Florida Falls 5-0 in Game 1 of Doubleheader


SUNRISE — Funny, I get out of working baseball for 2018 and what’s the first thing I get when I come down to the BB&T Center for Florida Panthers hockey?

A doubleheader.

Anyway, there’s nothing quite like the annual twi-night doubleheader that kicks off the brief NHL preseason. It’s a lot of hockey, but there can ever be too much puck, so hey, let’s keep this as our September tradition.

The Preds rolled in for a pair, and here are some quick bits from Game 1 of a long day/night double-dip in Sunrise:

Florida iced a squad that featured many players who will be among the first cuts in camp while Nashville had Kyle Turris, Viktor Arvidsson, Calle Jarnkrok and P.K. Subban, with the latter two scoring goals in the first two periods as the Preds held a 2-0 lead.

The Panthers generated little offense in the first 40 minutes. The highlights came on the defensive play of goalie Michael Hutchinson, who stopped 1-on-1 shots by Yannik Weber and ex-Cats forward Rocco Grimaldi, and Bobby Farnham, who appeared to hit everyone wearing the visiting white.

Grimaldi tipped in a shot by Weber to make it 3-0 in the third, but Maxim Mamin was the most visible player when it came to Florida’s scoring chances in the period.

The Russian forward was stuffed by Preds backup goalie Thomas McCollum in close in the first two minutes then missed a backhander on a breakaway minutes later. He soon drew a penalty when Viktor Arvidsson had to hook him at 9:42 as Mamim was flying in for another chance.

BIDING HIS TIME — No. 3 goalie Michael Hutchinson gave up five goals on 31 shots and said the traffic was his biggest problem as Subban and Grimaldi’s goal came with some clutter in front of him.

Hutchinson, 28, said he understands his role with the Panthers and is just taking care of his own business as he slots behind Roberto Luongo and James Reimer.

“I just focus on myself,” said Hutchinson, a member of the Winnipeg organization from 2013-18 after being drafted by Boston in the third round in 2008. “I try to improve my game and make a good impression.”

After the Panthers played four goalies last season due to injuries to Luongo and Reimer, Hutchinson said he saw Florida as a good destination.

“You’ve seen it the last few years throughout the whole entire league (that) there are few teams that get through a full year with only two goalies. If you want to make a deep run, you need three goalies to make a push for the playoffs,” the right-handed catching Hutchinson said.

“Every organization is kind of realizing that now and that’s an important position to have.”

ANG FAST — Forward Jonathan Ang’s days in camp are likely numbered, but the speedy winger made an impression on Alex Petrovic, showing off the jets and beating Nashville defenders, especially in the third period.

“That’s huge,” Ang said when told of the compliment Petro gave him for making some standout plays driving hard to the net. “That’s what you try to do here — do your best. When someone says that, it’s nice to hear. You’ve got to keep going to and playing hard.

“Ever since I was young my mentality was to just try to have fun playing hockey and try to make the NHL. That’s what I’m doing right now.”

Ang played right wing instead of center on a line with Micheal Haley and Harry Zolnierczyk, recording a shot in 16:31 of ice time.

FINNTASTIC CHOICE — The organization announced early Monday morning that Aleksander Barkov, 23, was named the 10th captain in Florida Panthers history, replacing Derek MacKenzie.

Barkov is the second-youngest captain in the NHL, younger than all of them except Edmonton’s 21-year-old superstar Connor McDavid, who’s not bad himself.

It’s a decision that really is hard to argue against, frankly.

Sure, you could make the case for Vincent Trocheck, an emotional player who wears his heart on his sleeve just like Scottie Upshall did. Or Jonathan Huberdeau, whose temperament is somewhere between that of the soft-spoken Barkov and occasionally explosive Trocheck.

But those three were the only ones who should have been given serious consideration. Aaron Ekblad could almost enter the conversation, but the power trio of Barky, Vinny and senior member Huby all have at least one more season of experience with the club that gives them a skate up, so to speak.

Barkov sports the characteristics and demeanor that an organization wants to see in a captain: a strong 200-foot game, determined work ethic, admiration and respect of his peers, an emerging sense of superstardom in the league and a media-friendly player, win or lose.

And the Finnish center’s accessibility in the room is only exceeded by his genuine humility as person and player.

Really, what’s the worst thing you can say about Barky? That he’s too unselfish? He overpasses and would rather see a teammate get the glory of a goal instead of himself, almost to a fault?

That may be it. And if so, I’ll take that in my captain — an all-around fantastic player and even better guy works his butt off and puts others before himself.


Barkov is the kind of player who is a face-of-the-franchise guy, one whose likeness will be on stadium walls, arena hallways and billboards up and down South Florida thoroughfares.

And while I understand any player, regardless of his elite skills, can be traded, Barkov comes across as the kind that could be in South Florida his entire career, immortalizing the No. 16 and leading the Panthers to whatever NHL postseason fruit it can sink its dangerous claws into.

Nice pick, Cats.

**Follow Bill in newspapers, online and on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL**

Luongo a Deserving Masterton Nominee


So about last night in Vegas…

Back in the spring as the Panthers were rolling and playing their best hockey of the season, the Professional Hockey Writers Association alerted its chapter chairs that the nominations for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player best showing perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, were due soon.

As the PHWA’s chair of our Panthers chapter, I was tasked with writing the nomination. Fellow chapter-mate Matthew DeFranks and I decided on nominating goalie Roberto Luongo, who had battled and overcome injuries and delivered the night of the Capitals game when he gave an incredibly emotional speech to a grieving community that needed a boost from one of its residents.

Lu delivered that night. Here’s the nomination I delivered to the PHWA:

The Florida Chapter of the PHWA is proud to nominate Roberto Luongo for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for the 2017-18 season. The 38-year-old goaltender had hip surgery following the 2015-16 campaign, missed the last month of 2016-17 and battled through hand and groin injuries this year.

Luongo was injured last Dec. 4 against the New York Islanders, but his hard work and perseverance had him back in the lineup 26 games later on Feb. 17, helping the Panthers beat Calgary 6-3 and igniting a serious run for Florida as a contender in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

In a 13-game span after his return, Luongo was 9-3-1 with a 2.44 goals against average and .928 save percentage, including a stretch of five consecutive wins from Feb. 22 to March 4. The strong performance helped the Panthers climb from the bottom of the conference standings into contention for a wild card spot and their first postseason berth in two years.

A Montreal native, Luongo recorded the 76th shutout of his career by beating the Canadiens in Québec on Mar. 19 in a 2-0 win. The shutout tied him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time list with Ed Belfour and Tony Esposito, and was his second shutout of Montreal in less than two weeks. Luongo also ranks third all-time in NHL games played and is fourth in wins. He holds the Panthers’ franchise record for games played, wins and shutouts.

A 12-year resident of nearby Parkland, Fla., Luongo gave an impassioned, unscripted speech regarding the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland before the Washington game on Feb. 22. The match was the first at home since the tragedy for the Panthers, who had returned home after a five-game Canadian road trip.

Just before puck drop, Luongo, dressed to play as Florida’s starting goalie against the Capitals, skated out and delivered a three-minute message to cap the organization’s emotional pre-game ceremony to honor the victims. He acknowledged the heroes at the school who protected the students and implored the South Florida community to join together, take action and heal as one in the wake of the shooting that claimed 17 lives eight days earlier, as fans and players were overcome with emotion.


Bill covers the Florida Panthers for the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL

The NHL’s Gray Problem


It would be easy to start by saying “Toronto, we have a problem,” but surely the powers-that-be in the NHL know they have big trouble in the goalie crease. Perhaps even recent talk of it earned the Florida Panthers two points and cost the Detroit Red Wings at least one on Saturday.

That’s right, we’re talking goaltender interference here. And while cheap blows and head shots leading to screwy disciplinary issues continue to plague the league, goalie interference (GI) is an altogether different animal.

It’s a predator colored in gray and patterned in confusion.

I’m sure the Red Wings would second that.

After yet another controversial moment in the blue paint in the final 10 seconds led to a thrilling 3-2 Florida win in regulation, I had the choice of heading to either dressing room – the one of the victorious Cats or angry Wings.

The Cats’ room would have been a breeze, an easy choice as the Panthers surely celebrated by saying all the right words. “Well-earned win,” “greasy goal” and “build on the momentum” were likely going to be floated around the room.

But Detroit? That promised to be a little more bombastic – stewing and emotional, perhaps even R-rated (which rarely occurs). If nothing else, they weren’t going to give me the status quo quote.

I’ve never been a fan of players saying the expected, the borderline cliché quote with a feel-good touch to it. Rather, I’ll take the off-the-cuff, upset, brutally honest remark of a player operating outside his comfort zone any day of the week, especially on a Saturday night in front of a great house with crucial points on the line against a divisional rival.

So naturally I made the hard left turn off the elevator that sent me to Motown.

To say the Red Wings were upset is about like noticing the Panthers couldn’t come close to hitting the net in the first 30 minutes. Really, those were some of the most open looks I’ve seen for a Florida shooter in a long time.

Yep, these Wings were hot, fiery and spicier than anything ordered up the following day for the Super Bowl, and while profanity-free, all three players and coach Jeff Blashill spoke their piece on how the refs got it all wrong at the game’s end.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg, a fine spokesman for Detroit, cut right to the chase.

“Yeah, I do,” Zetterberg responded when asked if he disagreed with the decision. “The inconsistency in this league right now – if it’s the refs, the guys in Toronto, the suspensions, the fines – it’s hard for us as players to know what rules we’re playing under.

“You see it over and over again. Losing a game like this that’s really important that yesterday could have been called goalie interference and tonight it’s not.”

Not yesterday, but maybe the week before the All-Star Weekend.

The league discussed GI at length in Tampa during its midseason break. The Detroit side felt that the tendency before the break was to wave off goals due to the slightest contact with the netminder; however, following the exhibition in Tampa the Wings said they didn’t know what to expect from night to night and that all bets were off after Jonathan Huberdeau made contact with Petr Mrazek.

“It shocks me that they call that a goal,” said Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader, who to his credit talked about the play for over six minutes. “Everyone around the league – players-wise, coaches, general managers – don’t know what’s a goal and what’s not with goaltender interference.

“There’s such a gray area. It’s just amazing with contact like that in the crease, (Huberdeau’s) foot’s in the crease, that they call that a goal…That was an easy one, I thought…If the goalie can’t make the save because of contact, it’s got to be no-goal.

“There’s no clear-cut answer to why it’s a goal or it’s not. It seems to be different every night.”

Abdelkader said he thought “it was an easy call,” which led to Detroit’s frustration. If it was so easy, then why was the goal confirmed so quickly? I then asked Abdelkader what the remedy was.

“I don’t know if it can be corrected in the short term before the season’s over, but it’s something for sure through our (players’ association), the players and the league to make sure that we make it as black-and-white as possible,” he said.

“There can’t be a gray area because you get calls like this or ones from the past month or two where players are leaving shaking their heads, questioning what’s the call.”

Last season, Florida had a much more egregiously bad call go against them when the officials ruled Nick Bjugstad was in the crease and interfered with Detroit’s Jared Coreau, despite Bjugstad being pushed into the crease and making no contact with the backstop. The Panthers saw their 4-1 lead trimmed by a goal on the disallowance then lost in a shootout.

From my standpoint, Saturday’s game ended as it should.

Huberdeau did appear to make contact with Mrazek, who was much calmer in describing the play to the media than he was when the call was confirmed as a good goal, sinking Detroit’s hopes of getting four points in two nights. But Mike Green leaning into Huberdeau was the first contact on the play, and it created a domino effect. Plus, Mrazek may have oversold the contact a bit.

The league wants more scoring, but these controversial calls aren’t the way to go about it. If a player gets an inch or two into the crease with no punishment, they’ll take a few more inches, then both skates, then goalies are being pummeled. These situations escalate in proportion to what players can get away with.

The NHL needs to address this situation now, not in the summer. Make a quick fix, play it that way through June and tinker with it in the summer if necessary.

At the beginning of the movie The Grey, Liam Neeson plays a marksman who is hired to kill wolves around an oil drilling site. Neeson kills them daily, using skilled precision to dispose of the threat they pose to other workers.

The NHL has its own dangerous gray animal prowling at its 31 hockey arenas, but the threat is inside the cold rinks, not outside lurking in the wilderness like in the flick.

The best bet for the league would be to hurry up and kill this gray beast before it stalks a steely path all the way to the postseason.

Follow Bill on Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL

Cats Return to Winning, but No to Jagr


With the Florida Panthers sitting at 19-22-6 yesterday heading into their game in Brooklyn, many turned to thoughts of tanking – I’m not even going to mention the P word — especially on the heels of a 3-game losing streak right before the All-Star break.

Then the Cats turned around against the Islanders and played what defenseman Michael Matheson said may have been their best game of the season.

He’s probably right.

With goalie Harri Sateri seeking his first NHL win, Florida’s defensive scheme against the Islanders was pretty clear: Take care of the crease and the slot, protect against rebounds and clean up loose pucks around the Finnish netminder.

When the clubs met two years ago in a first round playoff series, the Islanders and then-coach Jack Capuano had one game plan in mind, which was to get pucks in front of the Panthers’ goal, whether by defensemen Nick Leddy and Thomas Hickey firing from long range and creating rebounds or sliding pucks in front of the crease from behind Florida’s net for John Tavares and company.

Not much of that happened Tuesday night. Little at all, in fact.

As the Islanders were blanked through the game’s first 45 minutes, it became evident the Panthers were the better team on that night, and at 3-1 the breaking of the 3-game losing streak never seemed in jeopardy.

Was anyone worried Sateri’s first win would suddenly slip away?

No, the Islanders didn’t have that push necessary to overcome such a deficit. And the firepower was there: The Islanders are one of only two teams (Pittsburgh’s the other) that has three 50-plus point players, Tavares, Josh Bailey and Mathew Barzal.

The Cats turned in some clunkers before the break, in particular the embarrassing performance in Dallas. The team lost its composure and allowed the Stars to do whatever they wanted.

That shouldn’t have happened after an overtime win against Vegas at home and a pretty good effort in Nashville in the previous two games.

Islanders coach Doug Weight said Florida “outworked” his team. With everything on the line for New York – they’re on the outside looking in at the playoffs – they turned in the home clunker. The credit for that goes to coach Bob Boughner and the Panthers.

Credit where credit is due like the win in Brooklyn, and criticism when it’s warranted for games like the one in Texas.

Now what, though, as they head to face the worst team in the Eastern Conference?

The unexpected performance and unknown result may be the great mysteries of these shorthanded Panthers.
(UNFORTUNATELY) JUST SAY NO: When word came out over the weekend that the Calgary Flames were out of the Jaromir Jagr business, Cats fans naturally floated the notion of GM Dale Tallon going out and acquiring the legendary winger yet again.

The move could have worked on a couple of levels: young players could have learned from the work ethic of the 45-year-old, and the organization could have used him in its marketing plans, possibly seeing an attendance boost.

Ultimately, though, taking on Jagr again would have filled a position in the team’s top 9. That’s a spot that could have kept Henrik Haapala, Dryden Hunt, Maxim Mamin and Jayce Hawryluk (oddly not called up yet) down in Springfield instead of logging NHL minutes.

The Panthers want to get younger, faster and prepare for the future. Having Jagr in the lineup accomplishes none of those goals.

On a personal note, my fellow scribes and I made a note in game stories of Jagr’s achievements on a seemingly nighty basis, as he rolled over number after number and updated the record book. It was an incredible run, especially the evening when his butt-assist on Sasha Barkov’s goal pushed him past Mark Messier and into second place on the NHL’s all-time points list with 1,888.

I’m lucky enough to say I covered Dale Earnhardt’s last career win – his 76th — at Talladega in October of 2000. On the flip side, with Jagr only scoring one goal for Calgary, I missed out on covering 68’s last NHL goal by, well, one goal.

I guess I’ll catch him in two or three year when he returns to the NHL.

Safe travels and best of luck to Jagr and the Traveling Jagrs!

Bill Whitehead writes for the Associated Press. Follow him @BillWhiteheadFL

Tippett Shoots, Plus An Announcement


Well, I picked a fine game to resume the blog with the first column of the season, huh?

Fresh off the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-1 pasting of the Florida Panthers, which dropped the Cats to 2-3-0 on the young season, it remains to be seen as to what this team’s identity is, and no answers were to be found in the City of Brotherly Love on Tuesday.

In fact, the best question might be this: What one thing – if anything – did the Panthers do well at Wells Fargo Center?

Faceoffs, special teams, blocked shots, puck possession? Nope, nope, nope and … definitely nope. They won shots and hits, but I’d rather have an advantage in those other categories.

A better question might be who was the one good thing about the game?

Simple. Owen Tippett.

The 18-year-old rookie more than made an impression in his NHL debut, zipping a game-high in both shots on goal (7) and attempted shots (12). If there’s one thing we learned about Tippett, it’s that he’s more than capable of getting the puck on net, and the Cats’ staff likes that.

Of all the stats out there, it seems the Panthers’ season will hinge on how many pucks they can get on goal, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they don’t hold their lead and wind up topping the NHL in the category.

“You kind of see the game and how much open ice there is and how the puck moves. You obviously want to get into the open areas,” Tippett said afterward of his debut.

But will the emergence of the shoot-first Tippett, who also schooled Philly defenseman Robert Hagg with a swift, slick move on a scoring chance in the third period in front of the Flyers’ goal, be enough to keep him on the roster after his 9-game stint he’s allowed as a rookie?

Can the Panthers afford to burn a year of Tippett’s entry-level contract and pro career and do they feel he is capable of being a significant part of what the Panthers hope is a playoff team?

The answers to those questions depend on how important you figure Tippett is when sized up against Denis Malgin and Connor Brickley in the bottom six, particularly the third line.

For now, Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann have locked up left wing and center on the third line, and though he slotted on opening night on the 3L, Brickley seems like a perfect candidate for the fourth, in the mix with Micheal Haley, Derek MacKenzie and nicked up Colton Sceviour for ice time. That was Brickley’s spot during his first stop with the Panthers when he was a camp surprise to open the 2015-16 season.

That leaves Tippett and Malgin vying for playing time on 3L if Nick Bjugstad remains on 2L, which is probably the best place for 27 to find and regain his offensive form.

All things being even and injuries not playing a major factor – and they could at some point – it’s going to be pretty crowded on the McCann-centered line, so a great case could be made for sending Tippett back to juniors, sharpening his game and seeing how far Malgin, a breakout from last year’s camp, has come and how much he’s improved in the offseason.

However, Tippett certainly made his best pitch to stay with the big club on Tuesday and be back in there against the Stanley Cup champion Penguins at home on Friday.

HEAR YE, HEAR YE! – It is with great honor that I announce that I am the new Florida Chapter Chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA), taking over for my good friend George Richards, who headed north to the Land of John Tortorella and will likely get some regular postseason work in late spring.

Richards took over the PHWA position from Brian Biggane of The Palm Beach Post years back – so long ago George couldn’t recall when. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Richards and Biggane, then you’ve missed out on chatting with two of the finest chaps to grace the BB&T press box. Both welcomed me 10 years ago when I began covering the Panthers and immediately treated me as another legitimate voice covering the team, which, frankly, deserves more coverage than it gets.

Both are good guys who are sorely missed in the close kinship of covering a team, but we still have a great group up there with writers like Alain Poupart (NHL.com), Walter Villa (SportsXchange), Paul Gereffi (AP), Jameson Olive (Florida Panthers) and others who spread the word of the Panthers. In my 20 years of covering sporting events, the BB&T Center’s press box tops the list as a working environment full of likeable co-workers and accommodating staff from within the team.

Again, it’s a pleasure to head a chapter of an organization that is home to many of the NHL’s finest writers, whose opinions and game coverage are read by so many in North America and all over the world and who help choose the league’s award-winners at season’s end.

I promise to uphold those duties done so well by Richards and Biggane before me.

**Bill is the Florida Panthers Chapter Chair of the Pro Hockey Writers Association. Follow him @BillWhiteheadFL

The Next #FlaPanthers Coach is Available

By Bill Whitehead

On Monday I put forth the notion the Florida Panthers should look past the joy of Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov returning to the lineup and do even more to improve the team by trading for a veteran.

The name I tossed out was Detroit’s Thomas Vanek, who scored his 13th goal last night in the Red Wings’ tough 3-2 loss to Columbus. It was the 10th overtime loss for Detroit, which is the number they’ll look at when this season ends poorly for them.

The response to the proposition of a Vanek acquisition varied. Most thought it was a good idea but would be harder and take a sweeter deal than I proposed. Some felt Vanek would loaf in the playoffs and be of no help; others felt the Cats should wait a bit and see what unfolds on the road trip.

I said the Panthers should move right now and try to pry away the 33-year-old Vanek before the Penguins or another playoff club needing a veteran forward steps in. In fact, I said to “act fast.”

But when it comes to the search for the next coach to walk behind the Panthers’ bench, I have more urgent advice.

Act faster.

The Boston Bruins, who have frankly played better than most would have expected this year, handed bench boss Claude Julien and his 419 career wins and Stanley Cup championship a pink slip yesterday morning.

GM Don Sweeney, whose own future could be hanging in the balance, axed Julien, the league’s longest-tenured coach, as the Patriots were getting ready to celebrate their Super Bowl win with a parade through Boston.

A fellow hockey scribe suggested the Panthers, Jets, Avalanche, Islanders and Canucks should start the calls ASAP to Sweeney asking permission. Julien’s services will be in high demand, and you can rest assured Vegas and GM George McPhee will be interested in Julien’s services, too.

As Mike Babcock pointed out yesterday, when you fire someone with the numbers Julien has posted, you’d better have someone better in place. The Bruins now have Bruce Cassidy, who once referred to Jaromir Jagr as a “coach killer.”

Florida put the interim tag on Tom Rowe for a reason, and regardless of what he does this season, it’s hard to envision him being back as coach. He took over after 22 games and will receive the lion’s share of the blame if the Cats miss the postseason.

If they get in, well, he’d better win a round or two because he isn’t a fan favorite. That’s partially due to how Gerard Gallant was dismissed and also to the team’s performance. Whatever the reason, I’m guessing Rowe likely re-assume his former position after this season ends.

Which leads us back to a new coach.

That hasn’t been discussed much, mainly because so many teams still believe they have a viable playoff shot and aren’t willing to make a change at the top.

Plus, there’s no guarantee of a coach keeping his job when occupying a playoff spot. Ken Hitchcock was fired while the Blues held the second wild-card position, and Julien’s Bruins were in third in the Atlantic Division over the weekend.

Though his teams play well for him right away, Hitchcock is 65. Jack Capuano failed with a good Islanders roster. Gallant’s obviously not a candidate.

This column didn’t need writing then when those coaches were fired, but it does now, which takes us back to the 56-year-old Julien.

Unless Tampa Bay fires Jon Cooper any time soon (and the Bolts are playing better), this is a real no-brainer decision for the Panthers.

Hiring Julien right away demonstrates the organization’s commitment to winning, which they’ve shown with the Keith Yandle signing, trying to improve the team through trades and locking up the young core.

I’m not sure of the relationship Dale Tallon has with Julien, but they both seem like both old-school hockey guys who have deep backgrounds and like to ice teams that play with an edginess and tons of size.

Florida has some of the former but very little of the latter. However, a good coach coaches around what he has and gameplans to his strengths.

And there’s no denying that Julien is a good coach. Surly at times? Sure. Always appearing disgruntled while pacing behind his team? Yep.

But this isn’t a popularity contest. See Bill Belichick or Nick Saban on that front and how the word “championship” factors into their legacies.

It’s about winning a Stanley Cup, and Julien has done that.

Rumors are that Julien already has a couple of offers out there, but he hasn’t been hired as of this writing.

Tallon and the Florida Panthers need to change that.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and with the Associated Press and SportsXchange

#FlaPanthers Should Make a Move Now

By Bill Whitehead

Have we all safely returned from the adrenaline high of that 2-1 win on Friday night? Have we sufficiently come back to normal, drawn down to earth after the exhilaration of suddenly having Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau thrust into the lineup and watching the latter score the game-winning goal off a slick pass from the former?

The answer is maybe yes — a great ending to the Super Bowl unfolded in between then and now — but the Panthers need not sit back on their heels after beating a pretty good gathering of Ducks.

So what now for a team aspiring for the playoffs and just barely on the outside looking in?

Make a trade. And do it quickly before next week’s difficult four-game road trip against three playoff teams and one in a similar situation to the Cats waylays the positive uptick and good mojo of the current three-game winning streak.

The winning streak was the first of its kind for Florida this season. The defense is playing better and will continue with the return of Alex Petrovic, and James Reimer has been outstanding in his starts in place of Roberto Luongo.

Now the Panthers need to strike quickly and improve the lineup. As always with this club, scoring goals is the key problem — has been, currently is, maybe won’t be in the future. However, until the Cats start averaging 2.9 goals a game or better, I’m not content on leaving the roster as is, especially when a playoff spot is at stake.

So do what should have been done in August. Add a veteran piece.

There was a small hole on the third line in the offseason along side Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Marchessault. The hope was that a prospect like Kyle Rau, Shane Harper, Denis Malgin or Jared McCann would step up and permanently make his presence known in that spot. All have had shots; ultimately, all have been sent down to Springfield in a revolving door of promotion and demotion.

The hole at third-line winger grew bigger with the loss of Bjugstad in Dallas, but Nick has returned. That puts us back to where we were before his preseason injury.

Florida passed on signing PA Parenteau or Thomas Vanek on the cheap to fill a veteran presence six months ago. Sam Gagner and Michael Grabner are two others who inked less expensive deals but who have contributed immensely to their clubs, both of which are in playoff position.

Therefore, I’ll whittle that list to one — Vanek.

Detroit’s playoff hopes are slimmer than the Panthers’, trailing Boston in the divisional race by five points. A playoff regular for over two decades, Detroit’s move away from the postseason is apparent. Some around the club has said privately that this has been years in the making, and the Wings barely made it in last season. That will make them sellers over the next three weeks, and Vanek’s name has come up.

Florida should jump in now on the 33-year-old Vanek. Yeah, he’s had health issues this season, forcing him to miss 12 games, plus his production over the past few years hasn’t lived up to the standard he’s set. However, this campaign has been a rebirth. His 32 points in 40 games ranks second on the Wings and would have him tied for second on Florida’s stats page with Marchessault despite playing in five fewer games.

Money won’t be an issue as the Cats would pay less than $1 million for Vanek’s services the remainder of the year, which is the final one in his contract before becoming a UFA. All it would likely take would be a mid-round pick or mid-level prospect, but not both. He could slide in beside fellow Golden Gopher Bjugstad and Marchessault, giving Florida three dangerous offensive weapons in its bottom six, improving secondary scoring.

But as the ads always say, act fast. Pittsburgh has lost forward Conor Sheary until March, and the Pens are hungry to repeat as Stanley Cup champs. Florida should move soon and not let next week’s tough road trip be their Waterloo. Maybe sweeten the pot a tad on an offer, but not too much.

Basically, the Panthers have the opportunity of a do-over in making the team much better with a proven veteran instead of gambling on a prospect. Don’t think that the excitement of Friday night is enough to get it done; improve the team with some real talent, salvage the season and hope for some April action.

This is just good old-fashioned doubling-down. Sure, the Cats are better with top-liners Barkov and Huberdeau, but let’s don’t stop there.

Playoff teams and Cup winners don’t just “stop there.”

Trading for Vanek would undo the undone that wasn’t done in the first place but should have been.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and with the Associated Press and SportsXchange

#FlaPanthers Not Alone in Sunshine State Mess


For a state that’s made a foray into the wonderful world of professional hockey and is trying to make serious inroads into taking it to the next level, the state of Florida is coming up pretty short during the 2016-17 season.

I mused over this while attending my younger son’s youth hockey practice on Sunday. Puck is growing in South Florida, and from my time over in Estero watching the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League (worth a visit, by the way; they’re the best pro team in the state at 19-4-3-7), youth hockey is prospering.

Thankfully, hockey growth in Florida this season isn’t reliant solely on the on-ice play of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.

Both are mired in mediocre seasons, especially when expectation are considered. The Bolts (19-19-4) were a preseason favorite by most to win the Eastern Conference and even by some to win the Stanley Cup, but they actually grid sixth in the Atlantic Division, tied with Florida with 42 points but behind on games played.

The media didn’t have such lofty expectations of the Cats (17-16-8), but most figured they would still be skating in the postseason. With multiple acquisitions and the “core lock-up” in the offseason, most everyone, myself included, felt the organization would be painting “Stanley Cup Playoffs” on the ice.

Right now, both aren’t far out of a playoff spot in the Atlantic — two points, in fact — and there’s always hope, I guess. Yet neither club has shown signs of life as the year turned, and if you’re smart you wouldn’t bet on either to set a playoff roster in three months.

Tampa is without star Steven Stamkos and No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop, whom they surely will lose as a UFA-to-be in the offseason. Currently, the have lost four straight in regulation to open 2017 and have been outscored 22-9.

Scoring hasn’t been a problem for Tampa, ranked 13th in goals per game, but stopping the puck has been an issue. Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 22-year-old future No. 1, hasn’t been able to defend anything lately and might not be a favorite to stop one of those red multi-purpose balls we used on the playground when I dominated kickball in third grade.

Worse still is that I’ve run across some Bolts fan who are so upset with the way coach Jon Cooper has handled the Vasilevskiy situation, mainly because of not yanking him at some point in favor of rookie Adam Wilcox, that they’ve gone as far as to want general manager Steve Yzerman to fire Cooper.

That’s going pretty far.

That would be a colossal mistake, an error so enormous and destructive, like an insect exposed to radiation in a 1950s B horror movie, that someone would have to step in and act.

It was the military in those movies, and we do have Vinnie Viola overseeing the Army now, but it would have to be Cats’ management that stepped in to save the day. That would mean hiring Cooper.

Immediately. The next day. Don’t wait around.

Everyone has been so caught up in Florida’s drama that any talk of next season’s coach has not begun. If Cooper were available, he would have to top the list.

He produces offense and runs a good system. He generally wins as well, plus he certainly knows the conference inside and out.

Tampa has more problems that that, though. The salary cap is always a dicey issue, and Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov are all RFAs next year, which will force more payroll finagling by Yzerman.

Drouin or Johnson would be great additions to Florida’s offense, though it would have to be at the expense of offer-sheeting, which doesn’t happen hardly at all.

As for the Cats, they have failed from the get-go in a season that saw top left winger Jonathan Huberdeau injured indefinitely and Gerard Gallant axed — and it didn’t get much better from there.

Now half of the lineup interim coach Tom Rowe ices each night is borderline AHLish. Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad have all missed significant playing time with injuries, which is a ton of scoring and productivity to try and replace.

I know it’s little consolation, especially if you shelled out big bucks for season tickets or are just a Cats fans who suffers at home every time they blow a late lead, but the Panthers aren’t wallowing in their mediocrity alone in the Sunshine State.

They should pay close attention to what’s going on up Interstate 75.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Should Need No Motivation

Florida Panthers coach Tom Rowe has an easy job on his hands today: Getting his Cats, who are all over the place with their lines, ready to face a losing Winnipeg Jets team that has already beaten the Panthers.

Last month they lost to Winnipeg, a club that currently grids out as 25th in the NHL in the conference standings.

That should be enough motivation right there for professional athletes: Losing to a bad team. A bad team with a good coach and skilled players, but a bad team nonetheless, especially on the back end.

If Florida isn’t ready to play tonight and comes out sloppy, it will be on everyone — Rowe, his staff and the rest of the staff. Everyone. Florida has been off since Saturday’s solid effort against Dallas, and the approach they took against the Stars is the same one that needs to apply tonight.

Shoot the puck. Every time it’s on your stick, send the frozen rubber toward either Michael Hutchinson (4-7-2, 3.18, .894) or Connor Hellebuyck (14-12-1, 2.76, .908). The latter played adequately in a 6-4 win over Tampa, allowing a pair of late power-play goals to tighten the game.

Florida (16-14-8) lost 4-3 to the Jets in December in Manitoba in a game when Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith scored power-play goals but couldn’t capitalize and earn two points against Winnipeg and Hellebuyck.

Hutchinson beat Vancouver last month in a 4-1 win, stopping 22 of 23 shots. Whether or not he or Hellebuyck is in, the approach should be straighforward: shoot. Newcomer Michael Sgarbossa put a shot on goal in his first Florida shift last week, forcing me to sarcastically say, “Shooting the puck with a good look instead of passing first? Yeah, that won’t play too well on this team.”

Shoot. The. Puck.

Florida put 44 shots on Hellebuyck in their previous meeting and outshot Dallas 22-6 after one period on Saturday. Forty shots on goal should be the benchmark for the Cats, especially against Winnipeg’s shaky netminding. While we’re at it, let’s end the night with SOGs being in the mid 40s.

The worst tact Florida could take is underestimate the Jets (18-19-3), which might be a possibility considering Winnipeg played a fast-paced game versus the Bolts last night. There was almost no neutral zone play as forwards streaked through center ice unimpeded.

Florida must slow down speedy, talented forwards Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nicolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele to take some of the pressure off Roberto Luongo.

Like Florida, the Jets are underachieving as well. The Panthers are four points out of third in the Atlantic Division with a Saturday meeting with Boston lying in wait, while the Jets are three points out of a wildcard spot.

No doubt, both face huge uphill battles of making the postseason, but Florida needs to take care of the business in front of them of beating the Jets instead of thinking about what lies ahead. Then they can worry about Nashville, who will also be playing Tampa the night before they meet the Cats on Friday.

Well rested and coming off a sweet road win in a game where they attacked the Stars early, there’s no reason at all the Panthers should have jet lag against Winnipeg tonight and stink up the joint.

None whatsoever.

** Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers: Coaching Change Inevitable


We’ve been told for a long time that a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, the images that we saw Sunday night about 10:00 must be worth at least 100,000 words.

Or maybe something closer to epic proportions, somewhere in the neighborhood of War and Peace.

There was Gerard Gallant, bags in hand, grabbing his own cab. One Carolina Hurricanes employee was assisting him, which accentuated the matter even more.

In his time of departure from the Florida Panthers and lowest point within the organization, Gallant’s sole help was a worker from a former Southeast Division rival.

In the high stakes game of Optics, which is enormous these days (Google “National Election” images), the Panthers came off looking terrible on a Sunday night.

Worse than the worst segment ever of 60 Minutes. Or if you’re over 45, the most woeful melodramatic episode ever of Murder, She Wrote.

Rumors had been swirling like a furiously forming funnel cloud that Gallant’s days in Florida could be coming to a close. A 3- or 4-game losing streak might just be Gallant’s last straw, but one loss? One particularly bad loss to a mediocre  Hurricanes team that is extremely young and played most of the game without its top center?

Seems extreme, no?

Unabashedly, I admit to liking the Panthers. I’ve covered them since Pete DeBoer’s first season, and my duties have expanded greatly in that time beyond anything I had ever imagined.

When they lose, it stings some. Hey, prosperity’s a good thing, and business is better for everyone when the Cats are winning like last season, breaking records and being the lead NHL story on occasion.

When my wife saw me sulking a bit and asked, “Is someone upset because his team lost?”, my eight-year-old son — the real hockey fan in the house — looked over his shoulder from his computer hockey game and set the record straight.

“Everyone gets upset when their team loses,” he said simply.

Apparently that goes for Florida’s management, too. And it literally is their team.

That said, Sunday night won’t go down as one of the better moments for the Florida Panthers.

Gallant was a great guy to work with. Even when angry or perturbed by something, that grin seemed to widen and those teeth flashed as he prepared to deliver the reasons why. He didn’t single out players often, but he didn’t cover up the mistakes that were made either.

He’s appreciated around the league, and the perception of him is a good, strong one. The media likes him, and he’s viewed as a good hockey guy.

If you’re setting the scene at home, management will be playing the role of the Big Bad Wolf in this story, folks.

But the bottom line is this: There was a gulf that existed between Gallant and management. Gallant bristled at some of the decisions made by the brass, but their final one that concerned him was inevitable.

It could have happened last night or in Chicago or Detroit later in the week, but it was coming. That funnel cloud finally formed over Gallant, and he couldn’t escape it.

The growing discontent between Gallant and management would never go away.

Now it’s on ownership, though, and they’re just as culpable as Gallant.

They secured the future by making long-term decisions and locking up the core. That’s great. But with over $5 million left in salary cap, they failed to address the present state of secondary scoring, which has usually been a problem for the Panthers as long I’ve been here.

Particularly of issue is the third line and the team’s offense, which ranks in the NHL’s lower half in almost every significant category.

Some players on the third line are rookies, castoffs, borderline AHLers or some with marginal skills that should be playing on the fourth line. With Nick Bjugstad out, Gallant tinkered with that line incessantly, trying to make something out of it and establishing some consistency, but he couldn’t.

While spitballing some hot stove talk in July, a colleague and I often talked about many possible free-agent acquisitions. Two that came up frequently were Austrians Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek.

An energetic player like the former 30-goal Michael Grabner or proven scorer like Vanek were both available on the cheap to shore up the third line, even before Bjugstad’s late preseason injury.

Both wingers are having standout years. Grabner has 12 goals and is his usual reliable self on the PK, and he’s a ridiculous plus-20 for the Rangers. Vanek has been nicked up a bit but is almost a point a game for Detroit.

The Rangers paid less than $2 million per Grabner, Detroit slightly more for Vanek. Meanwhile, the Panthers still have a hole at wing.

One of these seasoned vets could have brought production to a line that had gaping holes on both wings and kept Bjugstad in the middle, but management hope a youngster would step up.

It was a gamble that hasn’t paid off.

Grabs or Vanek would have helped offensively and pushed players getting third-line minutes to  the fourth line, too, making it more productive in the process.

I didn’t want Gallant necessarily, but I grew to like him. No one asked me, but I had my sights on Guy Boucher and his Mad Scientist approach to coaching.

Boucher took the Lightning to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final with a goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson, Dan Ellis (remember him?) and Mike Smith. Think about that for a minute.

Now Boucher is in Ottawa, the Senators are in second in the Atlantic Division and GM Tom Rowe is the Panthers’ new bench boss.

It’s quite an ascendancy from Rowe’s stint in the AHL to Florida’s front office and now to the bench, albeit in an interim role. The onus will be on him to get the team, which is likely a little ticked off at losing Gallant, back on task of chasing Montreal,  Ottawa and Tampa for a divisional spot.

Last night was a lot about Gallant — those images, again, were bad and will be played out too much for anyone’s liking — and the players will always have to own up to their play on the ice.

But now with Rowe coaching the team, this is mostly about the brass, less on the players and not on Gallant at all.

It’s on management now.

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