Florida Panthers season preview: Luongo, Jagr look to lead young team to playoffs
Plus: Florida features plenty of youthful enthusiasm and veteran leadership. Acquired from the New Jersey Devils at last season’s trade deadline, future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr quickly got up to speed with promising upstart Aleksander Barkov (16 goals, 20 assists) and Jonathan Huberdeau (team-leading 54 points), who signed a two-year contract in the offseason. Aaron Ekblad, 19, impressed as the top overall pick of the 2014 draft, winning Calder Trophy honors while playing alongside 36-year-old blue-liner Brian Campbell.
Minus: The easy answer is the Panthers play in front of plenty of empty seats, but a sputtering offense and punchless power play certainly haven’t helped matters. The forwards take a hit after the top two lines, as veterans Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland and youngster Vincent Trocheck don’t inspire much fear from opposing goaltenders. Heck, the last time Florida had a 30-goal scorer on the team was 2008-09 with David Booth, and he was released last week from his professional tryout contract.
X-Factor: Roberto Luongo
Although seven years younger than Jagr, Luongo leads all active goaltenders with 401 wins and 68 shutouts. The 36-year-old Luongo has showed no signs of slowing down, as he posted a 28-19-12 mark and .921 save percentage in 2014-15. Impressive numbers to be certain, but the team’s limited goal scoring gives Luongo little margin for error.
Prediction: Offseason acquisition Reilly Smith could provide enough of a jolt to help his new team leapfrog his former one (Boston) and find its way into the playoffs for just the second time in 15 seasons. Then again, a repeat of the 2014-15 finish seems more likely as Florida’s young core still needs another year to get it together.