1. I, along with many others, though the Predators would most likely end up picking Aleksander Barkov 4th overall this summer, but the Panthers scooped him up instead. How's that working out so far, and where does Barkov fit within the team's depth chart these days?
Like you, I thought that the Panthers would pass on Barkov and draft Seth Jones with the second overall pick, however, we all know that's not what happened. After six games, Barkov has two goals on 10 shots, along with three assists while skating primarily on Florida's second line, mostly flanked by leading scorer Tomas Fleischmann (one goal, five assists) and surprise offensive threat Brad Boyes (four goals, one assist). His surprisingly strong play is evidenced by his 14:40 average time on ice, ranking fifth amongst Panthers forwards. This has resulted in him being elevated to the first line and hopefully even more scoring opportunities. At only 18 years of age, he still has a few pounds to pack on his 6'3", 209 pound frame, but he has already shown that he can handle the speed and pressure of the NHL game (and NHL defensemen). In a recent gamethread, I heard a comparison to Evgeni Malkin, and I know that he is by no means on that level, yet, I do believe that it's possible just from what I've seen.
2. Looking at the Atlantic Division standings and seeing Florida thrown in Boston, Toronto & Montreal looks... well, weird. How are the fans down there reacting to the realignment?
I recently fielded a similar question with Broad Street Hockey, and with the author's permission, I'll requote, erm, myself:
It's a very tough division, and not only is the competition amongst the stiffest in the NHL, but Florida also stands to suffer with all the extra travel. Besides being kind of a geographic raw deal for the Panthers, it has a lot of potential. Most of the teams in the division boast a large South Florida following, guaranteeing better attendance for more games. There's also a lot of fertile ground for budding rivalries with four of the original six amongst the eight teams. To bemoan the extra travel is to be short sighted, as the Panthers can't be bottom feeders indefinitely. With the seeding for possible future blood feuds in place, Panthers hockey can only benefit in the long run.
[editor's note]: Actually, the Panthers will travel fewer miles than in the last full NHL season, so it's not all bad.
3. It's hard for an outsider to get a sense of the Panthers' identity as a franchise. If you had to project out 3-5 years, which members of the current team do you see as making up the core of that lineup?
In goal, I'd like to see Jacob Markstrom continue to grow and familiarize himself with the NHL level of competition. He's already stated his unwillingness to continue riding the pine, and at his current stage of development has little more to gain at the AHL level.
Defensively, the Panthers would be wise to continue to build around Dmitry Kulikov and incoming blueliner Alex Petrovic. A lot has been said about D Erik Gudbranson, and how NHL defensemen take a few seasons to grow into their game. With all the obvious holes in his play, however, I don't think he's long for this market. I don't work for the front office, however.
Amongst forwards, we've already spoke of Barkov, and you know Calder Memorial Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau. You should also familiarize yourself with up-and-comers Drew Shore and Nick Bjugstad, who have shown the ability (in small doses) to keep up with the NHL pace of play. If this were a wish list, I'd also like to see the Cats lock in Fleischmann and centerman Marcel Goc into longer term deals. Fleischmann is a heck of a puck handler, and Goc, consistently ranking with the NHL leaders in QOC-Corsi, is one of the most underrated forwards in the league (but you already knew that about him, I'll bet).
Many thanks to Ken for his insight, make sure to head over to Litter Box Cats for more on all things Florida Panthers...