Florida Panthers, 35-36-11, missed playoffs, $11.5 million in cap space
Biggest changes: After a disastrous season in which they fired popular head coach Gerard Gallant and missed the playoffs by 14 points under his replacement, Tom Rowe, the Panthers began righting their wrongs by returning Dale Tallon to his role as general manager and hiring former NHL defenseman Bob Boughner as their new head coach. Then they cleaned house. The Panthers lost 29 percent of their offense when Jonathan Marchessault (30 goals), Jaromir Jagr (16 goals), Reilly Smith (15 goals) and Jussi Jokinen (11 goals) went in different directions over the summer. Marchessault (expansion draft) and Smith (trade) both ended up in Las Vegas, and the Panthers received only a third-round draft pick in return. Jokinen signed a one-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers and Jagr is unsigned and leaning toward returning to the KHL. Last week, the Panthers addressed their lack of forward depth by acquiring Jamie McGinn (9 goals) from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defenseman Jason Demers. Those departures will test the patience and teaching skills of Boughner, who won a pair of Memorial Cups with the Windsor Spitfires before taking an assistant-coaching position with the San Jose Sharks two years ago. It's entirely possible Boughner will have as many as four first-year players in his lineup, led by Owen Tippett, who racked up 44 goals and 75 points in 60 games with the Mississauga Steelheads before being drafted by the Panthers with the 10th overall pick this year.
Case for: If the NHL is truly built for speed, the Panthers are on the right track. Their top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and KHL transplant Evgeni Dadonov could be among the most dynamic in the Eastern Conference, especially if the league's crackdown on stick fouls continues well into the regular season. A severed Achilles tendon kept Huberdeau out of the first 51 games of last season, and the Panthers went 22-19-10 without him. After he returned, he managed 26 points in 31 games. If Huberdeau can stay healthy, Barkov (21 goals, 52 points) and Dadonov (30 goals, 66 points in the KHL) will reap the benefits. The Panthers also have some punch at second- and third-line center with Vincent Trocheck (23 goals, 54 points) and Nick Bjugstad, who should rebound from an injury-plagued, seven-goal, 54-game season. And when you have one of the game's best defenseman (Aaron Ekblad) in your lineup every night, just about anything is possible.
Case against: The Panthers finished 23rd in goals last season and they could drop even further this season if their youth movement is not a complete success. Even if the Panthers can get offensive contributions from Tippett and undrafted Swedish winger Henrik Haapala, their defense beyond Ekblad and veteran Keith Yandle is among the most inexperienced in the league -- especially now that Demers has been traded. Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic, both 25, are still learning the ropes, and Mike Matheson, entering his second season, and rookie Ian McCoshen are largely untested. And then there is the underlying concern about Ekblad, who missed four games near the end of last season with a concussion, his third head injury in a span of 14 months. The Panthers' season would go up in flames if Ekblad is sidelined for any length of time. Those factors, along with the uncertain goaltending tandem of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer and the inexperience of Boughner could make for another short season in South Florida.
Trade bait: Assuming the Panthers are out of the playoff hunt before the trade deadline, 36-year-old right winger Radim Vrbata (one-year, $2.5 million contract) could be dealt to a Cup contender.
Goalie-situation rating: 5. At the age of 38, it's probably unfair to expect much more out of Luongo, who was limited to 40 games last season due to hip issues and went 17-15-6 with a 2.68 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. Even though five more years remain on Luongo's contract, no one would be surprised to see Reimer, 29, taking on more of a workload after going 18-16-5 with a 2.53 GAA and .920 save percentage last season. Whoever is in net this season, there's a good chance he'll see a lot of rubber. Only seven teams allowed more shots than the Panthers last season.
Scout's take: "I really thought their team was going in the right direction before the changes they made prior to last season, and I think that sort of sent them down the wrong path. They seem to have solidified things behind the bench and are ready to get back to their form from two years ago."
Prediction: 8th in Atlantic