In light of tonight's contest against them and the Anaheim Ducks, JC Smith of Litter Box Cats dropped by to shed some light on a few topics regarding the highly interesting team that is the Florida Panthers.
KN: Seriously, where the hell is Jaromir Jagr's Fountain of Youth? How the hell does he continue to be so ridiculously good as a guy who will turn 44 years old this season, especially now that the game continues to keep edging more and more towards younger and younger players?
JC: Since this is serious... Florida has long been known as the home of the fountain of youth. In the 16th Century, Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon first set foot in Florida looking for this mythical fountain. Unfortunately, he never found it. However, Jaromir Jagr, being a man of many talents, out-explored Ponce and was able to. I hope that he is noted for this feat of exploration during his eventual Hall-of-Fame ceremony, perhaps a photo of him with both mullet and GPS?
In all seriousness, Jagr continues to show on a nearly daily basis what the difference is between a Hall-of-Famer and a merely above average player. He has also shown what absolute dedication to his craft is, as he drives himself with insane workouts, even after games. There are areas of his game that are lacking now, but he is still a powerful man and offensive weapon who is feeding off the team and coaches belief in him and the way they use and promote him.
KN: I've said many times before on our Anaheim Calling Podcast that I believe each NHL team has to have two franchise-cornerstone quality players in order to be successful (i.e Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry for Anaheim, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for Tampa Bay, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty for Los Angeles). If you don't have two, then you're probably garbage. If you have more than two (like the Blackhawks who have about five) then you're sitting pretty. Who these players are and what positions they play will often dictate what kind of team each franchise will be. Talent reigns supreme in the modern NHL. The Panthers are loaded with a lot of young and in many ways unheralded talent. Who do you consider the franchise cornerstones in Sunrise and what do you think this says about what the future holds for the Panthers franchise?
JC: The answer has to start with Aaron Ekblad. He is everything he was envisioned to be coming into his draft year. You can see why the OHL had granted him "exceptional" status, and last season he put up the third-most points in NHL history by an 18-year-old defenseman, behind only Phil Housley and Bobby Orr. On offense he is a weapon, and his defense is very solid and improving. He is a cornerstone blueliner who is still only 19-years-old and already playing his second NHL season. The second of our "cornerstones" is likely center Aleksander Barkov. Like Ekblad, Barkov is young, he recently turned 20. He is big, strong, humble, has incredible vision and a high hockey IQ. He has shown the fan base that he can play a fantastic defensive zone game, and his offensive production has been solid. Enter Jagr at the end of last season, and Barkov showed why he was a top-5 pick in his draft. The young Finn came out strong this year, averaging almost a point per game until a hand injury vs. Chicago derailed him. He has just re-entered the lineup, so the numbers have not kicked back in yet, but Barkov is strong in all aspects of the game. What should scare opponents the most is that he has only just started to realize how powerful he is on offense. Much more to come there.
The fact that our cornerstone players are 19 and 20-years-old says everything about the Panthers- they are young, they have been mostly nurtured along and given time to develop, and they are only starting to emerge as NHL stars. We are impatient around here, but the future is still looking very good.
KN: What do you feel is the biggest strength of the Florida Panthers as a team right now and how effective do you think they have been/will be in utilizing it this season? What do you think is this team's best-case scenario for this season and the next couple seasons?
JC: This team's strength is rolling four lines at opponents. When the lineup is healthy (as it was to start the season) we get production from every line and never stop coming after opponents. If Jagr and Huberdeau fail to produce one game, then Bjugstad or Pirri may step up, and if they are shut down then 3rd liner Vincent Trocheck jumps in. The 4th line has had one wing that is played by committee, but when Connor Brickley was in the line-up, he, Derek MacKenzie, and Quinton Howden were able to rack up some critical points. Much of the team is big, and much of it is fast. I heard some pundits last season refer to the Panthers as a team built to play in the Western Conference, and we did well against the west last season. That is quite a compliment, and one that rings true when you see even 4th line players getting offensive zone time and opportunities. With the youth of the team, and prospects like Lawson Crouse, Kyle Rau, and Jayce Hawryluk still in juniors or the AHL, expect that trend to continue. But the youth still shows, and because of that, the best case scenario is playoffs this year. This team is barely ready for that- it will be a tight squeak in, but it should happen as the kids get more and more used to playing at this level. But with that experience? Expect 2016-17 to be a big one for the Cats.
KN: Florida has an eclectic mixture of aging veterans and fresh young blood that is still learning their way through the league. What kind of dynamic has this brought to the team? Has it helped a lot of the young kids or has it held them back more than helped them forward?
JC: Great question that has a couple of answers. For the most part it has helped the kids. Ekblad has been mentored by Brian Campbell incredibly well, and Dmitry Kulikov seems to be having a great impact on Alex Petrovic, while Willie Mitchell turned Erik Gudbranson around last year and helped make him into the D-man the Panthers thought he could be when drafted. Jagr has made Barkov and Huberdeau much better. They all seem to get along and enjoy each other. That said, we are still debating the value of Dave Bolland, and opinions vary game-to-game and shift-to-shift. If you are looking for a negative, it is that Bolland keeps Vincent Trocheck from playing center, where he seems to have a greater impact on the team's offense. And the much loved Shawn Thornton has contributed greatly in a leadership role, but when he is in the line-up, one of the kids with more upside to their game, such as Garrett Wilson, or Brickley (before being sent down to Portland) sits. It's certainly a mixed bag.
Thanks a bunch to JC Smith for the time to answer our questions. You can check out more of his work as well as additional coverage for tonight's contest over on Litter Box Cats or give JC a follow on Twitter at @Jsoflo.