Why the Florida Panthers Will Make The Playoffs
The Florida Panthers are primed for a good season with young players, experienced veterans, and one of the top goalies in the league. (Jerome Miron / USA Today Sports)

September 27, 2013 was the date that Vinnie Viola, along with longtime partner Doug Cifu, purchased the Florida Panthers for $230 million. Eleven months later, the Panthers' future has never looked brighter. From young players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad to veteran players like Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, and Roberto Luongo, the Panthers are primed to make a huge statement this season due to the amount of changes that were made in the last eleven months. In a few years, fans will look back and remember September 27, 2013 as the day that the Panthers finally landed into good hands and became a winning organization. Below are the reasons why the Florida Panthers WILL make the playoffs in the 2014-15 season.

Ownership Change

When someone talks about the Florida Panthers, they normally include the statement "have made the playoffs only once in eleven seasons" somewhere in their monologue. That statement is not too far off from the truth, and that leads directly back to past owners. From original owner Wayne Huizenga to Alan P. Cohen to Cliff Veiner, the Panthers have had ownership groups that were interested in making the team successful, but simply wanted to have the privilege of owning a team, no matter how bad they would turn out to be. As expected, this did not help make the Panthers competitive in the NHL throughout most of their seasons, often finishing in the bottom half of the league standings. Thankfully, when Vinnie Viola bought the team last September, he made a lot of promises that would transform the Panthers from losers to winners.

The first action that Vinnie Viola took when he became owner of the Panthers was making his mark among the ownership ranks. Viola bought out all of the previous owners minority stakes in the franchise, marking the first time that original owner Wayne Huizenga did not own a part of the franchise. On that day forward, the Panthers were solely owned by Viola and Cifu. In addition, Viola made a promise that he would turn the Panthers into a winning organization, starting with giving general manager Dale Tallon whatever resources he needed to make the Panthers into a competitive team. No longer do Panthers fans need to get excited over past acquisitions such as Steven Reinprecht, Cory Stillman, and Bryan Allen. It is time for fans to get excited about every season because the future is very bright for this franchise.

Prospect Pool

It all starts with the Panthers prospect pool, which has often been rated as one of the top prospect groups in the NHL. From the forward position to the goalie position, the Panthers are stacked from top to bottom. Throughout the next few years, players such as forward Rocco Grimaldi, forward Drew Shore, and defenseman Mackenzie Weegar will all push to make the Panthers roster. The only prospect that is primed to make the big jump this season is defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who was the Panthers first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Only the fourth player to be given exceptional status by the OHL, and the first defenseman to receive that honor, Ekblad will certainly be a Calder Trophy candidate, which is given to the best rookie in a season. Tallon has done a tremendous job in drafting these players and is a huge reason why the Panthers have a bright future.

Revamped Coaching Staff

After firing Kevin Dineen early last season, Dale Tallon clearly wanted a different voice behind the bench and interim coach Peter Horachek was not that voice. A few days before the 2014 NHL Draft, the Panthers announced that the club has brought in Gerard Gallant as the thirteenth coach in franchise history. Per Dale Tallon:

“We are pleased to welcome Gerard Gallant as the new head coach of the Florida Panthers,” said Tallon. “He is an individual with tremendous character, integrity, and a strong passion for the game and has experience has an NHL head coach. Gerard is an excellent teacher and motivator who possesses the leadership qualities and hockey knowledge that are necessary to lead our team.” [Source: FloridaPanthers.com]

Gallant is expected to help the Panthers’ young players transition to the NHL successfully and become stars in this league for years to come. He has already shown proof of that by transforming the Panthers young star Jonathan Huberdeau from a third line player to a star player on the first line when he was head coach of the QMJHL Saint John Sea Dogs. As coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, he also helped Rick Nash become a star player in the NHL and surpass the forty goal mark. He was recently an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, helping young players like PK Subban and Max Pacioretty succeed and helped the Canadiens reach the Eastern Conference Finals last season against the Rangers, losing to them in six games. Along with new assistants Mark Morris and Mike Kelly, and returning coaches John Madden and Robb Tallas, Gallant will help the Panthers young players become better players and will turn the team into a yearly playoff contender in the years to come.

Offense

One of the Panthers biggest problems throughout their twenty years of existence has been their lack of scoring depth. The Panthers have played a lot of games that are only decided by one goal. At the same time, the Panthers have been known to score only one or two goals per game. This year, this group of players have the biggest chance to break that curse.

Projected Forwards Lineup

Fleischmann - Barkov - Jokinen

Huberdeau - Bjugstad - Boyes

Pirri - Bolland - Upshall

Bergenheim - Mackenzie - Thornton

Extra Forwards: Kopecky

Young players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, and Brandon Pirri look to lead the charge at offense, and a couple of these players, if not all four of them, have the potential to crack the twenty goal mark. Brandon Pirri could be the Panthers’ biggest X-factor. After failing to crack the Chicago Blackhawks lineup the past two seasons due to the Chicago’s depth at the forward position, Dale Tallon called his former employers and was able to swing a trade for Pirri, while only giving up a third round pick in 2014 and a sixth round pick in 2016. Pirri adds something to the Panthers that they have not had in a long time: a player who has the ability to finish off his scoring chances. The Panthers also have a good group of veterans that will also lead the charge on offense, including Jussi Jokinen, Tomas Fleischmann, and Brad Boyes. Their supporting players have never been better, with players like Scottie Upshall, Dave Bolland, and Jimmy Hayes able to give the team some scoring depth. Look for younger players Drew Shore, Vincent Trocheck, and Quinton Howden to possibly steal a roster spot during training camp. On paper, the Panthers offense has never looked better overall than it has in the past decade.

Defense

On defense, the Panthers have a good crop of players that will be able to play great defense, while chipping in on offense from time to time.

Projected Defense Lineup

Campbell - Kulikov

Ekblad - Mitchell

Gudbranson - Olsen

Extra Defenseman - Robak

The Panthers have a lot of youth in this lineup, with Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell being the only veterans on defense. Young players like Dmitry Kulikov, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson, and Dylan Olsen will be heavily counted on if the Panthers are to compete for a playoff spot. As has been the case throughout the past three seasons, Campbell will be relied on heavily to supply offense from the point. Panthers newcomer and two-time Stanley Cup champion Willie Mitchell gives the Panthers a great defensive specialist and a mentor to teach the younger players the ropes and to help them correct weaker areas in their game. Younger defensemen Colby Robak, Alex Petrovic, and Jonathan Racine to steal the seventh spot on defense, with Robak most likely earning it due to his contractual status. Training camp invitee Shane O'Brien will probably start the year on the Panthers's AHL affiliate in San Antonio. He will surely earn a call-up when the injury bug hits the team. The weakest position of the three for the Panthers is the defense and it could excel if the younger players take a step towards the right direction.

Goaltending

Over the years, the Panthers have always had strong depth at the goaltending position, having had star goalies like John Vanbiesbrouck, Tomas Vokoun, and Jose Theordore play for them, but that was not the case last year. Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, Jacob Markstrom, and Dan Ellis all shared the crease at some point last season, and aside from Thomas who had injury problems all season long, none of the other three goalies were able to show that they wanted the starting goaltender job. Enter Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya, who joined the Panthers last season through separate trades. The Panthers now have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, with Luongo and Montoya providing a solid one-two punch in net. There will be no controversy over who is the starting goalie and who is the backup goalie. Luongo, now in his second tour of duty with the Panthers, will be the man in net going forward for the next five to six seasons. The last time he was with the Panthers, he was a young man who was only beginning to make a name for himself in the NHL. Now a veteran who has greatly matured throughout his years in Vancouver, Luongo has returned to South Florida to help the Panthers compete for a playoff spot year after year. Montoya will be more than capable of giving Luongo a night off once in a while and steal a game or two for the Panthers. Last season, he earned thirteen wins with a .920 SV% and a 2.30 GAA on a bad Jets team. Together, both players will look to give the Panthers a chance to win every game, every night.

Special Teams

Special Teams can not get any worse for the Panthers, as they finished last in both categories last season. Players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, and Brian Campbell will help the Panthers improve on the power-play, which has been a thorn in the team’s side ever since the playoff season of 2011-12. On the penalty kill, the acquisition of Luongo will instantly help the Panthers kill off some big penalty kills. The group in front of him has improved as well, as the additions of Mitchell and Ekblad will help the Panthers clear pucks out of their zone and get the pucks away from Luongo. With a completely revamped coaching staff, the Panthers will look to develop new strategies throughout training camp and greatly improve their special teams throughout the season.

Final Thoughts

In a division where most teams lost players and took a step back, the Panthers, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning, are the two most improved teams in the division.

Standings Prediction

  1. Boston Bruins
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning
  3. Montreal Canadians
  4. Florida Panthers
  5. Detroit Red Wings
  6. Toronto Maple Leafs
  7. Ottawa Senators

With new acquisitions Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, and Willie Mitchell, combined with the extra year of experience for young players Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, and Aleksander Barkov, in addition to the reacquisition of Roberto Luongo, the Panthers are poised to compete for a playoff spot all season long. If the team starts out strong and stays consistent throughout most of the season, new head coach Gerard Gallant will lead the Florida Panthers to a wild card spot in the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Florida Panthers’ fans and media pundits will forever remember September 27, 2013 as the day that the Panthers changed transformed from a losing organization to a winning organization. The Panthers will be making fans "Believe Red" all over again come October.

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