NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Florida Panthers.
1. Is Spencer Knight ready for more?
The 20-year-old made his NHL debut with the Panthers last season and was 4-0-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in four regular-season games. He then played two Stanley Cup Playoff games after Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger struggled, going 1-1 with a 2.06 GAA and .933 save percentage.
With Driedger being selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, it remains to be seen how starts will be divided between Knight and Bobrovsky, who has five seasons remaining on his seven-year contract but had a 3.10 GAA and .902 save percentage in his first two seasons in Florida.
If last season is any indication, Knight has the poise and talent to step into a bigger role.
2. Is Aaron Ekblad 100 percent?
General manager Bill Zito said on July 22 that Ekblad had been skating and was expected to be ready for training camp after the defenseman missed the rest of last season after fracturing his left leg against the Dallas Stars on March 28.
Prior to the injury, Ekblad scored 22 points in 35 games, including 11 goals, which were tied for first among NHL defensemen at the time with Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens and Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers. He also averaged 25:05 of ice time per game, which was ninth among NHL defensemen, and was a big part of the Panthers power play, scoring 11 points (six goals, five assists).
Having Ekblad back in top form would be a boon for Florida.
3. What will Joe Thornton bring?
When the 42-year-old forward signed a one-year contract with the Panthers on Aug. 13, he said his ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup and that Florida is “right there.”
Last season, Thornton scored 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) in 44 regular-season games and one goal in seven playoff games for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In his career, he has scored 1,529 points (425 goals, 1,104 assists) in 1,680 games with the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Maple Leafs.
4. Can they build off of last season?
The Panthers (37-14-5, 79 points) finished second in the Discover Central Division and fourth in the NHL last season but were eliminated in six games in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who went on to win the Cup for the second straight season. Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996, when it advanced to the Cup Final.
In an effort to break that streak, the Panthers made a few changes, adding Thornton and forward Sam Reinhart, who was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres on July 24 after scoring 40 points (25 goals, 15 assists) in 54 games. They also bought out the final two years of defenseman Keith Yandle‘s contract July 15.
5. Can Anthony Duclair have a career season?
Duclair was tied for fifth on the Panthers with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 43 games last season, his first in Florida after playing with four teams the previous three seasons. That was 12 points shy of his NHL career high of 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists), which he scored in 81 games as a rookie with the Arizona Coyotes in 2015-16.
After signing a three-year-contract with the Panthers on July 16, Duclair could be primed to have his best season yet.