“With the 11th pick, the #FlaPanthers select…”

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — It’s finally here – the morning of the 2015 NHL Draft.

It’s hockey’s version of Christmas Day, with fans up early and excited about what gifts lie ahead for them. What will be under the tree this year for the Florida Panthers at No. 11? Another center to get in line and wait his turn at a position where the Cats are strongest? Maybe another collegiate defenseman whom fans will pine for over the years to see wear the home red?

Doubt it on both accounts.

Unless GM Dale Tallon pulls off a trade, the Panthers should be after a productive winger who might be a year away from playing in the same arena where he was drafted. The only way a defenseman’s name is called by Tallon is if one of the big names falls somehow like Cam Fowler did in 2010.

So here we go with my mock draft – the only one I do – up through the Panthers’ selection at 11, which is where I feel they’ll pick. This draft is projected as strong through the top 12 picks, so I’ll look for Tallon to secure a strong prospect and do his wheeling and dealing around July 1.

1 – EDMONTON. This is the no-doubter of all no-doubters. In fact, what would a team have to offer to pry a generational talent away from the club who will now have four – yes, four – No. 1 overall selections skating in its top six? PICK: Connor McDavid, C, Erie Otters (OHL).

2 – BUFFALO. The Sabres weren’t exactly thrilled to have the draft’s second pick, were they? After the lottery loss, the organization’s brass slipped up and expressed disappointment in not being able to give its fans McDavid. Nothing like an American club slighting the best American in the draft. PICK: Jack Eichel, C, Boston University (H-EAST).

3 – ARIZONA. This is where it gets dicey. If there are any moves at the draft, it starts right here. GM Don Maloney has been very active in fielding inquiries around the selection, but I don’t see Florida giving up a lot to move up eight spots. I’ll play it as it lies. PICK: Dylan Strome, C, Erie Otters (OHL).

4 – TORONTO. Oh, the fun that is the Maple Leafs. Always the center of attention, always full of drama, and with the shape the club’s currently in, it’s hard to fathom that they’re only two years removed from that tremendous choke job in Boston in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. There’s a new sheriff in town though. PICK: Mitch Marner, C, London Knights (OHL).

5 – CAROLINA. Florida’s former divisional rival needs serious help. Cam Ward hasn’t been elite in goal, fan favorite Jeff Skinner might be the best trade piece, and enigmatic winger Alex Semin has been a regular in coach Bill Peters’ doghouse. A reliable defenseman to pair ultimately with Justin Faulk will ease the Hurricanes’ pain. PICK: Noah Hanifin, D, Boston College (H-EAST).

6 – NEW JERSEY. The Devils need to get much younger and need help up the middle. The club will be excited to get a playmaking center who was knocked out of the spotlight due to injury. No worries there, though, as he returned to true form and produced. PICK: Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL).

7 – PHILADELPHIA. The obvious pick here by GM Ron Hextall is high-scoring blueliner Ivan Provorov, who played for Brandon – the same as Hextall. But this is Philly, and size, grit and tenacity trump WHL history. This forward’s body in more impressive than his body of work, but the Flyers will be thrilled to choose a talented intimidator who won’t hesitate to throw his body or his fists. PICK: Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL).

8 – COLUMBUS. The Blue Jackets desperately need defense in the system. The WHL’s leading scorer among rookies fits the bill. PICK: Ivan Provorov, D, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL).

9 – SAN JOSE. Plenty of talk surrounds this pick as well, as the Sharks are going through a change at the top, too. But a top collegiate defenseman is well worth the wait. PICK: Zachary Werenski, D, University of Michigan (BIG10).

10 – COLORADO. The Avalanche could use a defenseman, but they will decide to go in another direction with the top 3 defenders off the board. They’ve brought their selection in a number of times and have made no secret about their interest in him. PICK: Pavel Zacha.

 

That leads us to the Florida Panthers.

If the above scenario plays out, Florida will be in excellent position to choose a talented winger who might be fast-tracked to Sunrise. Hanifin, Provonov and Werenski should be gone, so the X factors above are forwards Barzal and Crouse. If either or both falls outside of the top 10 – and that definitely could happen — that means Zacha, Mikko Rantanen, Timo Meier or Kyle Connor slots into their place. But few in the media have the latter two projected in the top 10. Of course, any trades throw this all out of kilter.

Florida’s pick: Mikko Rantanen, RW, TPS (Finland). The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Finn and his story are too much like Aleksander Barkov’s – Tallon’s crown jewel selection – to pass up. Rantanen has been playing against professionals for the last three years in SM-liiga. He has great size, uses it well and is an all-around responsible, dynamic forward who may be NHL-ready now.

Sounds like Barkov, huh?

If a club in the 7-10 range chooses Rantanen, the high-scoring Meier or electrifying Zacha would be fantastic alternatives. I’d prefer the sniperish Meier, who was the best player in the QMJHL last season and has perhaps the most explosive shot in the draft. He’s also a shoot-first player, having led the Q with 316 shots on goal. And what frustrated cry do we hear often at BB&T Center? “Shoot the puck!”

Either way, without doing much tonight – absolutely nothing other than striding to the podium and taking their pick — Tallon and the Panthers will high-five their way out of their barn with a highly-skilled player who is close to playing in the NHL now and projects as a future top 6 difference-maker.

That’s a nice gift for the home fans.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

Friday Options Loom for the #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

This Friday will mark my fourth time covering an NHL Draft in the last five years, and this one should be far different from the previous ones. In fact, this draft could throw more of a curveball at fans and media than the recent drafts.

At Minnesota in 2011, there were talks of Florida trying to move up from No. 3 to first to grab Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but those rumors didn’t come to fruition. I didn’t even bother chatting much with Adam Larsson or Sean Couturier because Tallon loved Jonathan Huberdeau. No point in wasting anyone’s time, right?

After GM Dale Tallon transformed the Panthers with the addition of Brian Campbell and others, Florida was left in Pittsburgh to draft 23rd – moving to the back of the draft floor after making the playoffs. I had my eye that Friday on Teuvo Teravainen, the Finnish right winger I thought would be a great addition, and Jacob Trouba, who was staying at the same hotel as I was. And his family – many of them South Florida residents – and I enjoyed watching the Miami Heat dispatch of Oklahoma City for the NBA title. Both Teravainen and Trouba were longshots to Florida, as the Panthers’ draft position wasn’t accommodating. So I’ll keep my eye on smooth-skating Mike Matheson this season instead.

I skipped the draft at Newark two years ago that nabbed Aleksander Barkov, which is proving to be a fine selection with Florida’s then-need at center. There are no questions about that pick. The key issue from that draft is whether the biggest mistake may have been made by Tampa Bay in passing on Seth Jones, who’s the real deal, with the third pick in favor of Jonathan Drouin, who pretty much had his named etched on the Calder Trophy before last season began. Not only is Drouin not the best rookie in the NHL, he wasn’t even the best rookie in the Sunshine State. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not on record as thinking he’s a bust. It’s too early for that. However, he did have just four goals in 76  games for the highest-scoring offense in the NHL.

The Philadelphia draft was a no-brainer for Tallon in keeping the top pick and selection defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Vancouver and the host Flyers offered some trinkets and beads, but Tallon stood firm and made the right choice. Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander and Leon Draisaitl are fantastic talents who were a pleasure to get to know, especially the German-born Draisaitl, but Ekblad was too good to pass up.

That brings us to this Friday.

Florida is in an unusual situation in owning the 11th pick. That’s an area where a team can easily move up or down, depending on what’s available and whether the club has targeted an individual or not. I think this draft is too deep with talent to trade out of the spot, even in a deal for an elite winger (which I don’t think happens either). In fact, there’s probably a better chance of the Panthers trading up into the 5-10 range if Tallon really likes a player, say, like Mikko Rantanen or Mathew Barzal, who likely slots into that area. Or maybe a high-flying, amped-up Valeri Nichushkin-clone such as Pavel Zacha, who may be a little raw but makes up for it with energy, speed and edginess. With Florida being the host, it makes more sense to see them trading up to get a difference-maker it really wants than trading away that pick or trading back.

And there’s another scenario that’s a possibility. Maybe a longshot but an interesting one to consider.

The Buffalo Sabres get a nice consolation prize on Friday – it’s the old “home version of the game” on the game shows for the contestants who didn’t win – when they get to choose Jack Eichel as the runner-up in the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes. For them, picking second in this draft is a letdown, and  in a very bad PR move, the organization let that slip out after Edmonton won the rights to the first pick. Having another pick at No. 21 likely isn’t thrilling either considering many feel the top 12 is where the talent breaks off, and Buffalo GM Tim Murray will weigh his many options with that second first-rounder.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Tallon contact Murray about Buffalo’s pick at 21. Buffalo also has two second-round selections (Nos. 31 and 51), and a simple swap of first-round selections – Florida getting the No. 21 this Friday, Buffalo getting the Panthers’ first-rounder next year – might be enticing to the Sabres.

Where’s the draft next year? Yep, at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

And Buffalo could feel Florida’s first next year will slot out in the same place as this year’s instead of at No. 21, which is where the Islanders would have picked this year. Does Murray think the Panthers will be a playoff team next year like the Islanders’ or does he feel the Cats will be similar to this year? At worst, Buffalo would have two first-round picks in front of its home crowd.

As for Tallon and the Panthers, they can sit there and take a future top 6 forward at No. 11, then add on 10 picks later with perhaps another forward from a pool of American Paul Bittner or Russians Evgeny Svechnikov or Denis Guryanov. While Tallon hasn’t shown a propensity for drafting Russians, there is no “Russian Factor” with Svechnikov, who played for Cape Breton in the Q and has said his ultimate goal is the NHL. The speedy Guryanov may be too good to pass up at 21. And Tallon did draft Yaroslav Kosov in Minnesota.

Sure, it’s a gamble to trade away a future first-round pick. However, if you think your club next season is bound for the playoffs, putting next year’s pick in the teens, and you can add another talented prospect this weekend, it might be worth the risk to walk out of BB&T Center on Friday with two of the first 21 selections in a very strong draft. True, Florida wouldn’t have a first next season — one it could use at the trade deadline for some help in a playoff push. Yet that’s the gamble, and you err on the side of making the organization stronger.

Of course, this option would result in me not visiting Buffalo a year from now.

Stay tuned Friday morning as I’ll release my mock draft of the top 11 players and who I feel the Cats will select – yes, at No. 11.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers online at TCPalm.com

Jagr Signing a Top Priority for #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

Okay, so there are two weeks left in the season, the Florida Panthers are vying for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, Dan Ellis has just backstopped the biggest win of the year on the road against another playoff contender, and coach Gerard Gallant said the best player on the ice for Florida in that win was Jaromir Jagr?

Yeah, was one or all three of those part of your September predictions for a club that finished with the second-worst points total in the NHL last year?

The crazy ride gets crazier in Boston in what will again be “the biggest game of the year” and another “Game 7,” but for just a moment, let’s look at what the 43-year-old Jagr has done in 14 games with Florida and how he figures in to future plans in South Florida.

First, let’s go back to the afternoon of Feb. 26. I learned of the Jagr deal, with Florida sending back second- and third-round picks to the Devils, by text. While leaving Starbucks, my phone simply popped up with “Jagr to Panthers.” That was it. No details, no terms, not even the other side of the deal with what New Jersey was getting. It was a venti java-spewing moment, but fortunately I hadn’t started the consumption process.

The fallout of the Jagr trade orchestrated by Florida GM Dale Tallon may be the other memorable moment from that day. Hockey pundits and web sites had their instant analyses ready for rollout, and most viewed the Jagr acquisition as pure desperation by Florida, who was trailing Boston in the wildcard hunt by two points. As a letter grade, many doled out the Panthers a Bart Simpson-like “D” rating, while some called Jagr a borderline retired player who would just fade away into the South Florida sunset like most Floridians past their prime. By most, the trade was a stinker.

Fourteen games later, those same naysayers are writing different stories. Jagr has 12 points (4-8) in those games. The Panthers have been in the thick of every one of them, and easily could have beaten the Stars, Rangers, Canadiens and Lightning with a bounce here or there. Florida has made its share of mistakes but has played with or clearly outplayed most clubs during the brief Jagr Era in Sunrise.

Which brings us to this: How brief will that era be?

Tallon caught plenty of flak for the Dave Bolland signing, much of it is warranted. Now, talks between the Panthers and Jagr’s camp have begun. A potential Jagr deal is Dale’s do-over, a mulligan the golfing Tallon would enjoy swinging at in light of the Bolland criticism. However, the reality is that Jagr, a UFA who is making $3.5 million this season, can just walk after these next two weeks.

But I don’t think that happens.

I’ve arrived early to the BB&T Center press box a couple of times the last month, looked through binoculars and watched a lone Panther get on the ice and skate around, working his way through pre-game preparation. Each time it has been the grizzled, gray-stubbled Jagr.

Now that the love affair with the Hamburglar has cooled as Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond has come back to earth after an incredible run, Jagr’s resurgence and Florida’s last-ditch run at a wildcard berth may be the best story in hockey.

Jagr scoring two goals only added to the narrative on Sunday in Canada’s capital. Both were pure goal scorer’s markers – the first a clever shot on the short side against the play’s flow after cutting back against Sens defenseman Mark Methot, the other an incredible wraparound that left ex-Cat Craig Anderson way out of position and the Senators blue line helpless. The latter goal was the kind that happens to the Cats, not the type they net.

With every clang of the crossbar and potential goal that has rolled off a stick in front of a gaping net, Florida fans have clamored louder and repeatedly for a legit finisher to join the Panthers. Well, he’s here. Jagr, now with 720 career goals, is obviously not the player he was 10 years ago, but he’s also obviously more worthy of the minutes he’s getting with Florida than he did with New Jersey. His points pace would be 70 for a season, and let’s not forget that Nick Bjugstad topped the Panthers last season with an NHL team record-low 38 points.

Jagr’s line consisting of center left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov has produced 13 goals and 25 assists since 68 has arrived. The top line is the centerpiece of a promising young team that many view as a Cup contender for years to come.

“They’re so talented,” Jagr said of his linemates after the 4-2 win over Ottawa. “They’re going to surprise the league in two years. They may win the Cup.”

Tallon needs to make sure that Jagr is here for that.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers “stay in the moment,” beat Bruins 2-1, gain a point

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE –After Florida’s 2-1 Saturday night shootout win over Boston courtesy of Roberto Luongo and Brandon Pirri, Panthers captain Willie Mitchell was asked what the young Panthers could possibly learn from the enormous moment at the BB&T Center.

Frankly, there hadn’t been a moment like that since April 26, 2012, when Adam Henrique broke the hearts of the entire arena.

Mitchell’s advice to his young teammates was clear: “We believe in here that if we stay in the present and take care of what’s ahead of us, we’ll be there until the end. You just try to stay in the moment.”

And after a slow start by the Panthers – the first 15 minutes were very nervy ones by the home team – there were plenty of moments.

The Cats settled in and battled the Bruins, desperately chipping away at a 5-point wildcard deficit in a game that was like a heavyweight match. In the second and third periods, the physical play reached a crescendo with the Panthers doing the majority of the smacking.

“You’re playing Boston,” said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “That’s what they bring game in and game out. There wasn’t much space out there, that’s for sure. We didn’t have much time with the puck; you had to move your feet to open up a spot. You needed to be physical to create opportunities. Our forwards did a really good job of that in the second half of the second and the third. We really got physical, created those holes and created opportunities for us.”

The two expressions I heard most often in the Florida dressing room post-game from Gudbranson , Luongo and Pirri were the lack of space on the ice and the playoff-style energy to the contest. Gudbranson said the Panthers didn’t designate a must-get number of points in the three tilts versus the Bruins, the first of which went to Florida in a single-point gain.

“Our playoffs started a long time ago. Knowing where we are in the standing in relation to Boston, it had to be tonight. It was a physical affair all night long. They brought it, we brought it. We’re really happy to come out on the top end,” Gudbranson said.

“At this point of the season, you’re going shift by shift, trying to match the intensity of your linemates and teammates, and trying to keep that strong momentum going forward.”

Luongo said the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable. He easily stopped Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand before Pirri slowly skated in and 5-holed Tuukka Rask.

“It was a playoff game, playoff intensity,” Luongo said. “You could feel it. There was not a lot of room on the ice. We’re happy we got the win; you’d have liked to have got it in regulation, obviously, but we’ll take the two points and move on here.”

In his second start since returning from injury, Luongo said he had no history on Boston center Ryan Spooner, the Bruins’ last chance at prolonging the game. Florida improved to 8-10 in shootouts  while Boston slipped to 3-9.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Luongo said. “Once he went to the backhand, I tried to close the 5-hole and get a glove on it. He wasn’t able to get it high enough to get it over my shoulder, which was nice. Whenever you’re involved in those (playoff) types of games, the crowd goes along with it and it brings the energy in the building.”

Luongo has seen Pirri’s game-winning move on Rask, too. The Finnish goalie stopped Pirri in a 2-on-1 in overtime, then Pirri’s last blast of the 5-minute session whistled by the near post off a pass from Aleksander Barkov.

“Rask made one huge save on him, and (Pirri) missed on another, but Pirri’s so good and patient with the puck in the shootout. I see it in practice every day. It’s a tough move to stop,” Luongo said.

Pirri laugh and added of his molasses-like approach in the shootout: “I give Lu fits with that. It takes too long and wastes time.”

It wasn’t a perfect night for Florida. In fact, the scenario that played out was maybe third-best in the pecking order. Ottawa won over Toronto – whom the Senators play two more times – and Boston gained a point.

As always, there were many near misses for the Cats, too, most noticeably Dave Bolland failing on a tap-in. The center had a chance to quiet the belly-aching over his acquisition, and his assist on Jimmy Hayes’ tally in the first was a beautiful backhanded pass. But he came up short on Rask’s doorstep in his efforts to be the game’s No. 1 star. ESPN had that save in its top 10 plays, but the result was more about Bolland whiffing than Rask stonewalling.

Still, it was perhaps the best night of the year in Sunrise. A dramatic win over a tough opponent whom Florida has struggled against, all in the thick of a playoff race and played out in a front of a loud crowd.

“We’re a good group in here, and we know where we are. There’s a very, very strong belief in here that we’re going to make the playoffs and go far in the playoffs once we get there. We’re just going to continue the way we’re going and stay strong,” Gudranson said.

Florida did just that. They held strong, put pressure on Boston and won a game that felt like the postseason all over again — just with no Henrique ending.

They stayed in what amounted to a very important moment.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

#FlaPanthers Frustrate #NHLJets as Jagr Line Rolls On

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – While working the Winnipeg dressing room for the AP following Thursday night’s 4-2 win by Florida, allowing the Panthers to keep pace with Boston, I couldn’t help but hear one word tossed about repeatedly by Jets coach Paul Maurice’s club.

Frustration.

“I think frustrating is the word,” said Winnipeg’s Drew Stafford, who scored a goal to tie the game at 2-2 in the third period. “Now is the time we need every point possible. We just need to figure out a way to turn this thing around.”

While Stafford, acquired from Buffalo in the Evander Kane trade, was frustrated by his new team’s shortcomings, much of them on the ice, some in the standings, a good portion of that all came back to Florida.

“They were real stingy in the way they played. The shots were pretty low. There weren’t too many quality chances. They got a couple of breaks on their goals. We just need to show a little more desperation, a little more urgency,” Stafford said.

Standout Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba said, “They’re a good team and play a good game…They were fast and are a big team; they were good in the neutral zone, and I think we kind of lost our speed toward the end there. I mean, it’s a little frustrating, but that’s how it goes.”

And as for goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who started his season so strongly but has allowed seven goals in his last two starts?

“I felt good,” said Hutchinson, who is now part of an apparent growing goaltending problem in Manitoba. “I thought I made some big saves during the course of the game. They didn’t throw many easy saves at me all night. Whenever they shot, they were either shooting for a deflection or it was a good scoring chance.”

What wasn’t frustrating for Florida (30-23-14) were the good moments that happened – and there were many.

The club played from out front or was tied the entire 60 minutes, and didn’t get taken to overtime after relinquishing a late lead against a playoff-caliber team it has been pounded by before. Derek MacKenzie, moved to wing upon Dave Bolland’s return as a fourth-line center, played perhaps his best game as a Panther, and the chemistry between the two resulted in a “Goal of the Year” nominee. Goalie Dan Ellis was good again, which is an observation absolutely no Florida fan was saying one year ago. Florida special teams were excellent, too, killing off both Winnipeg power plays and capitalizing on one of their own three when Brad Boyes went into the blue paint and created real frustration for Hutchinson and unfortunate defenseman Adam Pardy, who own-goaled his goalie.

Then there’s that Jonathan Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov-Jaromir Jagr line.

At 43, Jagr showed that his experience and perhaps tutelage is paying off big dividends. He should have drawn a penalty in the first penalty when he was grabbed behind the net and had his stick held while clearly having the best chance at getting a loose puck behind Hutchinson. He did draw a holding penalty from Tobias Enstrom in the second period after Boyes’ man-advantage goal 1:42 earlier, giving the Panthers a chance to go up 3-1.

“He might be old, but he’s really good,” said Huberdeau, who recorded two assists. “He’s so good on the ice. We’re all playing simple. He really helps us. He has so many guys on him so it opens us for us.”

Jagr, in the final year of a deal that is paying him $3.5 million this season, has clearly made an impression on the former Calder Trophy winner and the 19-year-old Barkov. The puck-possessing Jagr appears to be the match that has sparked Huberdeau, who struggled mightily last year, and the pass-oriented Barkov, who brilliantly beat Hutchinson for the game-winner by using blueliner Mark Stuart as a screen on a wicked shot that rang off the inside of the left post.

“We’re all pretty strong on the boards,” Jagr said of his linemates. “It’s in our advantage once we’re in the offensive zone and are cycle skating. It’s up to us. (Barkov’s) shot was good.

“He’s a passer first. It doesn’t matter what you tell him, he’s going to pass first. But he had no other option — nobody was close to him — so he shot it. He has a good shot, so it’s good for him. Once we started skated again – not everybody’s young, but we have a young team. Once we skated and played offensive zone…we can beat anybody.”

So on a great night all around for the Panthers against a tough opponent who had thrashed (sorry about that) them 8-2 in Winnipeg, Jagr assessed his new teammates by simply saying, “We can beat anybody.”

If Thursday night was a preview of what lies ahead for Florida’s future, then one more year of Jagr in Panther red might ease some of the team’s own frustration.

Scoring.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers notes: Kulikov, Shootouts and Playoffs

By Bill Whitehead

Monday’s suspension of Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was warranted. It’s the kind of dangerous hit the NHL is trying to get away from and put in its past like the era without visors and immovable steel goals that were anchored into the ice.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking there isn’t another name than had an impact on Kulikov receiving a 4-game suspension without pay. And that name?

Tyler Seguin.

If Kulikov’s blow below the waist would have been to the leg of Shawn Horcoff or Travis Moen or almost any other Dallas Star, there’s no way Kulikov would have been hit as hard and received the punishment he did.

But Kulikov hit the Stars’ star.

Seguin, a 29-goal scorer and an exciting point per game player, is one of the league’s stars, and let’s face it, the NHL protects its big names. Kulikov, who has no history of dirty play, was also a bit of a victim of the media on the night after the hit.

During intermission of Saturday night’s Toronto-Montreal tilt, the majority of the Sportsnet crew chose to vilify Kulikov, whose rebound from last year’s terrible play on the back end is one of the Panthers’ best stories this season. His presence was missed in the St. Louis game, though the performance by call-up Shane O’Brien, a steady Alex Petrovic and an increasingly impressive Steve Kampfer became better after a sketchy first period against the physical Blues.

I suggested Sunday night that the Russian defenseman would get five games, then maybe get a game or two reduction. My reasoning for it being as harsh was this: Seguin, the Sportsnet team’s over-the-top persecution of Kulikov, Florida’s tenuous relationship with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and, well, Seguin. And Seguin.

But here are some names of players who were scofflaws when it came to dishing out hits that were clearly over-the-line against Cats yet received no suspensions: Anton Volchenkov, Jaroslav Spacek, Mike Richards, Radko Gudas, Rick Nash and Keith Yandle. Surely there are some offenders I’m leaving out.

Kulikov deserved a suspension because the NHL is trying to put that type of dangerous play in the past, like the hit by Brad Marchand on Sami Salo – very similar contact. It’s unfortunate what happened to Seguin, which hurts the Stars’ playoff hopes.

The NHL, though, carried the punishment a couple of games too far.

 

GOING WITH YOUR GUT: Florida coach Gerard Gallant has made it known he plays a hunch at times and goes with a gut feeling, but his Sunday shootout decisions have left many puzzled, myself included.

If you want to find the origin of the recent stretch of misery, look no further than the game against the Nashville Predators. The talk after the game was, hey, playoff teams don’t blow 2-goal leads in the third period at home and make matters worse by losing in the shootout. However, that’s exactly what Florida did.

But what was perplexing was not so much Gallant’s decision to trot out the four shooters he did – Brandon Pirri, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland – but the three sharpshooters he didn’t use at all. That would be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. You can make a case for the first three of Pirri, Boyes and Bjugstad, but not Bolland over Huby, Barky or Jussi. Ever.

There was more.

In the 5-round shootout against St. Louis, he failed to call on No. 16 to go out there and win it. Instead he slipped in Jimmy Hayes, a brutish net-front presence who isn’t exactly Phil Kessel-like in his one-on-one skills. Shootouts are about dazzling dangles and dipsy-do. That’s not Hayes’ game. Barkov, who beat Pittsburgh with perhaps the shootout goal of the year, must be wondering what he has to do to crack the top five in future shootouts.

Every Florida 5-rounder should have some combination of Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Boyes, Barkov and Jokinen starting it.

Every. Single. Time.

 

WATCH OUT BELOW: Florida’s focus since the turn of the year has been the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, who linger above the playoff cut line. However, the club just below the Panthers – the Philadelphia Flyers — have made a serious push and trail Florida by just two points with the Cats having a game in hand. Philly (24-22-10) has transformed from sellers to potential buyers as the deadline approaches, buoyed mainly by their current 7-1-3 run. The Flyers open a 3-game home stretch with Columbus tonight then Buffalo on Thursday, so they could put even more pressure on Florida.

As for the Panthers (24-19-12), tonight’s game against a wreck of a Toronto team is not a must win, it’s a must-must win. Very musty. Double musty. The Maple Leafs (23-29-5) have been in a disastrous freefall since the Panthers’ 6-4 victory spurred by a 4-goal third period on Dec. 28, and we’re currently in Day 3 of the Leaf Rebuild that has already seen Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli leave Leaf Nation. Tonight Toronto will play fast as they did in Sunrise, has ex-Cat Olli Jokinen on the roster and called up prospect Brandon Kozun from the the AHL Marlies.

But the Leafs are damaged goods at this point, and anything less than two points tonight will be a huge letdown and leave the #OneUnderTheSun crowd quite upset – which they should be. Florida blew extra points against Nashville and St. Louis and really wasted strong goaltending efforts in their last three contests against Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis, coming away with just one point.

Yet as Cats’ broadcaster Steve Goldstein said post-game on Sunday, we’re talking the possibility of Florida Panthers playoff hockey as the trade deadline nears. Florida looks now more like buyers instead of sellers, and fans are studying the standings, out-of-town scoreboard and upcoming schedules as if they were cramming for finals.

No one saw that one coming in September.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Go for Spectacular Road Trip in Winnipeg

By Bill Whitehead

When the last shift had been skated at Edmonton’s Rexall Place and the Florida Panthers had completed yet another win, an observation came up: “So this is what a really successful road trip feels like.” Florida is 4-1-0 on its current road swing that started in the East and then moved on to Western Canada.

Most of the banter in the BB&T press box before the 6-game cross-country trek began centered on the notion that seven or eight points out of Florida (20-11-9) in some difficult places to play would be a fine trip and allow the Cats to keep their position in the wildcard chase. After the 4-2 victory over the Oilers and with one more contest remaining, I tweeted this:

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Now the Panthers have the chance to transform “excellent” into “spectacular” – if they can win Tuesday night in a very tough MTS Centre in Winnipeg to finish the trip. It’s a game I circled as the toughest of the six.

The Winnipeg Jets, the Cats’ former divisional foe, are returning from a 3-game Western swing of their own, having lost to Arizona and splitting shootouts with Los Angeles and Anaheim. Winnipeg collected three points of six and currently occupies the first wildcard berth in the Western Conference with a 21-14-8 mark.

And speaking of the Jets, here’s an admission: I watch them. A lot. After they left Florida’s division and conference, I was still drawn to them for some reason. And having no genuine allegiance to any other club in the West, I viewed them similarly as I did when they were in the Eastern Conference, just without the dislike naturally reserved for divisional rivals.

That said, a Florida win would indeed move the excellent to the spectacular because, frankly, the Panthers haven’t historically pulled off big stretches of road wins, dispatching of opponents from city to city and leaving crowds mostly silent when the goal scorers and stars of the game are announced. Florida has left four of five home crowds filing out quietly, likely complaining about their team but confessing, “You know, that’s a pretty good Florida team.”

So what are the Panthers facing in Winnipeg, the Slurpee Capital of the World?

For starters, they’re facing a healthier squadron of Jets than were available a few weeks ago. Winnipeg has been hit hard by injuries, predominantly on the blue line. Standout young defenseman Jacob Trouba (upper body) is out until next month, while Grant Clitsome (back surgery) is gone for the season. Mark Stuart, Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian have all recently returned. Imagine Florida being without five of their six blueliners at one time.

Also on the injury front, electrifying winger Evander Kane – expected to be out until February with a lower-body injury – missed just five games and scored against Anaheim in his return. Dustin Byfuglien is as imposing and dynamic as ever, and Blake Wheeler is a personal favorite who leads in assists (21) and sets up top goal scorers Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little, with 16 each. Former Panther Michael Frolik, who will be a UFA this offseason, is having a strong year as well and has found a role with Winnipeg just as he did in Chicago.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, from the same hometown as Frolik, has always been an obstacle for Florida, but the Cats’ biggest concern likely will be 24-year-old upstart Michael Hutchinson, who was minding the net for the ECHL’s Ontario Reign last year. He’s grabbed the No. 1 goalie spot from Pavelec by going 11-4-2 with a 2.00 GAA and a .931 save percentage. With the Czech goalie having played in Anaheim on Sunday, the money’s on the right-handed catching Hutchinson to be in goal versus Florida, though one never really knows how Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice is going to shuffle his backstops.

Winnipeg is 21st on the power play, 10th on the penalty kill, 22nd in scoring, seventh in goals against and 24th in faceoffs. And we all know from those Southeast Division tilts that the MTS Centre is problematic: It’s a small barn, the crowd is often boisterous and the Jets feed off that energy with physical play. A 7-2 drubbing of the Cats there in April of 2013 comes to mind.

The Panthers will need a pretty spectacular effort to move “excellent” to “spectacular,” but they’ve been doing it this whole road trip and most of the season.

It’s just what these Cats do.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com