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2021-22 Florida Panthers Preview: Jumbo addition brings Cup dreams closer

The Panthers already have the winning formula in their depth-heavy team — their biggest obstacle is the Atlantic Division.

Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers shake hands at the end of the series during the NHL Stanley Cup playoff match Game 6 on May 26, 2021 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If last season’s ‘Battle for Florida’ Stanley Cup Playoffs taught us anything, it’s that the Panthers are done with losing in the first round. This off-season didn’t change much about their roster, but the Panthers already have the winning formula in their tight-knit, depth-heavy team.

The biggest obstacle they’ll face this coming season is the competition in the Atlantic Division.

Where they left off

It’s been 25 years since the Panthers have won a playoff round, but Florida is promising that this next year will be it. Last season was just a taste of what the Panthers can accomplish, although it seems like they’re plagued with the Edmonton Oilers syndrome — a great regular season, yet a lack of post-season success. Luckily, unlike the Oilers, the Panthers don’t have any glaring problems within their roster or game-play. The key to success in the 2021-22 season instead is going to be building upon their accomplishments and improving the already exemplary aspects of their game.

Last season, the Panthers went 37-14-5, and exited in the first round of the playoffs to eventual winners and state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2021 Entry Draft

The Florida Panthers excel at developing young players within their system, a skill that has led to the team’s incredible depth throughout their roster. The Panthers took a mixed bag of players in the 2021 Entry Draft, although all are expected to be closer to NHL ready than not.

The first pick the Panthers took was Mackie Samoskevich, a creative center. He makes heads-up plays that build upon live gameplay and has great puck control and agility. Samoskevich spent last season with the Chicago Steel of the USHL, where he played 36 games and picked up 13 goals, 24 assists, 27 penalty minutes and a +2 rating.

The second draft pick is equally as exciting, although this time for the blue line. Evan Nause is a skilled skater, and he’s just as advantageous in games as Samoskevich, capitalizing upon rebounds and breakouts. While he suffered a shoulder injury in early November of this past year, he’s a top-notch prospect for the organization this coming season. Last year he played 32 games for the Québec Remparts of the QMJHL, totaling 4 goals, 18 assists, 32 PIMs and a -10.

The full list of the Florida Panthers’ draft picks are as follows:

Round 1 (24th overall): Mackie Samoskevich
Round 2 (56th): Evan Nause
Round 4 (120th): Vladislav Lukashevich
Round 5 (152nd): Kirill Gerasimyuk
Round 6 (184th): Jakub Kos
Round 7 (210th): Braden Haché

Roster

The good news is that the Panthers didn’t lose any players they couldn’t afford to in the off-season. The bad news? Well, there isn’t any. If the Panthers’ roster can carry the same energy and cohesion they did last year, then the spare new faces added to the lineup will integrate and make an impact quickly.

Goaltender Chris Dreidger was lost in the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, which was a move not entirely unexpected. While a great goaltender for the Panthers, Dreidger is being billed as a starter and franchise face for the new team. Since being snagged by Seattle, Dreidger has signed a three-year, $3.5 million average annual value (AAV) contract with the Kraken. This past season in Florida, Dreidger played 23 games, posting a 2.07 goals against average (GAA) and .927 save percentage (SV%).

As with all aspects of their roster, the Panthers have goaltender depth to account for Dreidger’s absence. Spencer Knight is the up-and-comer for the team, and has even cut his teeth on NHL ice for the Panthers a few times last season. He won’t be taking a lion’s share of starts yet, but this will be a key development year for him. He’s already shown his ability to remain calm and collected in high-pressure situations, and his dexterity and cross-directional mobility in the crease will only improve. Last season, Knight played four regular season games for the Panthers, putting up 2.32 GAA and a .919 SV%.

There are two notable new faces for the team who will be joining the already immense forward depth the Panthers have been collecting the past five years.

Sam Reinhart was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres on July 24, and has since signed a three-year contract with the Panthers. The idea is that he’ll be able to jump into the bottom or top six easily, and will be able to round out their special teams. Last season Reinhart wore the ‘A’ for the Sabres, and played 56 games, where he scored 25 goals, 15 assists, 10 PIMs and a -28 — although his +/- rating is largely indicative of the team he was playing for, rather than individual skill.

The other new addition is Joe Thornton. And if you forgot that Thornton signed a one-year, league-minimum deal with the Panthers this off-season, then you’re not alone. I had to triple-check on Google to make sure it was indeed Joe Thornton who signed with the Panthers. This will mark Thornton’s 24th season in the NHL (he’s been playing in the NHL longer than I’ve been alive). He’s currently ranked sixth in games played in the NHL (1680), seventh in assists (1104) and 14th in points (1529). Thornton adds a veteran presence and energy into the lineup, although with the forward depth that the Panthers have, he won’t necessarily have to play every night. Thornton has talked at length about how he’s on a quest for the Stanley Cup, and he believes the Panthers are right on the doorstep.

With the return of Aaron Ekblad, I’m inclined to agree. Ekblad is an instant game-changer for the team, and while the Panthers excelled without him, there will always be those of us wondering how differently the Tampa Bay series could have gone if he were in the lineup. Early last season, Ekblad suffered a fracture to his left leg against the Dallas Stars. He’s been on LTIR for the rest of the season, recovering from a successful surgery to help repair the fracture.

Ekblad is a textbook two-way defenseman. Last season, prior to his injury, he played 35 games, for a total of 11 goals, 11 assists, 33 PIMs and a +5. The Panthers have telegraphed that he should be back for the season opener, if not training camp.

What can we expect in 2021-22?

For the Florida Panthers, it’s all about upward momentum. Last season, their special teams were middle of the road despite their stellar Goals For (188, fourth overall) and Goals Against (151, ninth). Sure, their power play was middling at 20.5 percent (15th overall) and their penalty kill was slightly less than middling at 79.8 percent (18th), but even then those numbers don’t cause concern.

With the addition of Reinhart and increased focus on developing their special teams, the Panthers will be just fine. From there, it’s about maintaining the success the team had last year, and clawing their way through a difficult division that’s headlined by the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Lightning.

The San Jose Sharks will face the Panthers twice during the regular season. The first game will be on Jan. 29, 2022 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida. The pair will then play their final meeting on March 15 in San Jose.