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Atlantic Review: Florida’s big off-season makes the division deeper

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s 2019 Atlantic Review in which we take a team-by-team look at the other seven teams in the Atlantic Division. Today, we have the most exciting thing to come out of Fort Lauderdale since Blockbuster, the Florida Panthers. 

The Florida Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final back during their third season in the league. That could change this year.

Given how deep the Atlantic Division is, I obviously wouldn’t guarantee a Florida Panthers playoff series victory in 2020, but, at the very least, they really should be in the mix this year. For a franchise desperate for some kind of on-ice success, that’s good enough.

The Panthers actually looked to be headed in the right direction a few years ago. They won the Atlantic Division for the second time in franchise history in 2015-16 with a young core of players in Alex Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad drafted during their bad years coupled with great veteran performances from Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo.

The wheels fell off in the following seasons. Florida dove head-first into an analytics renaissance in the 2016 off-season, promoting Tom Rowe to the general manager position while shoving Dale Tallon into a nothing role. Rowe fired Gerard Gallant after a slow start and the team left him literally on the side of the road where he had to find his own taxi. Rowe took control of the bench himself, couldn’t remedy the situation, and the Panthers pulled out of the experiment at the end of the season, putting Tallon back in charge.

Back behind the saddle, Tallon led the Panthers into the 2017 expansion draft. He made the puzzling decision to allow the Vegas Golden Knights to take Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, two diamonds in the rough found by the computer boys behind the scenes. He said that defence wins championships, opting to hang on to defenders like Alex Petrovic instead.

Florida would go on to be a middling team over the next two seasons, failing to crack the playoffs in a competitive Eastern Conference. Still, the Panthers didn’t blow it up and ultimately decided to go all-in this off-season in order to finally make the team relevant.

What did they do this off-season?

Notable additions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, Noel Acciari, 

Notable subtractions: Roberto Luongo, James Reimer, Riley Sheahan, Jamie McGinn, Troy Brouwer. 

As I said, the Panthers went all-in this off-season.

The first key addition was made before the season ended when Tallon made a handshake agreement to hire his old buddy from his Chicago days, Joel Quenneville. Coach Q was fired by the Blackhawks early in 2018-19 and immediately became the most coveted free agent in the NHL. He’ll bring legitimacy behind the bench that the Panthers haven’t had since they dumped Gallant on the side of the road.

Speaking of coveted free agents, the Panthers made an effort to lure both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky from Columbus to Florida. They struck out on Panarin but did sign Bobrovsky to one of the biggest contracts handed out to a goalie in NHL history. This was massive because Florida’s goaltending tandem of Roberto Luongo, who retired in the off-season, and James Reimer, who got moved as a cap dump, were horrendous last season.

Missing out on Panarin was unfortunate, but Florida also added some depth to their roster, signing middle-six sniper Brett Connolly, checking forward Noel Acciari, and shutdown defender Anton Stralman in free agency.

All the pieces are there for Florida to finally be a good team for years to come. Now all they need to do is execute.

How does this affect the Leafs?

Unlike the first three teams I talked about in this series, this actually means something to the Leafs. In the previous couple of seasons, Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto were really the only three good teams in the Atlantic Division. Florida’s big off-season brings them right into that mix, making the division a lot less predictable.

The Panthers weren’t an awful team last season. They finished with 86 points in the standings and easily could have competed for a playoff spot with better goaltending. Florida ranked ninth in the league in goals for but finished 28th in goals against, which was ultimately their demise. With the addition of Bobrovsky, assuming he can stay healthy all season, that goals-against total should be much, much better.

The other key, of course, is Quenneville. We saw last season how big of a difference going from a mediocre coach to an elite coach can make on a team. Barry Trotz joined the Islanders and turned a very underwhelming group into a team that swept the Penguins in the first round. A new structure added by a Hall of Fame coach coupled with good goaltending from Bobrovsky could easily result in the Panthers having a 2019 Islander-style jump in the standings.

I wouldn’t say Florida is quite in the same tier as the Big Three in the Atlantic, but them being good makes things a little more urgent. Rather than the entire season just being an 82-game competition with Boston for home-ice advantage between No. 2 and 3 seeds in the division, the Leafs will have a strong Panthers team on their heels. I mean, honestly, maybe a surge from the Panthers is what finally pushes the Leafs away from a first-round date with the Bruins.

It feels weird to imagine a world in which the Florida Panthers are a legitimate playoff contender, but here we are.