The Florida Panthers will begin the 2016-17 season on Thursday with their eyes set on another playoff appearance.
Last year was a memorable and record breaking one for the Panthers. The playoffs, and a new franchise record for points were just parts of an exciting 2015-16 season. Florida saw production from their oldest player and his young counterparts. The past season showed a team on the rise and brought renewed hope of a Stanley Cup Championship.
Jaromir Jagr is back with Florida for this upcoming season after showing no signs of slowing down in 2015-16. As a 43 year old, Jagr had 66 points which included 27 goals. The veteran signed another one-year contract for this season, and it is not a guarantee that this is his last campaign.
Florida will begin the year with a depleted roster. Out of action for a month will be Nick Bjugstad due to a broken hand. Also on the sidelines for the start of the season is Jonathan Huberdeau who has succumbed to a laceration on his leg. Huberdeau could miss around four months of ice time. Both losses will be noticeable for Florida and neither player will be easy to replace.
In the net once again is mainstay Roberto Luongo. Having the veteran in the net for Opening Night was something Florida did not anticipate. Luongo battled a hip injury in the off-season and was originally expected to miss some of the beginning of the season. To keep him healthy and fresh, Florida is expected to give Luongo plenty of days off during the season.
Picking up the slack for Luongo on his days off will be newly signed James Reimer. The goalie came on board via free agency with a five-year deal during the off-season. Unlike many backup goalies, Reimer will see plenty of time on the ice. It is possible that Reimer plays over 30 games during the course of year. Having two dependable goalies is something Florida badly needs if a return to the postseason will be in the cards.
This will be the third season of Gerard Gallant's Florida coaching career. The head coach has overseen two winning years including last year's aforementioned franchise record breaking campaign. In his two seasons, Florida has amassed 194 points and some of that should be credited to Gallant's coaching.
Depth is something that the Panthers addresses over the off-season with a flurry of transactions. Florida restocked its bench in order to be a better position should needs arise. The improved depth should also allow Gallant to better rest his players over the long season.
One of the toughest stretches of the season for Florida will come during January. The Panthers will take on the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders in four games in less than a week of time. Florida will play New York twice in a row in a home and home series. The second game against the Islanders will also be the first half of a back-to-back for Florida.
Florida's final five games of the season could prove to be necessary wins and they won't come easily. The Panthers will take on the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues, Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals in April with the playoffs on the horizon.
Thursday's season opener against the New Jersey Devils will begin at 7:30 p.m.