SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES - MARCH 11: Nathan Cleary and James Maloney of the Panthers speak during the warm-up before the round one NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at Panthers Stadium on March 11, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

After a huge off-season, the Panthers are expected to produce big things in 2019.

We preview the season ahead for the mountain men.

2019 Gains

Tyrell Fuimaono (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 2019), Tim Grant (Wests Tigers, 2019), Hame Sele (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2020), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers, 2019)

2019 Losses

Tim Browne (retired), Oliver Clark (Wests Tigers), Christian Crichton (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Tom Eisenhuth (Melbourne Storm), Corey Harawira-Naera (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Adam Keighran (New Zealand Warriors), Soni Luke (released), Trent Merrin (Leeds Rhinos), Tyrone Peachey (Gold Coast Titans), Maika Sivo (Parramatta Eels), Corey Waddell (Manly Sea Eagles), Jayden Walker (retired), Peter Wallace (retired)

2018 Recap

At times it looked like 2018 might be the year of the Panther. At other times it looked as though Penrith may fall out of finals contention only to be saved by last-minute wins.

That inconsistency saw the Panthers fall from almost certain top four finishers to missing the second chance territory.

Ultimately the Panthers were undone by the smallest of margins, a field goal, in their elimination final loss to the Sharks.

If Cleary had nailed that earlier attempt at a one-pointer I have no doubt in the world they would have given the Storm a red hot run for their money as they had all the momentum against the Sharks in that game.

James Maloney was on track to win a Dally M medal in the opening month and a half before falling away in the second half of the season following a huge Origin series.

Kikau emerged as one of the game’s most damaging second rowers while the likes of Whare and Blake become permanent fixtures in the top grade.

The Panthers will probably feel they fell one game short of what they should have achieved. Hardly a failure but that semifinal loss will have hurt.

Best Recruit: Hame Sele

With the greatest of respects to the former Dragon, Sele is not a game-changing signing. He is not meant to be. What he will do is provide a clever option for the Panthers bench.

Having lost the likes of CWN, Tyrone Peachey and Trent Merrin, the Panthers required forwards to come off the bench and provide guidance for an otherwise very young rotation.

At 22 years of age, Sele only has 18 games to his name, but given he has trained beside the likes of Vaughan, Frizell and Sims, it’s fair to say that he has been running drills in good company.

The Panthers will hope those rep footballers skills have rubbed off on their new recruit with Sele looking to be possibly (depending on the final bench layout) the most experienced player to come off the bench.

Future Star/One To Watch: Wayde Egan

21-year-old Wayde Egan has plenty of potential. He has natural talent in spades and doesn’t look like he’s afraid to get his hands dirty by making plenty of tackles.

The former NYC team of the year number nine debuted in 2018 and showed signs of becoming something pretty special for those at the foot of the mountains.

He will likely share the number nine duties with Sione Katoa, coming off the bench at this stage. At over six foot and having had a second full off-season in the top squad, look for him to have a big 2019 if given a shot.

With Wallace having retired, the Panthers are on the hunt for their next long-term number nine. Egan and Katoa will likely share the role moving forward. One to watch.

Star Player: Nathan Cleary

Last season the Panthers star player was James Maloney but this Nathan Cleary’s side now. Of course, his halves partner in Maloney is still hugely important, but Cleary is now the main man.

Having had a brilliant 2018 and being reunited with father Ivan, there are simply no excuses for him not to kick on and become one of the game’s elite number sevens.

An Origin-winning series debut and a solid finals series will surely have handed him the confidence to believe huge things are in his not so distant future.

With one of the best kicking games in the competition, Cleary has all the tools. With Maloney being outplayed in the Panthers final game of 2018, Cleary really stepped up and turned the game in his side’s favour.

It’s showings like that which instil confidence in Panthers fans to believe that Nathan will be a big star for a long time.

Recruitment Grade: D

The Panthers finished one field goal short of a prelim final appearance in 2018. Their NSW cup side were runaway minor premiers and their Jersey Flegg side was there on Grand Final Day.

Penrith has all the talent they require to win a title already in their system.

That said, they’re going to need to find it from there after focusing their recruitment drive on squad players.

It’s highly possible that none of their 2019 recruits will feature come round one. You’d think Fuimaono and Sele will fight it out for a bench spot potentially.

The Panthers believe they have the squad but honestly, after losing Merrin, Peach and CHN, they look short in the forward stocks. They’ll be dipping into that successful junior sides talent pool for certain.

Prediction: 5th

I originally had the Panthers as high as third, then as low as seventh, but ultimately I can’t see anything other than another finals run for this very talent Penrith side.

1-7 they have one of the most dangerous sides in attach across the competition. They have a monster forward pack who you couldn’t pay me enough to run at.

That said, they look very, very thin. That bench is a long way off the likes of the more fancied sides. There are no game breakers.

There are plenty of talented young players in this squad. If the Panthers are to make a big splash in 2019 they’ll need one or two of those to have Kikau-like break out seasons.

They’ll be in the running for a top-four spot unless injuries play a big part this season.