NHL 2016-17 preview: Panthers face expectations atop crowded East


Six years ago, Dale Tallon, the general manager of the Florida Panthers, set out to construct a championship-caliber ice hockey team blocks from the Atlantic's sandy shores. 

The process presented a set of inherent challenges - how to regularly attract sun-tanned fans to a frozen arena chief among them - but Tallon's task is nearly complete.

At some point, while the rest of the hockey universe was not looking, playing the Panthers suddenly became anything but a day at the beach.

They took the Eastern Conference by storm last season, winning the franchise's second division title one year after finishing 51 points out of first place in the Atlantic.

Along the way, the unlikely happened: Sunrise, Florida showed some semblance of a hockey town, with attendance bumping to 15,384 per game, impressive considering they had been dead last in the NHL the season before at 11,265.

Encouraged, Tallon, chief architect of the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty, got to work in the offseason and remade the Panthers' blueline, a clear weakness that led to their first-round playoff loss.

He traded for the rights to Keith Yandle, signed free agents Jason Demers and James Reimer, and doled out $120.4 million worth of extensions to his young core. Eight of those players, including 2014 first overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad and top forward Jonathan Huberdeau, are signed through at least 2021.

No NHL team spent more money this summer.   

But with success comes expectations, and expectations often lead to a great deal of adversity, as the Panthers found out this week when it was revealed Huberdeau will miss the first three to four months of the season with a lower-body injury.

Huberdeau scored a career-high 59 points last year, good for third on the team, and his production will be difficult to duplicate.

Even so, the Panthers present one of the most well-rounded rosters in the Eastern Conference, complete with ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, who this season turns 45 and will have a chance to pass Mark Messier for second on the NHL's all-time scoring list. 

For all the progress of last season, it is expected the Panthers are just getting started.

Top storylines

Steven Stamkos' decision to extend his stay in Tampa Bay for eight more years was quite the anti-climactic ending to the most anticipated free agency that never was. Much to the chagrin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the choice was most wise should the 26-year-old plan to win the Stanley Cup sometime soon. The Lightning have perhaps the best odds of any team in the East of lifting the Cup after coming within one goal of their second straight conference title. With major cap crunching to do next offseason, it might take a few more years before Tampa find themselves in such a favourable position again.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were dealt a potentially major blow to their aspirations of a repeat with news of Sidney Crosby's latest concussion. The Penguins captain, with nearly two seasons of his prime already stolen by head injuries, had recaptured his status as the world's best player with a 2016 that included his first Conn Smythe Trophy, a second Stanley Cup and an incredible MVP performance for World Cup-winning Canada. As is often the case with concussions, there is uncertainty over when Crosby's campaign will start. The injury could be relatively minor, or it could define the Penguins' season if it lingers.

Players to watch

Alexander Ovechkin, F, Capitals - Ovechkin spent yet another offseason reflecting on disappointment after his Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals made a swift second-round exit at the hands of the rival Penguins. Criticism of the Washington captain is often misplaced, as he does his part, but it will persist until he hoists a Cup. Luckily for Ovechkin, the Capitals are again well-positioned to contend. Could this finally be the year?

Auston Matthews, F, Maple Leafs - Saviour. Redeemer. Liberator of hockey purgatory. Matthews will hear it all, and already has; it comes with the territory of being drafted first overall by the team that plays in the centre of the known hockey universe. So far he has handled it with tact. As the linchpin to the improving Maple Leafs' rebuild, the 19-year-old is a clear favourite to win the Calder Trophy. A key to his development will be everything that happens around him from here on out.  

Alexander Radulov, F, Canadiens - Questions abound for a remade Montreal team. Most intriguing is the vexing Radulov, who briefly tantalised the NHL eight years ago with the Nashville Predators before wearing out his welcome. He played eight seasons in his native Russia, where he won three KHL scoring titles, and is ready to give North American hockey another shot at age 30. Can he score on this stage? The Canadiens are counting on it.