The Panthers celebrated their highest point total in history by changing their front office hierarchy, dumping employees on their coaching and training staffs, replacing four of their top six defensemen, adding a new goaltender, trading for a promising young winger and spending more than $220 million in longterm contracts.
With camp opening Thursday, the upshot is not only what they believe will be a better team, but one they suspect will be more enjoyable to watch.
The top four of the defense (aside from Aaron Ekblad) was revamped because the Panthers want defensemen who can exit “out of our end of the ice with the puck as clean as we possibly can and enter the offensive end with control,” general manager Tom Rowe said. “Rather than rubbing it around the wall or off the glass or off the boards, we like to make as many clean, direct passes to the forwards as we can.”
Why? “The game has changed,” Rowe said. “Players hate dumping the puck in and then having to chase it and trying to get it back. Not every team can do it because they don’t have enough skill. We feel this is a good style for us. That’s what we talked to the guys about: Don’t be afraid to make plays. If you turn it over, you turn it over…. Coach [Gerard Gallant] likes to play an up-tempo game. Fans are paying a lot of money and you want to give them good entertainment. There’s nothing better than watching a fast hockey game.”
Where the Panthers stand at each position entering camp:
• Defensemen: Ekblad, Alex Petrovic, Michael Matheson, Jakub Kindl and newcomers Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk (who was acquired from Buffalo for Dmitri Kulikov).
Rowe: “On the back end, we feel we’ve gotten a lot better [offensively]. Yandle every year puts up 40 to 50 points. Pysyk has the ability to create some offense but more with his passing coming out of our end. What we liked about Demers was the fact he had an offensive side to his game, but even a little more skilled in the defensive side. He’s also a guy you can probably use in a shutdown role against the other team’s top line.”
But by acquiring more offensively-gifted defensemen, have they taken a step back in terms of stoutness and toughness on defense?
“I don’t think so,” Rowe said. “We wanted guys who can handle the puck. What we did was we got a real good group of skating defensemen. One through six, they can all skate, and that’s where you shut teams down quickly. You get guys who can move, take time and space away in the defensive zone, then you’re going to keep your shots against down. Toughness to us is guys that can fight through checks.”
• Goaltender: To keep Roberto Luongo fresh, newcomer James Reimer will play a lot.
Rowe: Goaltender coach “Robbie Tallas wanted to target Reimer [in free agency]. We wanted to get [a backup to play] 30, 35, maybe 40 games. You need to have two goalies than can play. He’s a big kid and just starting to scratch the surface with what he can do. Roberto wanted to have a guy like Reimer to come in and help when he needed a night off or two.”
• Forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau, Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Vincent Trocheck, Shawn Thornton, Derek McKenzie and newcomers Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault and Jared McCann (acquired from Vancouver in Eric Gudbranson trade).
Rowe: “Teams keyed in on [Jagr] in the playoffs. The Islanders didn’t give him as much space. We wanted to have four lines attacking, where teams couldn’t just focus on shutting Barkov’s line down or shutting down Trochek’s line. Now we feel we have six other forwards that can bring us a lot of speed and offense. That hopefully will translate into more space for Jagr. And we felt [Yandle, Demers and Pysyk] [will] help us get the puck up to the forwards.”
Rowe said he believes McCann “can be a top-six forward some day. Love his skill. Still only 20. Has got a great shot. We think he can play third line minutes with the ability to move up to the first or second lines in maybe three or four years….
“[With Marchessault], I love his competitive nature and he can create offense. He always was a high-end scorer in the American Hockey League which we think will translate here into pretty decent offensive production. And Colton, I coached against him as well and he was just a pure goal scorer in the AHL. It gives us two wingers that can play any forward position that will really give Gerard more options than we had last year.”
The Panthers ultimately decided to use their cap space on defensemen (with offensive skills) instead of importing a veteran high scoring forward. Rowe said Gallant told him: “We’ve got enough scoring up front. We’re good where we’re at.’”
The Panthers were eighth in goals per game last year.
Rowe’s overall thoughts?
“On paper, it’s a real good team, but you’ve got to get it done on the ice,” he said. “Do we have to go through some tough stretches? Maybe. There’s going to be a transition period. There might be some bumps along the way, but at the end I think we will be a real solid team.”