group headlined by Eklbad, Matheson and Yandle, the question mark for the Panthers moving forward will be the goaltending.

With Luongo being one year away from 40, his ability to stay healthy has become a question mark. While James Reimer, 30, performed adequately this season (2.99 GAA, .913 save percentage), he is not the long-term answer in the crease for Florida. Harri Sateri, 28, performed well in limited action (2.92 GAA, .911 save percentage) with the Panthers, but was merely a stop gap for the team when faced with injuries.

As a whole, Florida is not deep at the goaltending position throughout their organization. The Panthers have not drafted a goaltender since 2015, when they selected Samuel Montembault in the third-round. Montembault turned pro this year, and finished the season with a .896 save percentage in the AHL. Montembault will need to significantly elevate his play in the AHL before the Panthers can even think about calling him up, let alone be Luongo’s heir. Aside from Montembault, the Panthers do not have any promising goaltending prospects.

With much of Florida’s core being under the age of 25, Tallon will need to address the goaltending position moving forward to allow the Panthers to have long-term success. The pieces up front and on the back end are there, but there needs to be a solution for the post-Luongo era.

The Panthers proved what kind of team they could be in the latter half of the season, but ultimately could not overcome their terrible start. But despite failing to cap off a miraculous playoff push, the promise for the future was clearly displayed down the stretch. 

With Tallon back in charge, and the team finally having a concrete direction, the Panthers are a team on the rise, poised for long term success.

Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
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