Panthers season preview: Ekblad return boosts defense

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Florida Panthers.

Coach: Joel Quenneville (third season)

Last season: 37-14-5; second place in Discover Central Division, lost to Tampa Bay Lightning in Stanley Cup First Round

3 KEYS

1. Ekblad’s return

Aaron Ekblad did not play after fracturing his left leg against the Dallas Stars on March 28. All indications are the defenseman will be ready when the season begins. The Panthers were ninth in the NHL in goals allowed per game last season (2.70). Ekblad, who scored 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) and averaged 25:05 in ice time in 35 games, is the backbone of the defense. A healthy return would be a boon for the Panthers.

2. Familiarity in the lineup

The Panthers re-signed forwards Anthony Duclair (three-year contract, July 15), Sam Bennett (four years, July 26) and Carter Verhaeghe (three-year extension, July 28), and defensemen Brandon Montour (three years, July 28) and Gustav Forsling (three years, July 15) this offseason. The familiarity in the lineup should help the Panthers build on last season’s success.

3. Added scoring

The Panthers, who were tied for fourth in the NHL in goals per game (3.36) with the Washington Capitals last season, added forwards Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton. Reinhart, acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for goalie prospect Devon Levi and a first-round pick in the 2022 or 2023 NHL Draft on July 24, has scored at least 40 points in each of his six NHL seasons. Thornton, who signed a one-year contract on Aug. 13, is 14th on the NHL scoring list with 1,529 points (425 goals, 1,104 assists) in 1,680 games with the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Video: Florida Panthers 2021-22 Season Preview 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

The Panthers are deep at forward and their top six seems set. The most likely battles will come among the bottom six forwards, where Thornton could center the third or fourth line, Noel Acciari could play wing or center, and Mason Marchment and Maxim Mamin likely will compete for a fourth-line spot at left wing. Spencer Knight could challenge Sergei Bobrovsky for the No. 1 goalie job.

Most intriguing addition

Thornton, who turned 42 on July 2, is entering his 24th NHL season. He scored 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) in 44 games with the Maple Leafs last season and brings leadership to the Panthers but it is unsure where he fits into the lineup. Thornton said he’ll play whatever role is asked of him as he seeks to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Biggest potential surprise

Knight made his NHL debut late last season and was 4-0-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in four regular-season games (three starts) and 1-1 with a 2.06 GAA and .933 save percentage in two Stanley Cup Playoff games. The 20-year-old, who was the No. 13 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, appears ready for more playing time. Much will depend on the performance of Bobrovsky, who was 19-8-2 with a 2.91 GAA and .906 save percentage in 31 regular-season games (30 starts) and 1-2 with a 5.33 GAA and .841 save percentage in three playoff games (two starts) last season.

Ready to break through

Anton Lundell scored 25 points (16 goals, nine assists) in 26 games for Helsinki in Liiga, the top professional hockey league in Finland, last season. The forward, who will turn 20 on Oct. 3, scored 10 points (six goals, four assists) in seven games to help Finland finish third at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. The No. 12 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Lundell has a good two-way game and should compete for a spot out of camp.

Fantasy sleeper

MacKenzie Weegar (average draft position: 111.4) led NHL defensemen in even-strength points (31) last season despite losing his elite teammate Ekblad to a season-ending injury. Weegar played an expanded role in Ekblad’s absence, scoring 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in 19 games after the injury with impressive category coverage (plus-17 rating, 41 shots on goal, 39 hits) in 21:57 of ice time per game. He can maintain or even expand his fantasy success with his defense pair Ekblad expected to be ready for training camp, the rise of Knight, and the addition of Reinhart. — Rob Reese

Projected lineup

Carter Verhaeghe — Aleksander Barkov — Sam Reinhart

Jonathan Huberdeau — Sam Bennett — Anthony Duclair

Frank Vatrano — Anton Lundell — Owen Tippett

Mason Marchment — Joe Thornton — Noel Acciari

MacKenzie Weegar — Aaron Ekblad

Markus Nutivaara — Brandon Montour

Gustav Forsling — Radko Gudas

Sergei Bobrovsky

Spencer Knight

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