Even after early NHL playoff exit, Panthers still optimistic

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers already know one thing that will be different going into next season. Expectations will not be low.

That’s a welcome change.

Progress, and a lot of it, was made this season by the Panthers. They had their best regular season winning percentage in franchise history, but still couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs — so it’s now 25 years and counting since Florida won a postseason series.

They’re convinced the long-awaited breakthrough is closer than ever.

“There’s a lot of positives,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “You’re always looking to get better. Can’t be satisfied with the improvement that we did have this year, which was significant. And hey, let’s keep thinking that’s the rate we want to keep getting better at.”

Florida got at least one point in 42 of its 56 regular season games, won 37 of them outright and was even a contender for the President’s Trophy until the season’s final weeks. But the Panthers didn’t have enough answers for Tampa Bay in the playoffs, falling in six games to the reigning Stanley Cup champions.

“That’s why your parents put you on the skates when you’re 3 or 4 years old, to play in these types of games,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said a few minutes after the season ended. “I enjoyed every second. We lost games, we won games, I enjoyed every second.”

When the final horn sounded, Barkov quickly made his way to the Panthers’ net and greeted goalie Spencer Knight. That’s a scene the Panthers want to see repeated tons of times over the coming years.

Florida’s goaltending was shaky in the first four games, with Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger both struggling. The Panthers then turned to Knight, a 20-year-old rookie who — in a five-month span — went from backstopping USA Hockey in the world junior championships on the way to a gold medal, then playing for Boston College in the NCAA tournament, then trying to save Florida’s season against the Stanley Cup champs.

Florida’s plan for Knight, after he turned pro this spring, was to play him in one game to get the debut out of the way. He wound up going 5-1-0 with a 2.23 goals-against average, more than proving he can handle the big stage.

“It was good just to get a taste of what playoffs are like,” Knight said. “I was trying to help the team win — that was my priority — and to have fun while I was doing it. So, I think, a couple weeks after I kind of decompress I’ll look back on it, but for now, obviously, it’s tough.”

Driedger (.927 save percentage, 20.07 GAA) is a free agent, and with plenty of teams needing a No. 1 option — along with an expansion draft for Seattle looming — it would seem most unlikely that he’s back. Bobrovsky has five years left on his $70 million deal, and Knight is Florida’s future in net.

General manager Bill Zito, in his first year with Florida, reshaped the roster while keeping the core of key players like Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau intact. He’ll have much to figure out this summer, especially with restricted free agents like Sam Bennett, who Quenneville raves about.

“We had a good team this year,” said Huberdeau, Florida’s leading scorer with 61 points in 55 regular season games, then again with 10 more points in then six playoff games against Tampa Bay. “We had a lot more depth. … I like our group. I like the chemistry in the room, on the ice. I like what we’re doing. It just didn’t go our way in this series but we’re optimistic for next year.”

Some of what to know about Florida’s season and future:

BREAKOUT YEARS

Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar was easily one of the best stories for Florida this season, after a career year — 36 points and a plus-29 rating, both way above anything he’d done in his three previous seasons. And forward Frank Vatrano, who had seven gamewinning goals in his first 275 NHL games, had seven this season alone for the Panthers.

Q MILESTONE

Quenneville enters next season 38 wins shy of 1,000 for his coaching career. Only Scotty Bowman (1,244) has more regular season victories as an NHL coach.

BIG YEAR AHEAD

Barkov is in line to become an unrestricted free agent after next season, the same summer that the Panthers plan to open their new training facility at the War Memorial that they’re helping revitalize in Fort Lauderdale. And his future is already on the minds of the Panthers’ front office. “This’ll be a state-of-the-art, great facility, and Barkov is going to want to stay here hopefully,” Panthers President and CEO Matthew Caldwell said earlier this week at the practice facility’s groundbreaking.

YANDLE DILEMMA

Defenseman Keith Yandle has the second-longest games played streak in NHL history, 922 and counting, a run that wasn’t halted when he was taken out of the lineup during the Tampa Bay series. He’s 42 games shy of matching the record held by Doug Jarvis. He had 27 points this season, 18 of them on the power play, and remains under contract for one more year. But the Panthers were also outscored by eight in even-strength goals when he was on the ice. It’ll be interesting to see how the streak is handled this fall.

EKBLAD RETURN

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, barring an unforeseen setback, should be ready to go when next season starts. Ekblad’s season ended with a left leg injury in March that required surgery, and the Panthers said he’d need 12 weeks to recover. He and Weegar give Florida a very strong combination.

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