September is here, and although students everywhere are wondering where the summer went, and dreading the return of fall, hockey fans are rejoicing that the longest month of the year is finally over.
Over the next eight days, we will count down the predicted finish of the Montreal Canadiens division. The Atlantic Division now features the five former members of the Northeast, as well as the Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Today, we take a closer look at who will finish eighth in the eight team division, the Florida Panthers.
The Florida Panthers have entered full rebuild mode, and though they have several promising youngsters, it would take an enormous surprise for the Panthers to even climb out of the basement of the newly formed Atlantic Division.
The Panthers sank to the cellar of the NHL standings in 2013, and then lost the draft lottery, and the opportunity to draft phenom Nathan MacKinnon. However, they came away with Aleksander Barkov with the second overall pick, and will add him to their growing list of impressive prospects.
However, those prospects, most notably, Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Ian McCoshen and most importantly Jacob Markostrom are not quite ready to lead this team to a postseason berth.
The Panthers only outscored the Nashville Predators last season, and do not appear to have any more firepower than they did a year ago. They lost offensive center Stephen Weiss to free agency, and replaced him with the fast aging Scott Gomez. Weiss missed most of last season with injuries anyway, but has been a key member of the Panthers offense since being drafted fourth overall in 2001.
On defense, there are a pair of promising youngsters, Erik Gudbranson and Dmitri Kulikov, as well as savvy veterans Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski. Jovanovski is well beyond his prime and has battled injuries since he became an NHL regular, but the quartet make a solid top four group. Campbell is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, as he scored 27 points in 48 games last season.
It will be up to Gudbranson and Kulikov to step up, and prove they can play top minutes. If they are up to the task, this defense becomes much better, and knowing they will not be able to score goals, they are going to have to defend extremely well. Beyond the top four, they have Mike Weaver, Colby Robak, Mike Mottau and Matt Gilroy battling for ice time.
Question marks are plentiful up front and on the back end, and that is no different in Florida’s net. Jacob Markstrom is being handed the keys to the net, whether he demanded them or not. His play at the AHL level has been superb, but he struggled in 23 games with the Panthers last season. Markstrom posted an 8-14-1 record, with a 3.22 GAA and .901 SV%. Hardly the numbers of a youngster that needs to be given more playing time. Scott Clemmensen will be the backup, and the 36 year old is coming off the worst year of his career.
After losing Weiss to the Detroit Red Wings in free agency, and sniper George Parros (just kidding) to the Montreal Canadiens, and adding Gomez, Barkov, Mottau, Gilroy as well as Bobby Butler and Joey Crabb, the Panthers depth chart to begin the year is as follows:
Huberdeau Matthias Versteeg
Fleischmann Barkov Kopecky
Bergenheim Bjugstad Upshall
Howden Gomez Crabb
Although it is possible that Markstrom plays at an elite level immediately, there is still not enough depth, or scoring on the Panthers roster to compete for a playoff spot. There is plenty of promise on this roster, but the Panthers just do not have the tools this season to put together a winning season, and will therefore remain near the bottom of the standings, and finish last in the Atlantic.