Aleksander Barkov as the NHL’s MVP and his Florida Panthers in the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals — that’s the prediction offered in print by long-time New York Post hockey columnist Larry Brooks.
And while Brooks’ predictions are certainly bold, they are also a sign of the increased respect generated this season by the Panthers, who open their 2018-2019 schedule on Saturday at the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The latest power rankings from Luke Fox of Sportsnet have the Panthers as the eighth-best team in the NHL.
ESPN, meanwhile, ranks the Panthers as the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, which would make Florida a playoff team.
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“An underrated top-six [forwards] just got better with [the trade acquisition of winger] Mike Hoffman,” ESPN writes. “Florida’s top two centers, Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, are ascendant, giving the Panthers a great 1-2 punch.”
According to ESPN, the Panthers rank 13th in the NHL in terms of their group of forwards, 16th in goalie duos and 20th in defensemen.
Here’s a closer look at the Panthers team:
Barkov, 23, was named Panthers captain this season. The announcement was a coronation of sorts for Barkov, the second overall draft pick in 2013 who has since earned a reputation as a complete player, offense and defense.
He posted a career-high 78 points last season, becoming an NHL All-Star for the first time, and he also finished fourth in the Selke Award voting, given to the league’s top defensive forward.
Evgenii Dadonov (28 goals) and Nick Bjugstad (19 goals) could join Barkov on the top line, although those combinations are always subject to change.
The second line could be just as good or better with Trocheck (31 goals), Hoffman (22 goals) and Jonathan Huberdeau (27 goals).
But while those top two lines look good, the issue at forward is whether the Panthers can get enough scoring from the third and fourth units. Denis Malgin and Frank Vatrano have the potential to help in that regard, but the Panthers sent two former first-round picks — Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett — down for extra seasoning. Once they are ready, the Panthers’ forward unit figures to ascend even higher.
The Panthers allowed 34.6 shots per game last season, the third-worst mark in the league.
Aaron Ekblad, iron-man Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson add to the attack, but all three need to reduce their turnovers. The Panthers led the league in giveaways last season, and Ekblad, Yandle and Matheson all ranked in the top 10 in that negative stat.
In an effort to add more defense to the defensemen, the Panthers signed Bogdan Kiselevich to a one-year contract, but he required 40 stitches after a preseason game during which he took a puck to the face.
“Tough kid,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said of Kiselevich, who will start the season on injured reserve. “He wanted to know if we could put a cage on it and go back in the game.”
Starter Roberto Luongo, 39, can still play, but injuries limited him to 35 games last season and 40 the previous year.
He enters this season 14 wins short of passing Ed Belfour (484) for third place on the NHL’s list for career victories. Entering his 19th season, Luongo also needs 29 wins to join Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur as goalies with 500 or more victories.
Last season, Luongo’s metrics were impressive, including a .933 save percentage at even strength and a .980 save percentage on low-danger shots.
However, backup James Reimer, 30, had a .913 save percentage, his worst number since 2014-2015. His goals-against average of 2.99 was his worst since that same season. Reimer should be motivated for a bounce-back year.
Harri Sateri, who came up from the minors last season and helped the Panthers with four straight wins, is now with the Detroit Red Wings. If Luongo and/or Reimer get hurt this season, Michael Hutchinson, 28, expects to get the call, and he has 102 career games played.
In his first year as an NHL head coach, Boughner kept the team on track despite a rough start and finished with an NHL-best 25 wins in the final 35 games.
GM Dale Tallon made the trade to get Hoffman and has 15 players signed at least through the next two seasons.
This should be a playoff season for the Panthers, which would be just their fourth qualification in the past 18 years.
The Panthers, who have 33-1 Stanley Cup odds, are in probably the toughest division in hockey, at least at the top, with Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto generally ranked among the top 10 teams in the NHL. Still, if the Panthers avoid major injuries and last year’s slow start, 100-plus points is not out of the question.
“The anticipation is through the roof,” Trocheck said. “Honestly, I think we have the best team we’ve had yet.”