The Florida Panthers exceeded all expectations in 2022-23, going from a fringe playoff squad to the last team standing in the Eastern Conference. In a division that featured the greatest regular season team in history in the Boston Bruins, the team who had come out of the East for three consecutive seasons in the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the always-dangerous Toronto Maple Leafs, it was the Cats who shockingly won three playoff rounds and the right to play the Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, injuries and a better opponent ended up being the downfall of the Panthers in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final, and they were beaten quite handly in five games. Although getting nine goals scored on you in the final game of the season is not ideal, it was still an incredible run for fans of Florida sports teams, as they got to watch the No. 8 seed Panthers and Miami Heat march all the way to their respective Finals.
But 2023-24 is a new season. Gone are Anthony Duclair and Radko Gudas. Gone are Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad, the team's two best defensemen, until reportedly mid-December. And now 35-years-old is Russian netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who was excellent in the playoffs but has struggled in the regular season since signing a massive seven year, $70 million contract with the team in the summer of 2019. The Panthers are one of the biggest question marks heading into a new campaign; here are three bold predictions for the Cats.
3) Matthew Tkachuk goes 0-100 for third straight season
One thing that the Florida Panthers do have is one of the best power forwards of his generation in Matthew Tkachuk. You can't really say enough about how good he was for the team in their playoff run, especially in the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes. He was downright heroic in the four-game sweep, scoring the overtime winner in Games 1 and 2 in Raleigh and all-but-ending the series with an incredible go-ahead goal with just seconds left in Game 4.
For everyone who didn't know how good this player was when he was traded from the Calgary Flames to the Panthers last summer, they now know. It's almost impossible to believe that Tkachuk scored just 43 points in 56 games in Alberta in 2020-21, as he followed it up with an incredible 42-goal, 104-point performance in 2021-22.
In his first season in South Beach, Tkachuk somehow elevate his game yet further, scoring 40 goals and 109 points in 79 games. In 2023-24, look for one of the game's most exciting players to keep the show going. Pencil Matthew Tkachuk in for his third consecutive 100-point campaign.
2) Gustav Forsling blossoms into No. 1 defenseman
The losses of Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad are going to be devastating for this team. None of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Reilly or Niko Mikkola will be able to replicate the offensive and defensive abilities of the two star blueliners. But it is an excellent opportunity for 27-year-old Gustav Forsling to establish himself as the team's go-to D-man.
Forsling had the best season of his young career in 2022-23, scoring 13 goals and 41 points over a full 82-game slate and becoming one of the team's most reliable players. Now thrown onto the top pairing, expect that the Swede will have his ice time increased and play even better next year. If he gets time on the first powerplay unit (it's currently a toss-up between him and Ekman-Larsson), I wouldn't be surprised to see him eclipse 55 points.
1) Panthers miss the playoffs in 2024
Panthers fans are not going to be happy with me for this bold prediction. If Montour and Ekblad were 100 percent healthy, and Tkachuk had put the broken sternum he suffered in the SCF behind him, I wouldn't be making it. But the Atlantic Division is a gauntlet, and it's no longer just the Lightning, Bruins and Leafs. The Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings all have postseason aspirations as well.
And Florida isn't the same team as they were in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The defense is radically different without Gudas, Montour and Ekblad, and the goaltending can't be considered top-tier the way Bobrovsky has played in the last few regular seasons. If it wasn't for some spectacular play down the stretch from backup Alex Lyon, this team wouldn't have been in the playoffs at all.
As a very likeable team who turned an underdog story into one of the most electric playoff runs in recent memory, I like the Florida Panthers. I just don't see how they return to the dance in what promises to be a gauntlet of an Atlantic Division in 2023-24.