Before a home and home series with the Florida Panthers, we got the chance to catchup with Kevin from Litterbox Cats to talk about the surprising, young Panthers team that's off to a great start so far this year.
#1: 30 games into the season, Florida is on pace for a 98 point season. That would be quite the turnaround from last year, what do you point to as the biggest keys as to why the Panthers are much improved this season compared to last? And, though it's still early what's your sense on if this team is ready to make a serious push for a playoff spot this season?
The main reason the Panthers are improved so much from recent seasons' past is because Florida (like Edmonton) has been building through the draft with very high picks for a few years. Home grown first rounders currently icing significant time with the Cats include Erik Gudbranson, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Dmitry Kulikov and Nick Bjugstad. Ekblad in particular is even better than we had bargained for (more below). Strong play in net from returning hero Roberto Luongo and a better than expected showing from backup Al Montoya make each goal stand out just a little more.
As far as playoffs, (Playoffs?) of course anything's possible, but I've been a Panthers' fan long enough to not count on anything until the sound of the final horn. They certainly have the talent to compete for a slot, and if the season ended today, they would hold the eighth seed and face off against the Penguins (small world, right?).
#2: With 18 points in 30 games, and a defense high +5 on the team, Aaron Ekblad has seemed to hold up his end of the bargain at both ends of the ice. And for being 18 years old, that's really impressive. Ekblad hasn't had a lot of people gushing over him, so here's your chance- tell us how good he's been!
Ekblad is exactly what we expected him to be. It's just that he is what he is a lot sooner than most would have expected. He's currently on pace for 49 points, which would be the second best ever season (points wise) for an 18-year-old defenseman. And they say that a blue-liner typically takes around 300 games to really get up to speed at the NHL level. If this is the floor, where's the ceiling?
He's by far the best back-court player on the team, more than doubling next-best blueliner Brian Campbell's 1.8 point shares. His plus-5 rating is second best on the club (behind Tomas Fleischmann's plus-7), and he trails leading scorer Nick Bjugstad by one point, with five goals and 18 points overall.
The sky is the limit for Ekblad, and he's only 18.
#3: Jussi Jokinen was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh for his steady play and frequent point production, what's the sense among Panther fans about the start to the Florida part of his career? Is he living up to expectations so far?
Jokinen has held up well with the transition, and is tied for the team-lead with 13 assists to his credit. He's the perfect second-liner that Florida has even used on the third line at times, showing the team's depth. I don't expect to see another 60 point season out of Jokinen at any point in the future, but 50 is clearly still in the realm of possibility. As a bonus, his skill and versatility let him play at any of the three forward positions - and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes with positioning or with the puck. He also came through gangbusters for us in that superlong shootout against the Capitals the other night.
Thanks again to Kevin from LBC, and now here's a pretty picture from the Pens: