Islanders, Panthers enter opener with several new pieces
SUNRISE, Fla. — It's Opening Night and virtually everyone's optimistic at this point.
But is there truly reason for optimism for the New Jersey Devils and/or the Florida Panthers, who will meet Thursday at the BB&T Center?
For the Devils, the reason for hope revolves around left winger Taylor Hall, acquired June 29 in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. The Devils gave up defenseman Adam Larsson to get Hall, who produced 26 goals and 39 assists last year.
Hall, who turns 25 next month, has scored more than 20 goals in four of his six seasons in the NHL. He had more than a point a game in 2013-2014, when he posted 80 points in 75 games, and that's the kind of production the Devils are looking for from their speedy new forward.
The Devils also made another move to add offense, picking up forward P.A. Parenteau on Tuesday after the New York Islanders released him. Parenteau, who had 20 goals and 21 assists with the Toronto Maple Leafs last year, is expected to play against the Panthers on Thursday.
“He's a seasoned, veteran player,” Devils coach John Hynes told the media. “He's played games — it just hasn't been with us.”
Those additions — especially acquiring Hall — should help New Jersey, but it's important to note that the Devils were 30th in the NHL in goals last season, and that went a long way toward sealing their fate of having just 84 points, 12th best in the Eastern Conference, and a fourth straight season without making the NHL playoffs.
The picture is legitimately brighter for the Panthers — at least if they can stay healthy.
Florida won the Atlantic Division last year with 103 points before losing to the Islanders in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
The Panthers hoped to build on that momentum by signing high-scoring defenseman Keith Yandle from the New York Rangers, empowering him as the point man on their power play and pairing him with rising star Aaron Ekblad.
Florida also added Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk to their revamped defense.
However, all the Panthers' well-intentioned offseason moves have been stunted to some degree by two injuries.
Right winger Jonathan Huberdeau (left foot) is out, possibly for as long as four months, after getting cut by a skate blade on Sunday. And earlier in the exhibition season, the Panthers lost center Nick Bjugstad (broken hand) for about a month.
The Huberdeau injury breaks up the team's top trio, leaving Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr in search of chemistry with a new linemate.
Bjugstad's absence disrupts the team's second line.
Florida is hoping that Jonathan Marchessault, a speedy forward acquired after he scored seven goals in 45 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, can make up for some of the slack.
Despite the injuries, Panthers coach Gerard Gallant is taking the high road.
“I like the players we've brought in,” Gallant said. “We've moved forward the past two years. The hope is that we will move forward again this year.”
Thursday's game should feature two standout goalies. Florida's Roberto Luongo has made a quick recovery from offseason hip surgery and is expected to start for the Panthers. Cory Schneider is expected to start for New Jersey. Both goalies are considered solid candidates for the Vezina Trophy.
Other players to watch include:
— Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson, a smooth-skating 22-year-old, could be a Rookie of the Year candidate if he plays up to his prospect rankings.
— New Jersey's Ben Lovejoy is the biggest addition to the defense. He signed a three-year deal after helping the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup last season.
— Panthers center Derek MacKenzie, 35, will be making his debut as a team captain.
— Devils center Pavel Zacha, who was the No. 6 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, is only 19 years old but appears primed for a stellar rookie season.
One of the biggest things to watch for Thursday — and indeed all season for the Devils and Panthers — is the toughness factor on defense.
The Panthers added an offensive defenseman in Yandle, who has frequently been derelict in his defensive duties throughout his career. The Panthers also got rid of solid defensemen such as Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson in the offseason.
Similarly, the Devils traded away Larsson, who led the team in hits and ranked second in blocked shots.
Which defense plays toughest could go a long way toward deciding Thursday's winner.