The Panthers broke training camp feeling optimistic about the year ahead; a much different feeling than the one felt during the inaugural season.
It's been a full year since the Florida Panthers entered the 2020-21 BEARD Hockey season with the promise of contending - promise that would go unfulfilled as the team struggled out of the gate, barely managing to hover around playoff contention before entering a rebuild at the trade deadline.
Yet despite blowing it up towards the end of last season, as the Panthers break training camp a year later, they once again feel optimistic about the year ahead. How did the Panthers manage to retool on the fly and end up with a team they feel can contend once again?
Make no mistake - this year's team doesn't have an Artemi Panarin like they did last season. They tried - they were in on discussions when both Nathan MacKinnon and Nikita Kucherov were traded this off-season - but they don't have that high-end star.
What they will have is more depth, having parlayed some of the futures acquired in trades last season into Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nikolaj Ehlers up front, along with Josh Manson on the back end. The Panthers also got involved in the Free Agency market, bringing Philipp Grubauer back to mind the nets (which was always the plan for the team), then signing Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brayden McNabb.
Tyler Johnson was a revelation last season after being acquired for a 2nd round pick, performing at a PPG pace for the Panthers alongside Ryan Johansen, a duo that is expected to stick together this season. Peyton Krebs and Daniel Sprong tore up the AHL last season on a line together and both will break camp with the big club this year.
Provided Krebs and Sprong are up to the task, that should give the Panthers three solid scoring lines up front. On the back end, there should be no concern with Jaccob Slavin, Ryan Pulock, Brayden McNabb, Josh Manson, and Radko Gudas securing five of the six spots. There is no shortage of experience, defensive ability, or nastiness among this group that may even be better than the one they entered last season with.
The Panthers went 1-3-2 in the pre-season, though they gave plenty of opportunity to youth throughout the pre-season and didn't really play their regular lineup. Jakob Pelletier did make an interesting case to get himself on the team, and its possible that he, too, breaks camp with the squad - although it seems more likely that he will be better served spending the season in the AHL like Krebs and Sprong last year.
Making his chances a little better are the fact that he showed good chemistry with Jayce Hawrlyuk and Drake Caggiula - two members of the Panthers' fourth line - in the pre-season, but fourth line minutes may not be what Pelletier needs to develop.
The trio of Johansen-Johnson-Bjorkstrand made an impact throughout the pre-season and will be the top line coming into the regular season. Kuznetsov will be one of the league's best second-line centres, but they will need to find him wingers to work with. He played with Dominik Kubalik and Sprong in the pre-season, but the line struggled to a -6 rating and might be reworked.
The Panthers' season will begin October 22nd against the Pittsburgh Penguins where they hope to kick off a campaign that comes closer to living up to expectations than their inaugural BEARD season did.
"I think we've learned from what we did wrong last season and we're a deeper team this year too... you can't just replace a guy like Panarin, but I think we have a lot of talent here and a balanced roster that will get an opportunity to shine," says GM Trevor Cook.