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NHL - US Sports: Florida Panthers season preview

Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito has been trying to find answers since they exited the NHL playoffs at the second-round stage to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This time the exit after the Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy as the best team in the NHL regular season in 2021/22 (58-18-6, 122 points), with the Lightning sending them packing for a second consecutive time.

Searching for an elusive post-season solution, the Panthers have had one of the more intriguing off-seasons.

Coach Andrew Brunette has been replaced by Paul Maurice and rugged forward Matthew Tkachuk has been acquired from the Calgary Flames in exchange for high-scoring forward Jonathan Huberdeau and top-four defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.

WhatNHL Season 2022/23
WhereUSA and Canada
WhenOctober 7th 2022 - June 2023
How to watchESPN+, Star+, NHL.TV & bet365's Sports Live Streaming
OddsCOL Avalanche +425, TOR Maple Leafs +800, FLA Panthers +900, TB Lightning +1000, CAR Hurricanes +1100

Brave coaching change

Brunette may feel hard done by to lose his job to Maurice, going 51-18-6 after replacing Joe Quenneville early into the 2021/22 season. Florida's 122 points were the most in their history, and Brunette was runner-up for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

However, the Panthers couldn't translate their regular season success into the playoffs and were swept by the Lightning in a series which saw them score just three goals in the four games, after leading the NHL in goals per game during the regular season (4.11).

Maurice resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets during his ninth season, stating he felt the team needed a new voice.

At the time it was felt he may not coach again, but he says the opportunity with the Panthers is one that has reenergised him following six months off.

Maurice brings to the Panthers a huge amount of experience, ranking seventh in NHL history with 775 wins and fourth overall in games coached (1,684) with the Jets, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is 41-51 in 92 Stanley Cup Playoff games, including coaching the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the Detroit Red Wings.

With Winnipeg, Maurice went 315-22-46 including 13-11-5 before resigning last season.

Blockbuster trade

Another stunning move in response to the playoff disappointment came in late-July when General Manager announced a trade for Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames, sending Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar the other way.

Huberdeau had been with the Panthers for ten years and enjoyed a career season in 2021/22 posting 115 points (30 goals, 85 assists) in 80 games.

Weegar, a year younger, also had a career year during what was his fifth season in Florida contributing 44 points (eight goals, 36 assists) from the blue-line.

Giving up the pair was a hefty price for 24-year-old Tkachuk who scored 104 points (42 goals, 62 assists) in 82 games last season, but one motivated by adding some snarl which Zito feels is missing to the Panthers in the playoffs.

Tkachuk is well-known for his gritty, hard-nosed style, which is well-suited to the physical style of the post-season where he recently performed well for the Flames scoring 10 points (four goals, six assists) during their 12-game run.

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Strong nucleus

It's little wonder Maurice is excited to take on the Panthers job with such a strong nucleus intact. Led by forwards Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett, defenceman Aaron Ekblad and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers have been building themselves into a cup contender for several years.

The Panthers scored 340 goals last season, the most of any NHL team, led by Captain Barkov who scored a career-high 39 while remaining one of the best two-way centres in the NHL.

Aggressive pursuit of glory

Zito could have easily given the same group another chance to contend for the cup, and by doing nothing they would have been amongst the favourites again.

But, fed up with not being able to match up to the battle-tested Lightning (who have made the Stanley Cup Final three times in a row, winning twice), Florida have chosen to be aggressive in their pursuit of glory, adding Tkachuk and forwards Colin White and Nick Cousins, along with defensemen Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto.

Along with Huberdeau and Weegar, late-season acquisitions Claude Giroux (Ottawa Senators) and Ben Chiarot (Detroit Red Wings) left in free agency, and forward Mason Marchment (Dallas Stars) also departed.

Zito's decisions will either be labelled genius or foolish come the new seasons end, but his bravery to do something vastly different to try and achieve a different result should certainly be applauded.

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