With a large amount of talented youth and a new head coach, the Florida Panthers are planning to take the ice by storm this hockey season. After a disastrous 2016-17 season, the Panthers are attempting to repair the team after dealing with the firing of popular head coach Gerard Gallant and missing the playoffs by 14 points. Currently, the team sports a 2-2 record after falling to the NHL defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 3-4 Saturday night.
“The Panthers have had a lot of changes these past couple of seasons, most notably in management,” said Jeffrey Fernandez, Miami Palmetto High School senior and right wing for the South Florida Golden Wolves, a youth hockey team in South Florida. “They’ve shifted from the No. 1 seed in their division to the last seed.”
The loss of veteran players such as right wing Jaromir Jagr, left wing Shawn Thornton and left wing Jussi Jokinen has created a void in leadership on the ice. It is a void that even key additions such as right wing Evgenii Dadonov, left wing Henrik Haapala, right wing Owen Tippett and right wing Radim Vrbata cannot fill.
“Losing Jagr is something the Panthers are going to regret. He brought so much to the Panther organization,” Fernandez said.
The Panthers finished 23rd in overall goals last season, and if their plan of bringing in young players to make it to the playoffs fails, then they could drop even further this season. Jagr, Thornton and Jokinen totaled 162 goals in their years of playing for the Panthers. But losing veteran players is not the only thing the Panthers and their fans have to worry about.
Aaron Ekblad, a star defenseman for the Panthers, suffered three concussions in the span of 14 months. These injuries cost him four games last season, and if he ends up on the sidelines again this year, the Panthers are in for an undesirable outcome for the 2017-18 campaign.
“Concussions are like the big black box in medicine right now,” said Dr. Gautam Yagnik, who has been the physician for the Panthers since 2011. “We’re trying to really understand concussions and how to evaluate them and how to treat them.”
A preseason injury cost forward Jonathan Huberdeau almost half the year with the tearing of his Achilles tendon. The Panthers’ “need for speed” had been severed but his plan to bounce back this season is taking effect. Huberdeau assisted on a goal by Dadonov along with Alexander Barkov versus Tampa Bay in a preseason game during September, and it’s starting to look as if these three players are going to be the Panthers’ top line going into the season.
Preventing such injuries — such as concussions and torn ligaments — is the key for the Panthers to claim their spot in the playoffs and make up for last season’s blunders.
“In terms of prevention, they’re taking a lot of steps in rule changing to help try to minimize some of the hits on players when they’re not expecting contact,” Yagnik
said. “The game is getting cleaner.”
With these improved rule changes and the input of new head coach Bob Boughner, the Panthers are planning to make an appearance on the ice for this season’s playoffs and reclaim their position after a series of shortcomings.
Boughner led the Panthers first win of the season on October 7th against the Tampa Bay Lightning, earning a split of home-and-home. Forward Nick Bjugstad and new player Dadonov each scored a goal and had an assist for the Panthers with James Reimer making 26 saves.
“I think we’re looking great, there’s a lot of promise,” Yagnik said. “We have a good mix of veteran players and young rising stars and we’ve got a great new young coach
from San Jose, and I really think we’re going to do well this year.”