Part II: #FlaPanthers Tallon’s Pre-Draft Lottery Look

By Bill Whitehead

The most important number for Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon and the organization over the summer may be the number of minutes dished out for a fighting major.

Five.

If the Panthers are to have any fight in them next season, they will need to add significantly in the offseason. The number of NHL veterans Tallon wants to add to improve the team? Five.

Funny, that number plays a prominent role in this year’s draft. Tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports, the initial fate of the Florida Panthers will be determined when the NHL holds its draft lottery. It will be tense, brief and decisive in affecting how the Panthers approach the summer.

Last year’s lottery, of course, proved to be a major letdown for Florida, who struggled to the league’s worst record in a truncated season. Gridded to pick No. 1 overall, Tallon sat and watched as the Colorado Avalanche climbed over the Cats to grab the top selection.

Instead of choosing homegrown defenseman Seth Jones, the Avs went offense and took standout center Nathan MacKinnon, who responded with 24 goals and 63 points a rookie season that will surely earn him Calder Trophy honors. Florida then selected Aleksander Barkov, who was having a fine first year before injuries during NHL and Olympic competition shut him down.

As for this draft, Tallon is letting members of the new ownership, the Violas, represent the club, but the GM will be watching, knowing his Cats will have a shot at another impact player. Just where is the question.

“Some of these guys aren’t ready yet either. We still have kids coming. We’re going to have another good draft this year, either 1, 2, 3 or 4 and 31, 32, 33 or 34. This draft is pretty good on the front end,” Tallon said over the weekend before Florida and Edmonton determined their pre-draft lottery slotting at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. 

The Buffalo Sabres have the best shot at landing the top pick, and the Panthers find themselves in a nice position by picking no worse than third if last year’s bad luck is resurrected.

The top four picks are expected to be – in some order – Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Oshawa Generals center Michael Dal Colle and Kingston Frontenacs center/left winger Samuel Bennett. That’s the top-four order ISS Hockey released on Tuesday.

After those talented skaters, watch for big German-born center Leon Draisaitl of Prince Albert and Swedish center William Nylander, son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, though the former seems to be a much better fit for the physical type of team Tallon is molding.

“This draft in the front end is pretty good and we have 10 picks next year. There are some wingers who are very good,” said Tallon, who added that some Panther prospects will have to move from center to wing if they want to move up the system.

“There are some good players in the draft in Europe and North America.”

But there are five really good ones. Five who put distance between their talents and a thinner group below them.

First, though, let’s see what happens tonight — and hope it’s better than a year ago.

Dale Tallon’s “State of the Cats”: Part I — Adding Talent

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – The following is the first segment of a number of blogs that will feature an interview with Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, who met with the media over the weekend to discuss a variety of issues – kind of a “State of the Cats” address, if you will. One major point, obviously, he made will be the onus of fixing the club, and it won’t necessarily be by watching the youth develop.

 

PART I: ADDING CATS

Specifically, Tallon said he will add to this team in the offseason, and the feeling was pervasive that it won’t be your run-of-the-mill low-level signings. The club has $30 million to spend over the summer, and the new ownership has made it clear the Panthers need to be pointed in the right direction and have some kind of buzz about them when camp opens.

“We’re going to fix it. We’ve got to surround these kids with some great players,” Tallon said, alluding to Florida’s deep pool of young talent.

While goaltending primarily is no longer an issue after the acquisition of Roberto Luongo – though a strong case could be made against Dan Ellis and his poor play since his arrival – Tallon said to expect changes on the blue line and up front.

“I’d like to bring in at least five (veterans). We have 11 kids in our system under 23 years old that are over 6-foot-2. So we have those coming. But we have to go in the free agent market or make a trade at the draft to get probably two defensemen that are experienced, good NHL defensemen,” he said.

On the offensive front, Florida finished the season with 188 goals, a 2.29 per game clip. Only Buffalo, at 1.82 per game before Sunday’s game, was worse, so a priority will also be placed in finding a winger who can alleviate some of the pressure that’s on the defense.

“You have to have a guy that can score goals and score easily. We’re at the bottom of the heap in scoring. We’ve had a lot of close games. We need a scorer to play with Barkov, we need a scorer to play with Bjugstad, we need one to play with Trocheck, Shore or Pirri. All of these assets we have, some are going to have to go to wing. They can’t all play center. It’s easier to go from center-to-wing than wing-to-center,” Tallon said.

He said that acquiring Luongo could be valuable at attracting talent, just like the organization did when they traded for defenseman Brian Campbell at the Minnesota draft in 2011.

“I think getting Louie here is going to help us close the deal on these free agents. It’s going to be a real asset for us. I think you sell winning and a desire to win. We now have the ability to put a team together to win, and that’s what players want. You can have the best facilities in the world; they just want to go somewhere where they win,” said Tallon.

“I was denied for two years in Chicago – a great city, an Original Six team – nobody wanted to come because the perception was they didn’t want to win. But that’s a perception that’s gone away, and it’s gone away here. We’re going to get the players that want to win.”

 

Part II…coming soon

#FlaPanthers 4, #Leafs 2: Bjugstad with a Big Night

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla.Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri had big nights for the Panthers in Florida’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Thursday night.

Bjugstad assumed the team lead in scoring with two goals and an assist while Pirri celebrated his birthday by opening the game’s scoring as the Panthers won the season series from the Maple Leafs 3-1. Florida outscored Toronto 14-10 over the four games, with the Maple Leafs’ lone win a 6-3 home victory on Jan. 30.

Bjugstad assisted on Brad Boyes’ goal as the second period came to a close to give Florida (29-44-8) a 2-1 lead. He skated around behind Toronto goalie Drew MacIntyre, making his first NHL start, and fed Boyes, who tapped in the pass for his team-high 21st goal.

Bjugstad, a University of Minnesota alum who had keen interest in the Gophers’ Frozen Four semifinal against North Dakota following the game, scored from behind MacIntyre by fending off Toronto defenseman Paul Ranger for a goal 3:23 into the third. He soon added a shorthanded marker on a pass from Tomas Fleischmann to finish off a 2-on-1 rush less than three minutes later for a 4-1 edge.

“It was a good night. Boyes and (Sean) Bergenheim are great to play with. They talk to me a lot. They’re veterans and guide me through it. They’ve been very positive with me,” said Bjugstad.

The Minnesota native said Florida’s approach was to get pucks in deep and work behind MacIntyre.

“We were doing a lot of stuff down low tonight. We had to get pucks to the net. It was the first game for that goalie. We had to get shots on him. The pass (to Boyes), I saw him on the back door,” he said.

Pirri, a Toronto native, started the scoring when he whipped a shot over MacIntyre’s glove on the high side for a 1-0 lead at 6:06 of the first period. Linemate Quinton Howden set up the score with a pass from the boards to Pirri in the left circle, and Brian Campbell collected an assist on the tally.

“I had a lot of family back home who went to a local bar (to watch), so it was cool. It was good for us to get a good start, and we played well in the first,” said Pirri, who celebrated his 23rd birthday with his 13th goal.

Pirri, acquired from Chicago, has shown the offensive flair that the Cats desperately need.

“Obviously, getting points is nice, but the team won in the end. That’s what’s important. We’re just trying to build every game and get better,” he said.

Toronto tied it when Tyler Bozak fired in a shot off a pass from Jake Gardiner for his 19th goal, beating Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo over his blocker. James Van Riemsdyk also had an assist on the play for the Leafs (38-35-8), who were eliminated from a wildcard playoff spot when Columbus won in Dallas on Wednesday night. Ranger had Toronto’s other goal.

Luongo made 27 saves to earn the win while MacIntyre faced 37 shots from Florida, who closes its season Saturday night at home against playoff-bound Columbus.

NOTES: Pirri has 13 points in 17 games…Boyes has recorded three goals in his last five games…Bjugstad now has 38 points and leads the team in scoring, eclipsing Scottie Upshall’s 37. Bjugstad, who posted the first two-goal and three-point game of his career, is tied as the fourth-highest scoring NHL rookie…By winning its 67th meeting against Toronto, Florida improved to 27-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…Toronto starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre was selected in the fourth round by Detroit in the 2001 NHL Draft held at BB&T Center.

Panthers have ties to Toronto

The Florida Panthers (28-44-8) host Toronto (38-34-8) tonight here at BB&T Center (7:30, FSN). As I sit here being entertained by the Union College-Boston College Frozen Four semifinal – featuring Cats’ prospects Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen – here are a few notes for Florida’s 81st game of the season:

 

FACING THE HOME TEAM: Six current Florida players and two coaches have their roots in Ontario, the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Captain Ed Jovanovski, Krys Barch, Jesse Winchester, Brad Boyes, Brian Campbell, Brandon Pirri and Erik Gudbranson are all Ontario natives, as are interim head coach Peter Horachek (Stoney Creek) and assistant John Madden (Barrie).

 

THE LONE GUY: Barring an incredible finish by Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall or Nick Bjugstad, right winger Brad Boyes will end the season as the only Cat with a 20-goal effort. Boyes had 20 markers through 76 games and has been one of Florida’s most reliable scorers after being brought in on a tryout during camp. Bergenheim is the next highest goal-scorer with 16, then points leader Upshall (15 goals, 22 assists) and Bjugstad (14 goals).

 

ONE-TIMERS: Florida is 2-1 against Toronto, outscoring the Leafs 10-8 with six of the Toronto goals coming in a 6-3 home win on Jan. 30…Entering Thursday night’s game, Florida held an overall record of 26-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…The Panthers own a winning record against Toronto in South Florida, posting a 14-13-5-2 mark…Florida recalled G Scott Clemmensen earlier on Thursday…Florida had lost 283 man games before Thursday’s game…D Dmitry Kulikov is just one point shy of 100 NHL points…F Brandon Pirri has 12 points (6-6-12) in his last 16 games, including a four-game point streak from Mar. 31 to April 6 (3-2-5).

 

THIS DATE IN CATS’ HISTORY: Defenseman Bryan McCabe, currently the team’s manager of player development, tallied his 1,000th NHL point by recording an assist in a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay on April 10, 2010.

Cats’ 3-2 SO Win Shows Signs of the Future

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Every Florida Panthers game, even the bad ones like three of the four that resulted in losses on the recent West Coast road trip, gives fans a slight peek at the future. Tuesday at the BB&T Center was not one of those bad showings. In fact, the 3-2 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators gave everyone a few vivid snapshots of what should be a much more promising 2014-15 campaign, such as…

Roberto Luongo – The two goals in 23 seconds was exciting, as were the shootout exploits by two of the club’s young talents, but if Lou doesn’t stand tall in net, especially in a bizarre first period that saw Ottawa fire 20 shots on goal that led to absolutely nothing, then this game goes down as something like a 5-2 loss or worse.

I’ve covered a lot of spring training baseball the last month, and I’ve not seen any ballplayer flash the leather like Luongo did Tuesday. Not speedy center fielder Matt den Dekker of the New York Mets, a Ft. Lauderdale native – just check out this catch in the 2010 College World Series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZf6o7rM58  – or third baseman Ryan Zimmerman or outfielder Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. Nothing I’ve seen was as good as Luongo was. Repeatedly the Senators tried to beat Luongo high on his glove side, and they failed almost all the time. Fittingly, the game ended with him shutting down Milan Michalek on a backhander that found Luongo’s webbing.

“That’s good for me. That’s where I like to make a lot of saves,” said Luongo, who had 37 of them.

Without Lou’s first-star efforts, Florida (27-38-8) doesn’t beat the desperate Senators. It’s that simple.

Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri – Trocheck’s third career marker on a pass from Scottie Upshall capped a two-goal, 23-second comeback and really got the crowd buzzing. Trocheck has scored on an empty-netter, a wrap-around and now a hard charge to the net on a 2-on-1 break that started with him keeping his feet moving, feeding the puck around behind Luongo and getting on a rush with Uppy. Pirri was solid throughout and appears to have a scorer’s mentality, which is truly needed on this pass-first team that appears rather hesitant to shoot at times like in the 4-on-3 power play in overtime.

The two paired up in the shootout to produce two slick goals and provide the offense that lifted the Cats to the win. Many fans denounce the shootout and call it gimmicky. That’s fine. Regardless, the Panthers are suddenly becoming very good at it and stand at 8-6 in the 1-on-1 skill session. What they’re also doing is creating incredible depth in the shootout. Next year the team’s 1-5 shootout specialists could be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, all-time NHL leader Brad Boyes, Trocheck and Pirri – and perhaps an additional winger or two most expect the Panthers to go after in free agency on July 1. That group will get you the extra point more often than not, and we all know that’s often the difference in making the playoffs.

“I was shocked to see that I’d go first (in the shootout). When he said I was going first, I was a little nervous, but luckily it worked out. That’s my go-to move. Luckily there’s no video of me doing it in the NHL,” said Trocheck of his first shootout attempt in his 11th game.

Following the contest, Florida interim head coach Peter Horachek had some very complimentary words of praise for Trocheck. The two started the season together in San Antonio, and Horachek said he was impressed by the Pittsburgh native from the start and loved his compete level.

Horachek may or may not be the head of Florida when this season concludes. GM Dale Tallon relieved assistant GM Mike Santos of his duties earlier in the day, and Santos, who joined the organization in 2010 after being directory of hockey operations in Nashville, was instrumental in bringing along Horachek. Who will be behind Florida’s bench next season is an unknown, and probably becomes even more of a dicey decision if Peter Laviolette, Guy Boucher, Claude Noel and other coaches are available and the organization is truly committed to spending money to ice a winning team.

I don’t know if Horachek will be back, but I do know I want no part of any transaction that would ship out Trocheck and/or Pirri anywhere to bring back anything deemed more valuable. Trocheck has too much upside and should have nights like Tuesday for years to come in a Cats’ sweater. As for Pirri, Tallon’s likely already won that deal with Chicago – and that’s not even mentioning the two other former Blackhawks he dealt for in Olsen and Hayes. That deal looks more than favorable as well.

Again, these are small snapshots in a game in front of just 13,435 fans, but all things considered, the pictures from Tuesday night came out just fine.

#FlaPanthers #Devils pre-game notes

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Some pre-game observations and notes before the Florida Panthers host the New Jersey Devils tonight at 7:30 here at BB&T Center. Some quick hits below:

DEVILISH TIME: Florida’s game tonight marks the 82nd time the clubs have met. The Cats hold a 26-41-7-7 record against New Jersey and are 15-17-4-4 at home against them. The two teams meet for the final time in New Jersey on Mar. 31.

ON THE SCORESHEET: Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic tallied his first NHL point in Tampa Thursday when he assisted on Brandon Pirri’s goal late in the Panthers’ 5-4 loss.

SCORING LEADERS: Jaromir Jagr leads New Jersey with 57 points (21-36), while Patrik Elias (42 pts., 14-28) and Adam Henrique (38 pts., 23-15) follow. Florida is paced by Scottie Upshall (32 pts., 12-20), Nick Bjugstad (31 pts., 14-17) and Brad Boyes (30 pts., 17-13).

FORMER BUDS: Cory Schneider gets the starter in goal for New Jersey and is ranked third in the NHL with a 2.07 GAA. He faced former teammate Roberto Luongo on Nov. 24 earlier this season when Luongo’s Canucks beat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout.

ONE-TIMERS: Bjugstad has nine points in his last nine games and is riding a career-best four-game point streak…New Jersey’s Henrique, who beat Florida two years ago with the game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, has 11 points in his last seven games…The Devils currently hold the 10th position in the Eastern Conference while Florida is 15th, leading only Buffalo…Pirri has goals in back-to-back games and has three points in his first five games with the Cats…Jimmy Hayes’s two goals against Boston last Sunday in Florida’s 5-2 loss marked the first multi-goal game and third multi-point game of his NHL career; his seven goals are also a career high…Brian Campbell grids second in the league with 27:20 TOI/per game. He has also registered 28-plus minutes in 13 of his last 28 games played.

Cats’ GM Tallon Looks to Blackhawks in First Trade

By Bill Whitehead

The last 24 hours have not been the status quo for the Florida Panthers and their fans. The blockbuster transaction that came over on Tuesday, of course, was the club re-acquiring former star goalie Roberto Luongo and minor leaguer Steve Anthony from the Vancouver Canucks for Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom.

Briefly on the latter two.

First, Matthias, while hot the last few games, has been a disappointment for most of this season after re-signing with the Panthers. Matty is an effort-over-skill guy, and he’s at his best playing a high-energy type game. That has been lacking this season. As for Markstrom, the Swede had more than his fair set of chances to earn playing time, and he simply hasn’t developed. He routinely seems out of position, and his mechanics appear to have slipped. I’ll recall fondly his 40-save effort in his second career win in early 2011 in a 2-1 win at Montreal, but that’s about it. Time just expired on Marky—at least his time in Sunrise.

Monday’s first trade involving Florida, though, brought over offensively skilled center Brandon Pirri from Chicago for a couple of future picks and is an intriguing deal put together by current Florida and former Chicago GM Dale Tallon. Pirri is a former AHL scoring champ and gifted shooter, and he’ll get the chance to contribute right away.

Skating on a line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Jimmy Hayes, Pirri made his Florida debut just under five minutes into Tuesday’s game against Boston. He made an immediate impact by drawing a penalty on just his second shift of the game against Boston. Pirri, 22, looked like he belonged and mixed it up.

Pirri chose to wear No. 73 for Florida, saying he just switched around his former No. 37. Here are some of the highlights from 1973, the number that corresponds to Pirri’s new number:

  • Aerosmith released their debut album, while Pink Floyd dropped Dark Side of the Moon
  • The Dolphins defeated the Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII to complete the only undefeated season
  • George Foreman pounded Joe Frazier in Jamaica to win the heavyweight title. Remember Howard Cosell’s “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” call?
  • The World Trade Center officially opened. The Sears Tower was finished, too.
  • The Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games to claim the NBA title.
  • Yankee Stadium closed for a two-year, $160 million renovation, with the club playing at Shea Stadium the following two seasons.
  • The A’s beat the Mets in the World Series in seven games
  • OJ Simpson became the first running back to rush for over 2,000 yards
  • I turned eight and watched all those sporting events (OK, that’s really a personal achievement)

Those are just some of the highlights from the year closely related to that odd hockey number. No. 79 would have been a decent choice because the Cats could fire up “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins, but hey, we’ll go with 73. And Pirri should score or be in the middle of goals or offensive highlights somehow, regardless of the number he’s wearing or goal call by the announcer at BB&T Center.

That’s the plan, right?