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The question, posed to the NHL’s most recognizable television analyst, was simple: Can you remember a Florida Panthers team as good as this one?
ESPN’s Barry Melrose couldn’t.
But what’s different about this team than the Pavel Bure-led teams that were quickly eliminated in one playoff appearance early last decade, or the Stanley Cup finalist that was swept by Colorado and pummeled by toy rats in 1996, is simple: sustainability.
“It’s the best Panther team I can remember,” Melrose said by phone this week, as everyone awaits the Panthers-Tampa Bay Lightning first-round playoff series that begins Sunday in Sunrise (7:30 p.m., Bally Sports Florida).
“They’re skilled. They’re deep. It’s not just one or two guys carrying them. And because it’s a young team, this will not disintegrate next year. It’s not like a situation where they can’t pay players like Bure. The nucleus is here for years to come. They have good goaltending, great goaltending at times. It’s time for [Aleksander] Barkov and [Jonathan] Huberdeau to step it up and show everybody there is a powerhouse in Florida that’s not called Tampa Bay but called the Panthers.”
Melrose really likes this Panthers team but makes Tampa Bay the favorite in their first-round series because the Lightning is loaded and the defending Stanley Cup champions are welcoming back two key pieces for the playoffs: Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Stamkos, the Lightning captain, has 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games but has been out since April 8 because of a lower-body injury. Kucherov has not played this season after offseason hip surgery but produced 85 points (33 goals, 52 assists) in 68 games last season and 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games en route to the Lightning’s championship last year.
“Until someone beats the champ, they’re the champ,” Melrose said. “Florida looks like they can. You like their lineup and matchups. Tampa has all those things too and they’ve proven they can win come playoff time. You still have to say Tampa is the team to beat.”
Melrose addressed a few other Panthers issues:
▪ He said Barkov is “a top 10 players in the league. The guy’s got everything: size, skating ability, strength, defensive capabilities. He’s a great passer, has a big shot.”
▪ Huberdeau is “easily in the top third of the league” among wingers. “You can’t push him around. He’s a good skater; good passer of the puck, good shot.”
▪ On Sergei Bobrovski: “I still think he’s a very good goaltender. People don’t think of him as one of the three or four best in the world, but that can change if he gets the first star in three of these playoff games.”
▪ On the roster’s most pleasant surprise in his view: center Alex Wennberg.
“In Columbus, they liked him,” Melrose said. “He was a high draft pick but never got it going. They gave him chances and finally they got rid of him, and he’s fallen on great times. Maybe he got stagnant in Columbus and he needed fresh people around him and to go to another team. He’s excelled. And Duclair has been great. He’s scoring goals and playing adequate defense.”
▪ On coach Joel Quenneville and new general manager Bill Zito:
“Joel has done everything they would have hoped, got them playing much better. They overcame the injury to Ekblad, who’s an unbelievable player, and that’s pretty impressive. Bill Zito did a great job with the deals that were made. They’ve over-excelled [compared to career performance for several of their players].
“The first round will be fantastic. Everyone is excited about this team.”
The Panthers are 72-40-13 in two seasons under Quenneville
On the point about this success being sustainable, keep in mind that Ekblad has four seasons remaining on his contract; Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Patrick Hornqvist, Radko Gudas and Keith Yandle have two full seasons remaining on their deals; Barkov has one season left before unrestricted free agency (and will assuredly be a priority for ownership); Frank Vatrano has one season before unrestricted free agency; and Carter Verhaeghe and Owen Tippett have one season left before restricted free agency.
Bobrovski has five years left on a deal that pays him $5 million or $6 million every remaining season; how Florida handles playing time with Bobrovski and impressive rookie Spencer Knight will be a fascinating storyline in the next few years. Knight has two full seasons left before restricted free agency.
This summer, Wennberg and goaltender Chris Driedger will be the team’s top unrestricted free agents; Duclair, forward Sam Bennett and defenseman Gustav Forsling will be the team’s top restricted free agents.
CAREER HIGHS ACHIEVED
Even with the NHL season reduced from 82 to 56 games because of the pandemic, multiple veteran Panthers produced their best NHL season in several statistics:
▪ Wennberg finished with a career-high 17 goals; he had 15 combined in the past three seasons for Columbus.
▪ Verhaeghe closed with a career-high 18 goals and 36 points in 43 games.
▪ Weegar produced a career-high 30 assists and 36 points in 54 games.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Huberdeau finished tied for 10th in the league in points with 61.
▪ Barkov finished ninth in the league with 26 goals and eighth in faceoffs won (551).
▪ Weegar, who had a terrific season, was tied for third in plus/minus at plus 29, meaning the Panthers outscored teams by 29 goals when he was on the ice. Duclair was eighth in the league at plus 27.
▪ Gudas led the league in hits with 250.
▪ Driedger’s 2.07 goals against average was fifth in the league. Bobrovski finished 39th at 2.91.
▪ Ekblad, before his injury, averaged 25:05 minutes of ice time per game, sixth in the league.
▪ Sam Bennett’s play for Florida (six goals, nine assists in 10 games) has been one of the best stretches in his career. Florida is plus 12 when he’s on the ice, and the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft has been an asset since his acquisition from Calgary.