#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

Ex-Cat Goc Sees Improvement in Young #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Pittsburgh Penguins center Marcel Goc isn’t surprised by the development of the Florida Panthers and the position they’re in.

“They played well against us (Saturday). They came hard at us with a strong forecheck, and every time they had a chance they threw the puck at the net. They tried to create trouble for us,” said the former Panther Monday following morning skate.

“But I see a few faces I don’t recognize from when I played (there).”

Goc will play in his first game back at BB&T Center after being traded Mar. 5 for third- and fifth-round picks. The German center said he isn’t shocked at how quickly Florida (14-9-8) has transformed from lottery team to a potential playoff club.

“Their young guys – Barky and Bjugstad – they play well, and they try to play them a lot so they get more confident,” Goc said. “What are they, 21, 22ss or something like that? I think they have a bright future ahead of them. They have more consistency from last year than they did in their first year, but that’s the case with everybody. They’re going to be a big part of this organization.

“I worked on faceoffs with them a lot together. It’s funny taking them across from them now.”

Goc has three points (1-2) in his 30 games played with the Penguins this year.

MORE MUMPS – Pittsburgh, who has been saddled with a bout of the mumps, sent three more players home before the game against Florida. Centers Steve Downie and Brandon Sutter and goalie Thomas Greiss all flew back to Pittsburgh to undergo further testing.

Pittsburgh iced just 18 skaters at morning skate, with goaltending coach Mike Bales tending net opposite Marc-Andre Fleury. As of morning skate, the Penguins featured 11 forwards, seven defensemen and one goalie.

The Penguins called up goalie Jeff Zatkoff from Wilkes-Barre in the afternoon to back up Fleury. The AHL team last played Saturday and won’t playing again until this Saturday.

FEISTY FOLLOW-UP? – The two clubs combined for 76 penalty minutes Saturday night in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 home win, but Florida coach Gerard Gallant and players from both teams said they didn’t expect a flare-up in what should be Florida’s biggest home crowd of the season. The Panthers racked up 32 penalty minutes, the most accumulated since 37 against Toronto on April 10, 2014.

“What ‘tonight’?” Gallant answered when asked if Florida would miss Shawn Thornton’s toughness. “We’re playing the best team in the league, and I don’t think it’ll be about toughness tonight. It’s going to be about working hard, speed, competing and playing hard. You don’t see those games anymore.”

Emotional Florida winger Scottie Upshall, usually in the middle of the fray, received just two minutes for tripping Evgeni Malkin. Upshall and his teammates said staying penalty-free was more important than settling the score in a playoff-style matchup.

“We hope to stay out of the box. Penalties are going to hurt you. I actually like the 2-game series. I kind of think they’re fun. I like the way they lead up. It’s a little mini playoffs series, and guys really hone in on the little things,” Upshall said.

“We know that Pittsburgh’s a great team and if you give them power plays they’re going to win. We need to stay disciplined tonight and play hard. That (killing off six Pittsburgh power plays) isn’t going to happen in back-to-back games against those guys.”

Nick Bjugstad likes playing in the high-tension games where it gets a little chippy, and even had a few in college at Minnesota.

“It was more gritty than I expected it to be…That game was just more intense. This game might not be as intense, you just never really know. You never expect something like that last game, but they’re fun because everyone’s into it, everyone’s battling,” he said.

“We’d always get into it with North Dakota, but there’s no fighting so that changes (things).”

Added former Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad: “Obviously, you want to keep calm and try to get the game back in your control. You want to find a calm center to your game and not take calculated risks.

The nose is just fine

The nose is just fine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I didn’t have many games like that in the OHL, maybe one or two a year. Usually against London or someone like that, but not even close to the caliber it is in the NHL.”

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

#FlaPanthers Ekblad Living Up to the Hype

By Bill Whitehead

It would probably be asking too much for Aaron Ekblad to wax too sentimentally over returning to Philadelphia, site of where he was drafted just six months ago. Ekblad went through all the fanfare then of being the likely No. 1 pick – visiting downtown, hitting Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks and taking batting practice at Citizens Bank Park.

But it’s unlikely the emotions of coming back to the City of Brotherly Love (it’s actually his second time back, having played in Florida’s 4-1 loss on Nov. 6) will faze the 18-year-old defenseman because, well, we’ve learned that not much affects Ekblad at all.

Not the media and fan attention, not the immediate success, not recently being named the third star for the first week of this month, and not being thrust into the Calder Memorial Trophy race for the season’s top rookie, likely led by Nashville’s 20-year-old Swede Filip Forsberg and his 12 goals, 18 assists and point-a-game pace.

In fact, Ekblad’s fantastic story from heralded, can’t miss prospect to rookie blueliner who’s fitting right in should have added another chapter Tuesday in Florida’s epic, almost neverending 20-round shootout win over the Capitals. After Tom Wilson missed to open the top of the fifteenth round, Ekblad had a chance to win it, and while few have been able to deny the Ontario native this year, Washington goalie Braden Holtby managed the feat. No knock on fellow blueliner Dylan Olsen – one of five Cats shooters who kept victory possible — but if you were betting on which defenseman would be successful late in the shootout, the smart money would’ve been on Ekblad, not Olsen.

All of this credit goes to Florida GM Dale Tallon.

Tallon’s phone rang constantly with the proposal of deals in June when the Panthers’ brass was deciding on whom to take. Yet Tallon said the day before the draft he knew the name of the player he was drafting and felt confident that wouldn’t change over the next 24 hours. Of course, he wasn’t tipping his hand.

On the day of the draft, the rumors kept floating. Vancouver really wanted in, and defenseman Jason Garrison and the Canucks’ first-round pick at No. 6 (eventually Jake Virtanen) were involved. The Maple Leafs popped up in the conversation, too, and Toronto’s pick at No. 8 seemed like a prime spot with Tallon having praised the offensive wizardry of William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, who were expected to be taken in that range. The Flyers, trying to incite the home crowd, also made pitches, one rumored to include Vincent Lecavalier among others. Heck, maybe even a Schenn or two could have been had in the right deal.

 

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Tallon, though, stuck to his guns and took the BPA – Best Player Available – and went with Ekblad. He did create a little drama by mentioning the Ontario Hockey League – the league of both Ekblad and Sam Bennett – but ultimately no one was shocked by the pick.

 

Now, 29 games and 18 points into Ekblad’s first season, not a soul in Florida would do anything differently at that draft if there were a do-over. No one would take ex-Cat and current Tampa Bay 30-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison and his 3-point, 13-assist performance in four more starts, plus the pick and other spare parts from Vancouver, over Ekblad. Lecavalier is 34 and played in just 16 games and has fewer goals than Ekblad. Brayden Schenn is on pace for a nice 20-plus goal season, but he and the Flyers’ pick at No. 17 wouldn’t have been worth it, so that would be a no as well. Nylander and Ehlers were chosen by Toronto and Winnipeg at eighth and ninth, respectively, but Ekblad’s contributing to Florida’s playoff push right now while those two are still working on their NHL futures.

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Ekblad’s been that good. Just ask his teammates.

“I call his stick a slingshot because (the shot’s) off so quick and pretty hard. He’s a good defenseman to have. He’s always getting pucks through and always making good plays,” Nick Bjugstad said recently after Ekblad’s 3-assist game against Buffalo.

Added Tomas Kopecky: “He’s such a smart player. He kind of reminds me of Nick Lidstrom. He’s so quick on that blue line, and every shot is getting through. For the guys standing in front (of the net), it’s so easy when you know that puck is going to arrive. They all get there.”

When Ekblad was reminded that he was among the league’s leading scoring defensemen, he put that all into perspective, too, saying, “Those guys are great players. I’m sure they’ll surpass me again. I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that. I’m happy to be producing…our guys are making great plays and giving me that opportunity.”

Tallon praised Ekblad’s character and all-around game over the summer in Philadelphia. And the former Barrie Colts defenseman, as humbly as possible, assessed his game by saying he was solid in every phase of play. He reiterated this in every interview, whether it was the first time we talked to him or third or fourth.

In 2006 after a loss on Monday Night Football, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green lashed out at the media after his club blew a lead to the Chicago Bears. Green yelled emphatically and repeatedly that the “Bears are what we thought they were.”

Aaron Ekblad definitely is who Dale Tallon thought he was and who we are learning he is.

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

#FlaPanthers Goaltending Impresses Hurricanes

By Bill Whitehead

Working for the Associated Press last night had me racing toward the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room following their 1-0 loss at the hands, gloves, sticks and pads of Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya in a combined 33-save performance. While the Florida room was festive and thankful for a pre-Thanksgiving two points, the Hurricanes were left shaking their heads at an NHL-leading ninth road loss.

Coach Bill Peters, whose club was outshot 16-5 in the first period, saw Carolina rebound and outplay Florida for the last 40 minutes. The Hurricanes held a 28-12 shot advantage in that span as the Panthers managed to collapse and hang on.

“I think it’s more of what we did or didn’t do rather than the goaltender,” said Peters, who was impressed with the line of Jeff Skinner-Victor Rask-Andrej Nestrasil in peppering Florida’s goalies. “If you go back to our last four or five games, we’ve got to make it harder on the goaltender. There’s some quantity in shots, but there needs to be more quality.”

Other Canes, though, pointed to the stellar work of Montoya, who hopped off the bench and replaced Luongo after Shawn Thornton’s slashing penalty 9:38 into the second period.

“The goalies are so good in this league that you’ve got to bear down,” said Carolina goalie Cam Ward. “For me as a goaltender, I know what it’s like to come off the bench, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Kudos to Montoya. Once he went in, we really started to put the shots on him. He made some big saves in the end.”

However, Ward admitted, “Luongo made probably made the save of the year.”

Skinner was part of two great saves by Luongo just before the 35-year-old goaltender exited with what the Panthers said wasn’t a significant injury. The “save of the year” Ward referred to was a diving one with his glove after Rask deked left. The other was when Skinner skated past Aaron Ekblad on the left side and tried to score from in tight.

“There’s not a lot of space there in front of the net, and I was battling through guys. I just couldn’t get enough on it to lift it and get one for us,” Skinner said.

The sweet-skating Skinner also said the time to get Montoya was midway through the second when Luongo left. Allowing Montoya to warm up put the backup netminder in a groove.

“He was playing pretty well. It’s not the easiest thing coming in off the bench. He played a good game. Early on, we could’ve done a better job of getting pucks on the net against him. We (pressed) but couldn’t find that one,” Skinner said.

“He played well.”

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

#FlaPanthers Jimmy Hayes Has to Move Those Feet

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Wednesday morning – and perhaps it was really Monday night – could have been better for Florida Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes.

Hayes, tied for fourth in team scoring with nine points, was one of the last Panthers to head off the ice at BB&T Center, strolling in hot and sweaty along with defenseman Colby Robak, as Florida wrapped up morning skate in preparation for its game against former Southeastern Division rival Carolina.

The extra skating meant the pair would likely be scratched for the 7:30 game against the Hurricanes (6-11-3). Coach Gerard Gallant said Scottie Upshall (lower body) would likely be out “a week for sure” due to his hard hit into the boards Monday night. Upshall was wearing a walking boot Tuesday. Derek MacKenzie, who felt flu-like Tuesday, was expected to play.

Gallant suggested Hayes’ potential scratch stemmed from effort.

“He’s a guy who sat in the stands the first few games, and he’s played hard for us,” said Gallant. “But we’ve got to keep on Jimmy and make sure he’s working. He’s a big guy. When he’s effective, he skates hard and moves his feet and is an important guy for us.”

And when he’s not moving those feet anchoring his mammoth frame?

“Everybody’s different. Some guys you have to push them a little harder,” Gallant said. “For me, I talk to Jimmy quite a bit and say, ‘When you’re playing well you’re moving your feet.’ These big guys look lazy out there at times…We keep telling him, ‘You’re a good hockey player and a goal scorer. Get to the net, move to the net and make sure you’re working hard.’

“He’s working hard, and he’s a good kid. We like what we’re seeing from him. Goals are scored around the blue paint. When you work hard to get there and you’re a big-bodied guy and tough to move, you’ve got to pay a price to score goals.”

Hayes is tied with Brad Boyes in points (9) despite having played in only 13 of the 19 games for the Panthers (7-6-6). Jussi Jokinen leads with 12 points, followed by Nick Bjugstad and rookie Aaron Ekblad with 11 each.

Hayes, originally drafted by Toronto, and teammate Dylan Olsen, were traded to Florida last Nov. 14 in a deal that sent Kris Versteeg back to Chicago. Hayes was playing in Rockford (AHL) at the time but saw the opportunity in Florida.

“It was a new team and a chance to establish myself. I’m grateful and happy for that opportunity. I feel like I’m a full-time NHLer now and starting to contribute the way I want to. It’s good not to be the guy walking around on eggshells not sure where he’s going to be every day. I never say I’m complacent, but it’s good to have a role on an NHL team,” said Hayes, who missed six of Florida’s first eight games in October.

The Boston College alum said he knows he has to play near the blue paint.

“It’s where I’ve been my whole career being 6-foot-5, so I just had to take hold of (the spot) as a pro. Not many guys go there and stuff, so I was able to establish a spot there,” he said.

Vincent Trocheck and Tomas Fleischmann, both scratched Monday, are expected to be in the lineup in place of Hayes and Upshall, while Olsen replaces Robak.

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

No Room for Grimaldi Right Now With Cats

By Bill Whitehead

As stunning as the news was last Tuesday that Rocco Grimaldi was being called up from San Antonio so he could help out in Los Angeles, the word Sunday that he had been sent back down was, well, non-stunning. After sparking a rally in Nashville that helped the Panthers shock the Music City faithful and had them staying a little later at Bridgestone Arena than expected, the Cats decided to ship Grimaldi back to the AHL.

No surprise there.

First, understanding the connection with Grimaldi is necessary. The first NHL Draft that I covered was the 2011 one in St. Paul, a weekend that produced Calder Trophy-winning rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, Grimaldi in a second-day shocker, Vincent Trocheck and other exciting prospects like Kyle Rau, Jonathan Racine, Yaroslav Kosov and Logan Shaw.

Being drawn to and liking the 5-foot-6 Grimaldi, a polite, forthright, devout son of parents in law enforcement, proved to be as easy as Florida GM Dale Tallon picking the California native with the 33rd selection overall. Grimaldi was cordial in speaking with the media, had a plan of playing in college at North Dakota and expected to be with the Panthers after that. The one word I left Minnesota with to describe Grimaldi after talking to him was “determined,” which probably has plenty to do with his upbringing, skill level and competitive spirit, perhaps due to his physical stature.

Fans loved him and lined up to meet the 21-year-old forward in camp. His play in the preseason on a line with close friend Trocheck (read about their friendship) and Quinton Howden had fans loving him even more. His play in seven NHL games so far has only fortified Cats fans’ opinions, and their ire at him being sent down again is justified.

But there’s just no room on this roster.

The injured forwards who traveled with the Panthers on their recent 2-1-1 road swing against Western Conference playoff teams are getting healthy. Sean Bergenheim, Brandon Pirri and Dave Bolland all skated and appear close to returning. Bolland has been day-to-day since being injured in the season’s fourth game – Gerard Gallant’s first win – on Oct. 17 in Buffalo. Florida was 1-2-1 after that Roberto Luongo 1-0 shutout; they’re now 7-5-6. That’s how long Bolland has been out.

Yet Bolland has to play. He wasn’t brought in by Tallon just to mentor upstarts Grimaldi and Trocheck at practice and sit in the press box on game night. Earning $5.5 million this year and also the next four, No. 63 must be on the ice. His contract and keen ability to be injury-prone may irk fans, but has he been bad for Florida so far? A fair assessment can’t be made over four games played – four games, mind you, where the Cats were deplorable, when everyone thought the sky was falling, and when all talk of the Panthers around the league usually ended with “McDavid Sweepstakes.”

Bergenheim needs to be in, too. He scored the only goal in that Buffalo win, and when healthy – a big assumption – he’s productive. Same with Pirri, who Heimlich Maneuvered the club when the offense was gagging on early-season fumbling and bumbling. The healthy ones are making their cases as well. Tomas Kopecky contributes a ton, while Tomas Fleischmann played his best hockey at the end of the road trip. Scottie Upshall, who missed the last two games, is an emotional player who leaves it all on the ice, often with good results.

It’s a forward-filled roster that’s bursting at the seams. It’s like a fat man after a cheap lunch-time buffet: swelled, plump, and with few options.

Grimaldi will be back at some point this season. Injuries open up spots all the time, and his talents are undeniable. He’s fast, relentless and low to the ice (naturally). And on a team that’s pass-happy, he’s generally a shoot-first guy. His bond with Trocheck is tight, too, and the duo should be paired up in Florida red sweaters for years to come. Plus, if you’re really upset that he was reassigned to the Lone Star State, find solace in that he’s still in the organization; he possesses the kind of talent that could easily have been the centerpiece in some offseason trade, though there was no talk one was in the works.

My least favorite player quote right now – perhaps of all-time and you hear it often – is, “It is what it is.” I’ve heard it in baseball clubhouses, NASCAR garages, football locker rooms, hockey dressing rooms. You name the sport and designated changing room or interview area and I’ve heard it uttered when, frankly, the athlete had nothing else to say. As an aside, I’d love to hear an athlete say for once, “It’s not what it is. Really, it’s something entirely different that you couldn’t comprehend at all. It simply isn’t what it is.”

But this Florida Panthers’ roster? It is what it is.

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