Over the next few weeks, Die By The Blade staffers will take an in-depth look at each of the other teams in the Atlantic Division as the Buffalo Sabres prepare for the 2021-22 season.
Next up: the Florida Panthers.
Last Season’s Results: 37-14-5 (79 points, 2nd in Central Division)
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Joe Thornton, Sam Reinhart, Brandon Montour (Okay, he’s not a key addition, but since he’s a former Sabre, I’m throwing him on here.)
Key Offseason Losses: Goaltender Chris Driedger, who went 14-6-3 in net last season, was picked up by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. It’s a big pick-up for the Kraken, and a significant loss for the Panthers.
NHL Contracts: Sam Reinhart, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Carter Verhaeghe, Eetu Luostarinen, Owen Tippett, Mason Marchment, Joe Thornton, Zac Dalpe, Juho Lammikko, Ryan Lomberg, Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour, MacKenzie Weegar, Markus Nutivaara, Gustav Forsling, Radko Gugas, Noah Juulsen, Sergei Bobrovsky, Spencer Knight
Season Outlook: After a disappointing end to their 2021 campaign, the Florida Panthers have put themselves in a position to be strong contenders for the Stanley Cup in the 2021-22 season. There’s a reason Joe Thornton decided to sign in the Sunshine State; the 42-year-old wants a Cup, and he clearly believes Florida has the potential to take him there.
Last season was a strong one for the Panthers and one of their best in recent memory. They lost just five games on home ice (of 28) and had a great record away, too. Their 37 wins were tied for third-most in the entire league, and they finished the season as the fourth-best team in the NHL, behind only Colorado, Vegas and Carolina.
Entering the playoffs, the Panthers were on a six-game winning streak. Everything was going right for them — and then, in came the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nikita Kucherov. They made a series out of it, but the eventual Stanley Cup Champions bested the Panthers in six games, and their exceptional regular-season performance was all for naught.
On paper, this season looks poised to be another strong one for the team. All of their leading scorers and big names are back, including Huberdeau - coming off a 61-point season - and Barkov, who put up 58 points. Spencer Knight is an up-and-coming star in goal, and I look forward to seeing how much stock the Panthers put in him this season. Losing Driedger to the Kraken in the expansion draft wasn’t great, but it’s far from a dealbreaker when you’ve got Knight and Bobrovsky.
And then you add Thornton into the mix. Florida will be the fourth team of his 24-year NHL career, and he’ll bring a heaping dose of veteran leadership to the squad while contributing offensively, too. Last season with Toronto, Thornton accrued a respectable 20 points in 44 games, including 15 assists. He’s still got life left in him, and Florida will undoubtedly treat him well.
And then there’s our old friend Sam Reinhart. The 25-year-old had played his entire pro career up to this point with the Sabres organization and fared well for himself on a losing team. His 65-point campaign in the full season of 2018-19 was followed by a 50-point performance in 69 games in 2019-20. He also put up a team-high 40 points in 54 games last season, including 25 goals — nearly double that of anyone else in the blue & gold.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Reinhart will thrive with his new team alongside guys like Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe, who he played on a line with in Florida’s preseason tilt Sunday. As sad as I am to see Sam go, I’m excited to see him in a new environment and on such a talented squad. He’s going to crush it.
Games vs. Buffalo: December 2, March 7, April 3, April 8