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Talking Panthers With The Litter Box Cats

We sit down with Litter Box Cats' Kevin Krazckowski to chat about Aaron Ekblad, Jaromir Jagr, and the upstart Florida Panthers.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1.) Florida surprised a few people last year with a 91-point season. What are the expectations for this year? Are the Panthers a playoff team in the Eastern Conference?

The Panthers had the single most-improved overall point total last season, jumping 25 points in the standings. Keeping up that pace would translate to a 116 points season this year, but I’m not a crazy person and I’m not suggesting that that will happen.

What I am saying is that the Panthers have showed some improvement already this year, even over last season’s improvements. The fourth line is a huge upgrade from past seasons. Derek MacKenzie in particular has been a ferocious forechecker, a responsible defensive forward, and a high-energy spark plug.

There are going to be bumps in the road, losing streaks, last second victory turning into overtime losses and shootout losses, but no more than any other lower tier Eastern Conference playoff team. The team is currently on pace for 92 points, so I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same sometimes. I predict a 96 point season and a fifth- or sixth-seed.

2.) So, when is this Jagr guy going to discover how old he is and stop being a point-per-game scorer?

If past performance is any indication, he will play until the Social Security administration makes him stop working.

Seriously though, Jagr hasn’t averaged this level of consistency in the box score since 2005-06 (when he averaged 1.50 PPG with the New York Rangers). The resurgence in his game is no doubt at least somewhat impacted by the young wingers bordering him on Florida’s top line. Until now, this has consisted of 2013 Calder Memorial Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau and all-around threat Aleksander Barkov. With Barkov recently injured indefinitely with a broken wrist, behemoth Nick Bjugstad joins them with the big minutes. I can’t see the future, but Huby and Barky both went from around a half-point per contest to a full-point per contest since being joined by Jagr last season. In Bjug’s first whack at the top-line on Saturday, he racked up a goal and an assist in a 6-2 Florida win over the Dallas Stars. Chalk it up to "Small Sample Size" if you want to, but after 28 games with the Cats, Jagr seems to be reenergizing the younger players while drawing strength from them at the same time.

To answer your question directly, it looks like he can probably keep up this level for another two to three seasons. But who knows? With the notable exception of Gordie Howe, his longevity is unprecedented. There's no yardstick to measure the possibilities.

3.) Developing young defenseman is such a tricky business. How were the Panthers able to handle Ekblad so effectively his rookie season and how do you see his game growing in the coming years?

Ekblad benefitted last season from Gerard Gallant’s pairing him primarily with former all-star and always dependable Brian Campbell. Campbell hasn’t missed a single start since joining the Panthers for the 2011-12 campaign, and his consistency eased Ekblad’s transition to the NHL at the tender age of 18. You can’t win a Calder without a good rookie season, but there’s no trophy for the best second-year player.

We here in South Florida would like to be able to say that Ekblad will avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump," but the eye test has told us over the first eight games of the season that he’s a little rusty. We’ve joked that it’s the beard – better saved for the Stanley Cup Playoffs – but if you’ve ever been a 6’4", 220 lb. 19-year-old NHL defenseman then you know that you can do what you want. Heck, Jagr’s growing the mullet back. If it’ll earn wins I’d endorse mutton chops and full ZZ Top beards for the whole bunch of them.

Ekblad’s play will level out, but it’s important to keep in mind that an NHL defenseman takes up to 300 NHL games to get to his top potential. Saying so reminds us (well, me anyway) that he has a long way to go before he has reached his optimal level - and that is a wonderful thought.