For Panthers, regular season success didn't lead to Cup run
By TIM REYNOLDS
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) There will be a Presidents' Trophy banner hanging over the Florida Panthers' home ice next season. The team's media relations department will spend its summer rewriting the record book because tons of pages need updating. And the earliest that the Panthers will again have to hear about a 26-year drought between playoff series wins is in 2048.
On those levels, it was a tremendous season for the Panthers.
Of course, none of that mattered after getting swept 4-0 by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The best team in hockey's regular season fell well short of its goal in the postseason. A team that scored more goals than any other club had in a quarter-century - Florida averaged 4.1 per game this season - managed only three in an entire series against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, who wound up knocking the Panthers out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
"They're Stanley Cup champions for a reason," Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said. "Their evolution of how they were once a high-flying kind of offensive team and they found their recipe how to win and they stick with it ... we aspire to be them. And this was another learning experience for us."
Florida smashed team single-season records for wins (58), points (an NHL-best 122 this season) and goals, plus - finally - got its first playoff series win since 1996. Jonathan Huberdeau became the first Panthers player with a 100-point season, the team went 34-7-0 at home, started the year with eight consecutive wins and added a 13-game winning streak later in the season.
When the goals came, they were close to unbeatable: 60-9-2 with three goals or more, 2-15-4 with two goals or less. They were shut out only once - in the 92nd and final game of the year, when Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy slammed the door on their season.
"I think we're closer than ever, but we got swept, and there's another level we've got to climb still," Brunette said. "We're still climbing. ... I believe we were ready for that next step, and unfortunately we fell short."
July is when Huberdeau can sign an extension, and that decision should be the Panthers' No. 1 priority entering the offseason. The Panthers were very creative in how they structured Aleksander Barkov's eight-year, $80 million extension last fall to assure themselves maximum flexibility going forward - with the looming decision on Huberdeau a big reason why. It's reasonable to expect he would be in line for the same numbers, at least in terms of annual value, as Barkov got and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky got when he came to Florida in 2019.
The Panthers never took the "interim" tag off Brunette, who inherited the job after seven games following the departure of Joel Quenneville as part of the fallout from the way the Chicago Blackhawks mishandled the abuse of player Kyle Beach years ago. Brunette wound up as a coach of the year finalist and guided Florida to the Presidents' Trophy. It's hard to envision Florida going in a different direction, but there has been no public declaration that Brunette's job is safe.
"I have to talk to my wife and see if after playing for 20 years, she's still on board for this," Brunette said. "But I love this team. I love the group. I believe in it. I believe in them, and I'm really proud of what they accomplished, and I think there's more."
Joe Thornton was in the lineup for Game 4 against Tampa Bay, his only postseason appearance with Florida this season - and maybe the last game of his career. Thornton turns 43 on July 2 and, including playoffs, has now appeared in 1,901 NHL games. That's seventh most, 91 behind Mark Messier's record. His 1,673 career points, including playoffs, is 14th-most; everyone ahead of him on that list is already in the Hall of Fame besides Jaromir Jagr, who is a lock to be there as soon as he's eligible. Thornton came to Florida with hopes of finally hoisting a Stanley Cup; time will tell if he has one more season in him.
GIROUX AND CHIAROT
Florida loaded up at the trade deadline with players on expiring deals, acquiring forward Claude Giroux from Philadelphia and defenseman Ben Chiarot from Montreal. The Panthers aren't exactly flush with cap space going forward, so keeping either of those players might be extremely difficult. Then again, the Panthers - barring a seismic shakeup - will enter next season as a contender, which might make staying in Florida a bit longer an attractive proposition for Giroux and/or Chiarot.
Bobrovsky entered the season with a ton of questions, and he answered them all. Spencer Knight is still Florida's goalie of the future, but Bobrovsky was stellar in the regular season: 39-7-3 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average. His save (.911) and goals-against numbers (2.70) were basically the same in the playoffs, and Florida's 4-6 postseason mark certainly wasn't his fault.
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Updated May 24, 2022