The Florida Panthers will enter the 2018-19 season with high expectations after missing the playoffs a season ago.
Florida had an inconsistent season in 2017-18 and ended up a point short of the postseason. The Panthers had plenty of good moments along the way, but they also showed some obvious flaws during the season. Florida worked on improving those areas in the off-season and has an opportunity for a big year.
Florida's roster remains mostly the same, but there is at least one key difference on paper. The Panthers acquired Mike Hoffman in June and he should have a big impact on the team. The veteran played alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck during the preseason and the quick development of chemistry was easy to see.
Hoffman should bolster Florida's power play opportunities, and that is an area the team struggled with in 2017-18. The Panthers were 21st in the National Hockey League on power plays last season. Florida only converted 18.9 percent of power play opportunities into goals. That is a number that needs to go up, if the Panthers are going to make noise this season.
Florida's potential weakness is in the net at the goaltender spot. Roberto Luongo and James Reimer are returning to share the duties as goalie. Both men had their moments of solid production in 2017-18, but not enough of them. The two veterans were replaced by rookie Harri Sateri due to injuries for a brief period last season. The rookie put together a fantastic stretch in early February to help keep Florida's playoff hopes alive. Sateri has moved on as a free agent, giving Florida a potential depth issue this year.
Defenseman Jacob MacDonald won a spot on the roster due to a solid preseason. The 25-year old signed a two-year deal in the off-season, after posted 20 goals in the AHL last year. MacDonald is expected to make his debut in Florida's season opener in a pairing with Alexander Petrovic.
This season will be Aleksander Barkov's first as captain of the team. Barkov took over the role in September, following Derek MacKenzie's run as captain. Barkov is arguably Florida's best player currently and the 23-year old has committed long-term to the franchise.
Florida is one of the last NHL teams to begin the season, with multiple clubs already taking part in more than one contest. The Panthers will play three times during the first week and two of those games will come at home in Sunrise. The Panthers will visit the defending Stanley Cup champions in Washington, D.C. early in the season. Florida's young club will be tested early and often this season, with multiple games against playoff contending teams.
January could be a challenging month for the Panthers, as they are set to play nearly every game on the road. Seven of Florida's ten games in the first month of 2019 will be away from Sunrise. The Panthers will also end the 2018 portion of the schedule on the road. This month-long stretch could end up being a deciding factor in Florida's season.
Due to all those road games in January, the Panthers will have plenty of games at BB&T Center in February. Florida will be home 11 times during the shortest month of the year. During one stretch, the Panthers will play at home in 12 of 13 games. Florida will need to dominate the home portion of the schedule, as it did a year ago. The Panthers were 27-11-3 at home during the 2017-18 campaign.
Home games will also be a factor to end the season, with Florida set to finish the season in Sunrise. The Panthers will play their last three games of the season at home and those could be crucial contests. After missing the playoffs by just a single point in 2017-18, the Panthers could have their season come down to one game again.
Florida's season will begin on Saturday in Tampa Bay at 7:00 p.m.