Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin — you might have heard of those guys — and the rest of those Pittsburgh Penguins tied for the lead in the NHL last season in shots per game. But the team they were tied with may not have been so obvious because it was … the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers, who fell one point short of the playoffs last season, open training camp Friday, and all the core pieces of their explosive (if under-appreciated) offense are back.
In addition, the Panthers have added high-scoring winger Mike Hoffman, who has averaged 27 goals and 59 points in his past four full seasons.
Florida’s attack could get another injection of skill if one or both of its two elite rookies win jobs during training camp: 2016 first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom and 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett.
Borgstrom, who spoke to the Herald on Sunday by telephone, knows what he’s up against.
“[Hoffman] is a great player. I skated with him last Thursday, and it was amazing,” Borgstrom said. “It’s really good for the team to get a scorer like that.
“At the same time, it will be even harder for me and Tippet to get a spot.”
It’s a safe bet Hoffman will land on one of Florida’s top two lines, along with centers Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck and wingers Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad.
The Panthers traded away two second-round picks and a third-round selection to acquire Hoffman, who was dumped by the Ottawa Senators following reports of off-ice controversies.
But, assuming Hoffman is a much better fit in the Panthers dressing room than he was in Ottawa, Florida’s offense could be top-five in the league.
That’s especially true since Hoffman managed to put up big numbers in Ottawa, where the Senators play at a much slower pace. Hoffman should love playing in Florida, where he figures to thrive with either Barkov or Trocheck as his center.
Hoffman’s arrival likely pushes Jamie McGinn from second to third-line duty. Secondary scoring is vital in the NHL, and that’s where young forwards such as Frank Vatrano, Jared McCann, Max Mamin and Denis Malgin come in, along with veterans McGinn, Colton Sceviour, Troy Brouwer, Micheal Haley and team captain Derek MacKenzie.
It’s a crowded group of forwards, and the Panthers — led by general manager Dale Tallon and coach Bob Boughner — will have some tough decisions to make in camp.
Even so, the Panthers appear to be on the right track after finishing last season on a 25-8-2 run that was tied for No. 1 in the NHL during that span. From January 30 to the end of the regular season on April 8, only the Nashville Predators — who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team in the regular season — could match the Panthers.
Still, Oddshark.com lists the Panthers as the ninth favorite in the Eastern Conference, and only eight of those teams will make the playoffs. The three teams that finished ahead of the Panthers in the Atlantic Division — the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins — all look strong again.
So it certainly won’t be easy for the Panthers to reach the postseason, but the team — with its jet-fueled offense — will at least be exciting. Even Panthers defensemen get in on the scoring action, especially Aaron Ekblad, iron man Keith Yandle and young Mike Matheson.
“Our team is actually loaded,” Borgstrom said. “The competition will be huge. I’m super excited to show what I’ve got, and I hope that’s enough because I really want to make the team.”
OTHER KEYS TO SUCCESS
One other key to the team this season could be keeping starting goalie Roberto Luongo healthy and getting backup James Reimer back on his game.
Luongo, 39, played just 40 games two years ago and 35 last season.
Reimer, 30, had a 2.99 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage last season, his worst marks in both categories since 2014-2015. But even though his metrics were down, Reimer (22-14-6) still broke his previous best in total wins.