1. Florida also has experience with top young draft picks in Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad made waves last year winning the Calder, but how have both looked early this season and what are the expectations for year two?
While it is still early, and Florida started later than everyone but Washington and therefore has only 3 games in the books, Barkov has looked much improved from where he was last season, when he was a great two-way player, but not a stand-out in the offensive zone. This season Barkov has looked noticeably faster and even stronger on his skates than last season, and he has been more noticeable on zone entries and around the opponent's net. As a Finn, Barkov is notoriously quiet, and an unassuming player who draws criticism for being too unselfish. Whatever it was that he did in the off-season, he has come back a far more noticeable beast. Expectations are high as he will continue playing with possession driving line mates in Jagr and Huberdeau on the first line, which is also the first power play unit. He has not disappointed as he has 3 points in 3 games to start this campaign.
Ekblad has looked solid, if not outstanding yet. Our defense and goaltending have both been fantastic, giving up only a goal per game to start the season. But unlike last season, Ekblad and his (well known to Buffalo fans) partner, Brian Campbell, have looked a little less certain in handling the puck, as well as handling defensive zone coverage. Ekblad is drawing tight defense while patrolling the offensive zone points, even on the power play, where he is on the first PP unit, and has had difficulty both getting shots off, and through opposition that is now keying in on his shot. This also may have something to do with the fact that Nick Bjugstad is on point with him on the PP, and Bjugstad is there to shoot, while his PP partner last season, Campbell, was a pass-only option. I would not necessarily expect him to duplicate last season's production, as his ice-time is down from the major usage he got in 2013-14, but he will still likely lead the defense in points while getting better and better in his defensive assignments.
2. The Panthers have some elite offensive talent in Jagr, Barkov, and Huberdeau, but how's the depth behind them?
The depth is where we really have strength. After that first line you mentioned, the second line has Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, and newly acquired Reilly Smith, who have combined for 8 points in 3 games to start the season. The third line features veterans Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, along with youngster and dynamic player Vincent Trocheck. The third line has combined for 7 points in 3 games. The fourth line is emerging as one of the most fun to watch. While Shawn Thornton played the first two games with Derek MacKenzie and rookie Connor Brickley, Quinton Howden started in Thornton's place against Carolina. MacKenzie and Brickley each have a point already, with Brickley getting his first NHL goal against Carolina (and getting another that was mistakenly whistled dead and not counted). Howden, Brick, and Mac have exceptional speed and put big pressure on Carolina's defense in the forecheck. Coach Gerard Gallant now has the luxury of rolling four lines at opponents, all of whom can skate, have size, and can put the puck in the net. And there is still some forward depth in Portland (the Panthers AHL affiliate) as well, with former 2nd round pick Rocco Grimaldi getting ice time after an ankle injury sidelined him to start the season, and big, fast 4th liner Garrett Wilson also biding his time and waiting to be called up in case of an injury to one of the forwards. For the first time that any of us can recall, the Panthers have enviable depth.
3. What's more enjoyable - Jaromir Jagr re-growing his mullet or Roberto Luongo's Twitter account?
Wow. The mullet really is a character all its own. It deserves its own name and identity, its historically that good. But I am going to have to go with @Strombone, Roberto Luongo's Twitter account. You just never know whats going to pop up on there and when, but it never fails to be thoroughly entertaining. Either way, its been years since we have been able to have a good laugh with this team. There were far too many frustration laughs wondering if it could get any worse. But the new ownership group has been terrific, the team is coming into their own, and we have some real character to make it that much more enjoyable and entertaining. Its finally good to be a Panther fan again, and that feels great.
Good luck in all games this season that do not involve the Panthers!
Thanks to JC Smith of Litter Box Cats for answering our questions. Check out LBC for more on tonight's game from the Panthers perspective, and click to read our answers to JC's Sabres questions right here.