The Florida Panthers caught lightning in a bottle in 2022-23. After barely advancing to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Cats went on a scintillating run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It began with one of the biggest upsets in recent memory when Florida came back from 3-1 down to defeat the NHL's best ever regular season team in the 65-win Boston Bruins. After that, things got a little easier — the Panthers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, and followed it up with an impressive sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
But fatigue and the injury bug began to show against the Vegas Golden Knights; Matthew Tkachuk, Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour were all battling serious ailments, and the Knights beat the Panthers in five games to win their first Stanley Cup. Despite the disappointing finish, it was an incredible season, and maybe the best in the history of the Florida Panthers franchise.
With training camp opening in Sunrise this week, there is belief that this team can return to playoff juggernaut status once again in 2024. But to do that, two key factors — health and the strength of the Atlantic Division — will be paramount. Let's get into it.
Health is a question mark
The Florida Panthers proved in the postseason that they're one of the deepest groups in the NHL when healthy. But they will start the season without their two best defensemen, which is quite concerning for their playoff chances.
Aaron Ekblad is going to miss the beginning of the season after dealing with a broken foot against the Bruins, as well as two separate shoulder dislocations and a torn oblique later in the gruelling playoff run. It can't have been a fun summer for the former No. 1 overall pick, who underwent surgery and will not be ready for training camp.
Brandon Montour is in a similar boat, and could miss even more time than Ekblad. Panthers GM Bill Zito suggested the star D-man could be back between November and January. The shoulder surgery went as planned, but the 29-year-old still has a long way to go in his recovery.
Luckily for Panthers fans, it looks like superstar Matthew Tkachuk will be healthy for the beginning of the season after he broke his sternum in Game 3 against the Knights and was forced to watch from the press box as Vegas won the Stanley Cup at home. He is the most important player on this team, and if he can come back the same player who has put up back-to-back 100-point seasons, it will go a long way in helping this team stay competitive for a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
The NHL's hardest division
One thing working against the Panthers is the Atlantic Division, which has turned into a gauntlet and continues to get even better. The Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators all missed the playoffs in 2022-23, and all three squads got better this offseason and are hungry for postseason play.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning are still powerhouse franchises, and highly likely to advance to the postseason in 2024. After the greatest regular season in history, the Bruins lost a ton of firepower, most notably Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, but they will still be knocking on the door.
Basically every team in the division, minus the rebuilding Montreal Canadiens, are approaching training camp with the goal of making it to the dance next April. Panthers coach Paul Maurice has already said there's no guarantee Florida will still be playing after the regular season, and that's especially true given the strength of the division and their key injuries.
Potential odd man out
Out are Anthony Duclair, Radko Gudas and Alex Lyon; in are Evan Rodrigues, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mike Reilly and Niko Mikkola. None of the final three defenseman mentioned are in danger of sitting out considering Ekblad and Montour won't be playing, but the same can't be said once those two key pieces return.
The third pairing projects to be Mikkola and Reilly on opening night, and there's a decent chance neither of them are in the lineup if this team makes the playoffs. Up front, the top nine is basically set with Tkachuk healthy, led by a fearsome core that features Sam Reinhart, Sasha Barkov, Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe.
Grigori Denisenko, a former first-round pick by the team, will be fighting to make the team full-time, while Steven Lorentz will be doing the same on the fourth line after coming over in the Duclair trade from the San Jose Sharks.
Most roster spots are accounted for, but it'll be intriguing to see if Tkachuk, Montour and Ekblad can all come back healthy. And with Sergei Bobrovsky now 34-years-old, it goes without saying that he'll need to have a strong season if this team hopes to get in. If that happens, the Panthers have already proved their playoff mettle, and they'll have a great chance to beat any team they play, just like in 2022-23.
Final roster projection
Forwards: Sasha Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues, Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Eetu Luostarinen, Anton Lundell, Grigori Denisenko, Ryan Lomberg, Steven Lorentz, Nick Cousins
Defensemen: Gustav Forsling, Josh Mahura, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov, Niko Mikkola, Mike Reilly (Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour on LTIR)
Goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky, Anthony Stolarz