SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – Fresh off what can be considered the most successful offseason in franchise history, the Florida Panthers head towards next month’s training camp with high expectations.
Last week, the betting website betonline.ag listed the Panthers with the fourth highest odds (9/1) of winning the Eastern Conference, behind only division rivals Tampa Bay (4/1), Boston (7/1) and Toronto (7/1). Similarly, mybookie.ag lists Florida fifth in the East, with the Capitals the only other team given better odds.
Make no mistake, Florida will be a popular pick when looking at last season’s non-playoff teams and choosing which will qualify next spring.
It’s not hard to understand why, with the Panthers making several key additions to an ascending group of mostly-young, talented skaters.
Aside from the free agent signings of Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, Noel Acciari and two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, perhaps the most significant move General Manager Dale Tallon made was hiring his old buddy Joel Quenneville as Florida’s next head coach.
The three-time Stanley Cup winner has amassed the second-most regular-season wins of any coach in NHL history, coming over 22 years with the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche.
Though Quenneville is Florida’s fourth head coach in the last four seasons (Gerard Gallant and Tom Rowe coached in 2016-17, Bob Boughner in 2017-18 and 2018-19), Q is first hiring with any significant experience and success at the NHL level since Jacques Martin joined the Panthers in 2005.
But Quenneville was hired three months ago and free agency is over two weeks old, so why are we talking about all this now?
Well, with training camp around the corner and several new players joining the roster, it’s a natural impulse to try and predict how the lineup will look come Opening Night.
It’s a popular topic to break down this time of year, especially with a team that is full of reasons to be optimistic.
However, beginning the voyage down that rabbit hole, it became clear that trying to put lines together without knowing Quenneville’s history, his tendencies, his coaching acumen, was a futile effort.
So began the journey to understand Coach Q and how he’s run his teams, then applying that knowledge to the talent-filled group he’s inherited in Florida.
With a young roster that lacks any major playoff experience, it won’t take much for Quenneville to gain the team’s respect and attention.
Known as a player’s coach, always authentic and upfront with his guys, Quenneville is famous for his loyalty and blunt honesty. He holds his players accountable and is a commanding presence in the locker room.
Something that stands out about Coach Q when examining his rosters over the years is, he has always maintained an old school mentality.
As time went by, players learned quickly that when they face a Quenneville-coached squad, they’re going to be in for a physically challenging night.
A trademark of Coach Q’s teams is a solid structure and a 200-foot defensive presence, a style that should mesh quite well with Florida’s talent pool.
When Quenneville builds his teams and shapes his lines, he has always kept in mind that hockey is a physical game. It’s no coincidence that he’s had so much success in the postseason when building teams in that image, knowing full well what it takes to succeed when the stakes are at their absolute highest.
What that means is Quenneville will make sure every line has at least one physical, gritty player that will dive into the boards, chase pucks into corners and get dirty in front of the next.
Fortunately, Florida has several tough, skilled forwards that can fill that role while not giving anything up in the scoring department.
Top Line- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Jonathan Huberdeau – Aleksander Barkov – Evgenii Dadonov
There is no shortage of offensive skill on this line, and Barkov is Florida’s best forward in both the offensive and defensive zones. One thing we’ve learned in recent seasons is that it’s best to keep Barkov and Huberdeau together. With Dadonov on the opposite wing, the trio showed flashes of the chemistry Barkov and Huberdeau shared with Jaromir Jagr.
Second Line- Biggest questions
Brett Connolly – Vincent Trocheck – Mike Hoffman
A bounce-back year is expected from Trocheck, who missed 27 games last season with a fractured ankle and never seemed to gain his footing (pardon the pun) once he returned. He’ll provide the grit on this line, never afraid to dive into a corner or take up shop in front of the net. For Connolly, an increase in ice time while skating with snipers like Trocheck and Hoffman could see him set new career highs in scoring; his biggest area of improvement in Washington was his playmaking ability.
Third Line- Youth Movement
Dryden Hunt – Henrik Borgstrom – Frank Vatrano
Vatrano has shown improvement in his 200-foot game and has strived to become a reliable two-way player. He worked hard last year on his play without the puck and positioning in the defensive zone, and ended up leading all Panthers forwards in blocked shots (74). Borgstrom enters his first full NHL season primed for a jump; he put in the work this summer and will look to stand out during training camp.
Dryden Hunt’s combination of grit, skill and responsibility make the 23-year-old an immediate candidate for a breakout season under Quenneville.
Fourth Line- Keep ‘em rollin’
Colton Sceviour – Noel Acciari – Denis Malgin
Acciari and Sceviour have sneaky-good offensive abilities and play their bottom-six roles to perfection. Acciari is also not afraid to drop the gloves, a quality that Quenneville likes to have in one or two players on the roster.
This feels like a make-it-or-break-it season for Malgin, who will look to finally find a place to stick in the Panthers increasingly crowded forward group.
Keep an eye on – Jayce Hawryluk, Owen Tippett, Aleksi Heponiemi
Keith Yandle – Aaron Ekblad
It will be interesting to see how Ekblad responds playing under Quenneville and his defensive structure. Both he and Yandle will continue seeing tons of ice time, but the power play should remain Yandle’s to run.
Anton Stralman – Mike Matheson
Pairing the steady and responsible Stralman with turnover-prone Matheson makes too much sense to ignore.
Mark Pysyk – MacKenzie Weegar
Weegar matured the most out of Florida’s young defensemen last season, taking the step forward that many expected from Matheson, but Josh Brown also showed he can play well in this league during his brief stint with Florida. Both Weegar and Brown are happy to drop the gloves and stand up for a teammate, and have shown it when given the opportunity. A strong training camp could land either one in the lineup on Opening Night.
Extras – Ian McCoshen, Josh Brown, Brady Keeper, Riley Stillman
One thing that has made Quenneville such a great coach is that he always knows his team inside-and-out. He’s great at matching lines with opponents and making in-game adjustments.
Something to keep in mind about Coach Q, he won’t hesitate to re-shape his lines during a game in order to generate better offensive opportunities and create more favorable defensive matchups.
He also isn’t going to let the team be top-heavy, meaning if most of the team’s offense is coming from (for example) the Huberdeau-Barkov-Dadonov line, Q could easily split them up in order to infuse offense into the other forward groups.
Whether or not these changes come on a whim or are strategically planned, Quenneville has a knack for pressing the right buttons at the right time.
Here’s a good example:
When Quenneville won his last Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2015, it was his changes during Game 4, with Chicago down to Tampa 2 games to 1, that turned the series around.
During that game he used 10 different line combinations and had guys skating on the same line that had played literally zero minutes together until that night. The Blackhawks won that game, and the next two to claim their third Stanley Cup in six years.
There are a lot of similarities between those Chicago teams and the one Quenneville is taking over in Florida. Could there be similar results?
For the first time in a long time, possibly ever…success-hungry Panthers fans have a legitimate reason to believe reaching for the stars is an attainable goal.