BY BILL WHITEHEAD
SUNRISE — The 2016-17 season hasn’t even started yet for the Florida Panthers, yet I feel like the Cats are already struggling to hang on somewhat.
The major injury to Jonathan Huberdeau (out 3-4 months) and the minor one to Nick Bjugstad (out a month) have given the club its fair share of bad news and we haven’t even dropped the puck yet. The setbacks have some of the prognosticators frowning on the new-look Panthers — both in their attire and the players on the ice — but the pundits were going to choose Tampa Bay to regain the Atlantic Division, regardless of coach Gerard Gallant and his staff being without Bjugstad and Huberdeau.
Good teams rally in times of crisis, though, and this group of Cats should be up to the task of solidly securing a playoff berth. To do that, their primary scorers must do their jobs plus have secondary scoring and improve the power play.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has a slogan: “Try Not to Suck.” The Panthers don’t have to adopt that motto, however. There’s should simply be “Just Be Better.”
Here are a few reasons they could be better, plus a prediction:
BREAKOUT PLAYER: Jonathan Marchessault. If you looked at Tampa’s roster and its crop of UFAs and RFAs on July 1, the two names that jumped off the screen at you were Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Most had Stammer pegged for Toronto while Kucherov couldn’t hammer a deal. Florida never had a shot at 91, though I’m confounded as to why the Panthers didn’t offer-sheet Kucherov, the 23-year-old Russian right winger who is a deadly sniper. Let’s face it, the Cats will need a top RW shortly, and six years or so of Huberdeau-Barkov-Kucherov is enough to make you salivate.
But the third name on that list — and the most obtainable one — was Marchessault, who was looking for minutes and a better opportunity with his minutes limited on Florida’s west coast.
A huge favorite of the Bolts and coach Jon Cooper, Marchessault should have the breakout year this season that some have predicted. In Lightning games I watched, he and teammate Vladislav Namestnikov were always a problem for the opposition, using their speed and skill to create scoring chances where none seemed to exist.
That kind of production is why he’s on the top line now at left wing in place of Huberdeau. I expect him to get time on the power play, exceed expectations and be the acquisition I thought he would.
In Season 3 of The Walking Dead, the Governor reunites Merle and Daryl, unveiling the latter to the former, saying to Merle, “You wanted your brother, now you got him.” Well, Marchy wanted more minutes.
Now he’s got them.
MUST-DO-WELL PLAYER: James Reimer. With starter Roberto Luongo coming off hip surgery, Reimer will play an enormous role in spelling Florida’s 37-year-old starting netminder.
The choice of Reimer was a solid one. Jhonas Enroth was another possibility, but the 28-year-old Reimer was signed to a 5-year/$17 million contract and will have plenty of chances to get starts here and there and show what he can do.
Like Marchessault, a great opportunity exists for him with the Cats.
O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN: Derek MacKenzie. From the start, I thought D-Mac displayed the traits necessary — most notably his leadership qualities — to earn the C on his new Florida sweater.
Did he play enough to warrant it? The top six definitely plays more.
Is he high-profile enough? Luongo, Jagr, Barkov and Ekblad are the familiar faces.
Does he score enough? He was tied for 11th with Kulikov in team points with 17.
All of those questions could start with “No” as an answer, but MacKenzie brings more to each 60 minutes than just stats. He’s a tireless worker, excellent penalty killer, gritty as my wife’s homemade soaps and shows the leadership every player in the room looks up to.
Hey, Jagr said it was an easy, perfect choice. That’s good enough for me.
THE SEASON: 43-28-10 (96 points). The early injury bug will be important for Florida to overcome. Don’t expect a 12-game winning streak, but an offensive improvement on the blue line should create more goals, and newcomer Keith Yandle should be a force quarterbacking the power play.
Tampa will win the Atlantic while Florida will finish second, then host Montreal in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where Quebec native Luongo will shut down the Habs and send Florida to the second round.
**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com