Yesterday I referred to the Lightning as the division’s best team. One teams that’s had an aggressive offseason could make a push for taking over that title: the Florida Panthers. Here are three questions (and answers) with J.C. Smith of Litter Box Cats.
1. The Panthers were arguably the most active team over the last month, overhauling the d-corps and extending the forwards. Overall, are you happy with the moves the Panthers made?
The simple answer is: yes. I was quite alarmed and unhappy when the news broke that Erik Gudbranson had been traded. While he was not a player the statistical community is a fan of, we in Pantherland had taken note that he averaged more ice time than any of the team's other defensemen in the playoff series against the Islanders, and that he was being used more and more in critical situations. I was critical of the move. But as the moves the team made started to accumulate, we noticed that the sum of the parts was better than when the team started. Kulikov, like Gudbranson, had become a trusted, go-to defenseman for coach Gerard Gallant, and suddenly he was gone as well. The rumors had begun to circulate that Brian Campbell was departing, and then he too was gone. The net result, though, is a defense that now looks deeper, more power-play proficient, with likely more offensive production, and (on paper) very solid Corsi numbers. While Campbell was a Corsi superstar, it simply did not ever turn out to large numbers of offensive points. Keith Yandle produces far more. The goaltending looks deeper and younger. We all loved Al "The Big Cubano" Montoya, and he played fantastic for the Cats, but the combined age of he and Roberto Luongo was cause for concern. I believe that James Reimer is a solid goalie who could be a good NHL starter one day. Reto Berra is a nice insurance policy in case of injury. There are still questions at 3rd line forward, but Colton Sceviour could be a big upgrade over last season's options. Jonathan Marchessault has shown he can be a very effective 4th line wing- and both he and Sceviour can play up the line-up in case of injuries to the top-4 wings. Questions remain about whether Jared McCann can adequately fill the other 3rd line wing position, but he has shown a dedication that maybe they did not see in Vancouver, as he has packed on muscle and voluntarily came to Panthers development camp this month. All-in-all, the total of the moves has resulted in a defense that looks to be 8-deep competing for NHL positions, younger depth behind Luongo, and (whether they pan out or not) options that appear to be upgrades at 3rd and 4th line wing. What started out as a few alarming moves turned very positive.
2. To get big players, the Panthers had to shell out seven years to Keith Yandle and five years to Jason Demers. Are you worried that the Cats' competitive window will close as they become cap-strapped late in those players' deals?
This was absolutely a point of concern. I actually did a rather lengthy look at the Panthers salary cap prior to some of the signings, and the conclusion was that it could work, but they would have to be careful. I assumed that many of the deals were going to be longer than we would have liked- that is very much the nature of the beast in free agency in 2016. I did, however, fail to see the Demers signing coming (frankly- did anyone see that one coming?). There are a few reasons why this is not likely to be a big factor in the competitive window. The first is that the expansion draft is going to end up exposing some of these players and the team could easily lose one of its defensemen to Las Vegas. Many of us believe that it was that fact which led to Kulikov being dealt. The second factor is that the majority of the deals the team has swung have been for young players who have now been locked up long term (looking at you Aaron Ekblad and Vincent Trocheck). The Yandle deal is long, but he will be around the age Brian Campbell is now at its conclusion, and is making less than Campbell was in his time in Florida. Looking at Yandle's typical usage it’s easy to see why he stays away from the injury list- he plays mostly in the offensive zone and on the power play, this is not a physical, defensive, shot blocking D-man, so it appears he can last. The team has stopped paying the portion of the Kris Versteeg contract it kept, and will pay the final year of what it owes Brad Boyes this season. Brian Campbell's massive contract is finally gone, and it appears the team will find at least a portion of relief on the Dave Bolland debacle. Seven NHL-level Panthers will be playing on the last year of their contracts, and only Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr are noteworthy, top-caliber players who will get big pay-days (although Alex Petrovic and/or Mark Pysyk could end up looking for big money as well). The net result is that the long term deals are mostly to young players and the team has cap space, and a bit more coming, to remain competitive.
3. Everyone spent all of last year talking about how impressive Jaromir Jagr was at his advanced age, and then spent the playoffs talking about how his age caught up to him. Which of those opinions is more correct? How many seasons do you think Jagr has left in him?
I will answer the first question with a resounding: he was impressive. Jagr's time-on-ice was extensive in the playoffs, and his puck possession was astounding. The concerns stemmed from the lack of offensive production. Possession like that should equal points, and they just would not come for Jagr and his linemates- which led to the concern about him wearing down. I tend to think if he was worn down the first thing that would have gone was his corner play in the possession game- anyone who has played hockey knows that cycling the puck in the corners is a lung and leg killer. What did happen was that the team ran into a hot goaltender, and a well thought-out game plan by Islanders coach Jack Capuano. The Isles packed the middle of the ice and let Jagr and company play at the boards until they got tired and once they tried to come off the corners into high probability scoring areas, they ran into masses of bodies. No, Jagr did not fail- what did fail was the Panthers 3rd and 4th lines. The Panthers got no production at all from those lines, which was noteworthy because the team went out at the deadline to specifically strengthen the 3rd line woes they had been experiencing. It is well established that in the NHL playoffs, opponent's top lines will usually cancel each other out (especially in the early rounds when teams are healthier), and that the team with the better bottom-six comes out on top. Jagr produced possession and scoring chances, but if anything, it was the way the Islanders played him, along with the heavy minutes Gerard Gallant was forced to give him (again, because he could not get production from the bottom-six) that wore him down, far more than his age. The same factors took their toll on Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. As for how many seasons he has left- it’s impossible to say. I would have expected a slow down last season, but it did not come. I expect that with a strengthened Panther lineup that takes pressure away from him, Jagr will be every bit as productive as he was last season. That is really the big factor- "yes" he is getting older, but the team is getting better around him, so he may actually become more sheltered in usage, and that only bodes well for continued longevity.