Few Answers to Panthers’ Bad Start

By Bill Whitehead

This weekend wasn’t supposed to go like this. At all.

Two teams visiting BB&T Center, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. One terrible, one most assuredly overachieving but off to a great start nonetheless. Florida fans would surely hope for three points, but four definitely shouldn’t have been a farfetched notion.

Guess again.

Instead of the Panthers moving to 5-7-1 or 4-7-2, Florida jumped all over the lousy Sabres but managed just one goal in a 3-1 loss, then played a solid last 50 minutes of regulation before losing 4-3 to the Lightning in a shootout. If you’re checking the standings this morning, don’t bother. It reads 3-7-2, which really is nothing to write home about.

Plenty of questions surround these Panthers. What is the team’s identity through 1/7 of the club’s season? What can be done about the serious lack of scoring? What is the problem with the dearth of motivation and lackluster starts that trudge and plod along? And finally, who belongs in goal – Tim Thomas or Jacob Markstrom?

As for team identity, start your own diagnosis and jot down some notes, Mr. or Ms. Amateur Psychiatrist. The team hasn’t done anything positive consistently all year. The defense is better than last year, though they could certainly stand to clear their own zone a little quicker and try to produce some odd-man rushes on breakouts. With this team, you just never know what will surface from game to game, puck drop to puck drop. Starting flat has been a tendency in most of the games, but doing that against a Tampa team that played less than 24 hours earlier made no sense whatsoever.

Predicting how the Panthers are going to play night in and night out is like starting a car in the Middle East: You just don’t know what’s going to happen.

The lack of scoring has been extremely puzzling. Florida (2.08 goals per game, 26th in NHL) managed one goal each in games against Philadelphia and Buffalo, the latter with backup Jhonas Enroth in goal, not Ryan Miller. Those two teams are just, well, horrible, and while losing to either outright is bad enough, at least score a few times. But Jonathan Huberdeau, Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias and most along the blue line (Tom Gilbert, Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell, all of whom have offensive skill) have been missing more often than not from the score sheet. Huberdeau’s situation is extremely vexing as the Calder Trophy winner has just three tallies, putting him on pace for 21 this year, but he’s far better than that. Florida also ranks 28th on the power play, connecting on 9.8 percent (4-for-49) while allowing two shorthanded goals.

Motivation and preparedness? That’s mostly on coach Kevin Dineen and staff. Honestly, some of Dineen’s choices have been shocking as well. Brad Boyes was going to be scratched Sunday but was placed in the lineup at the last minute when Tomas Fleischmann came up ill. Boyes is Florida’s leading goal scorer and a stalwart performer in the shootout, why scratch him? Boyes scored a goal, added another in the shootout and was positioned to be the game’s star if Dmitry Kulikov could have kept the shootout going.

Tampa Bay did everything it could to give Florida the win. It started backup goalie Anders Lindback instead of Ben Bishop. Lightning coach Jon Cooper inexplicably put two defensemen in the shootout, and neither scored. Dineen’s decision to put Kulikov (now 2-for-5) in the fourth spot after Steven Stamkos scored was also questionable. Nick Bjugstad played likely his best game as a pro, scored a goal and created chances. Giving the former Minnesota Golden Gopher a chance to tie the game and send it to a fifth round would have been a huge confidence builder for the Minnesota native, but Dineen opted for the defenseman. Bjugstad is a centerpiece in Florida’s future. Just when is the perfect time to play him if not for a losing club whose season is slipping away and desperately in need of a spark?

Finally, Tim Thomas needs to start in goal. Period. If you’re interested in seeing the Cats win games, salvage the season and inject some emotion back into a BB&T Center and j2013-14 campaign that’s on life support, Thomas needs to be between the pipes. He gives the Panthers a better chance to win each time out when he’s healthy, and there’s hope he’ll be ready for St. Louis on Friday. If, however, you want to see Markstrom develop and answer the question of whether or not he’s a starting NHL goalie, then play the big Swede. I’d prepare for a tougher season, too, and a harder learning curve.

Dineen is surely interested in seeing some wins rather than player development during the season – for his sake. If this 3-7-2 mark transforms into something embarrassingly hideous and Walking Dead-like, something along the lines of 3-12-2, you would have to really wonder if Dineen – a great guy to deal with, very personable but in the final year of his contract – would be the Cats’ bench boss for too much longer.

In fact, there’s your answer to the question about the Florida Panthers’ team identity.

Uncertainty.

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Thomas Brilliant in Cats’ Win over Wild

By Bill Whitehead

If ever an NHL team needed a win, it was the Florida Panthers in Saturday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild, a thorn in the Cats’ side during their previous meetings. For the majority of the game, the two clubs, who are almost a mirror-image of each other in terms of style of play, struggled to find offense. The Wild, the league leader in fewest shots allowed per game, had the better of the offensive chances, but someone kept stopping them.

Florida’s best chances came early from Kris Versteeg, who had a pair of opportunities in the first period, the best being a breakaway off a steal by Scottie Upshall. Versteeg, however, was turned away by Minnesota goalie Josh Harding. Florida found itself in a 1-0 hole after a shot by Jonas Brodin was inadvertently deflected by Jesse Winchester and past goalie Tim Thomas.

Thomas, however, turned out to be the story of the night.

While the Panthers (3-6-0) were desperately trying to find offense and eventually did on a tip-in by rookie Sasha Barkov, the 39-year-old goalie was keeping Florida in the game and giving them a chance. Thomas was never better than in fighting off a pair of Minnesota 5-on-3s and a point-blank chance by Zach Parise as overtime ended, with Thomas sliding across his crease and making a pad save to go to a shootout. Thomas then denied Parise and Mikko Koivu, the Wild’s 1-on-1 whizzes, while Jonathan Huberdeau and Brad Boyes made deft moves to beat Hardin for a hard-earned and much-needed two points.

Florida Panthers

In my season preview, I wrote that the acquisition of Thomas would have some reverberations. First, it brought some excitement to a club that sat on its wallet in free agency and made just a couple of low-profile transactions. General manager Dale Tallon said he wasn’t going to spend money in July and would wait to August when he could get a better deal on the remaining FAs, and that’s what he did. But when Thomas was brought in on a tryout and eventually won the starting job, it added more legitimacy to a team many of the so-called experts had picked to finish dead last in the league.

I also wrote – and still believe, despite his early injury which brought up the age issue again – that Thomas will flat out steal a few wins with some highlight-reel saves for the Panthers. Tim will win some games outright like in Dallas, where he was good but not spectacular. He will also lose some like in St. Louis, where the Panthers never had a chance. It’s that middle ground of close games, ones when the Panthers may not seem to have much of a shot, where his talent and experience will make a difference: Those games where a sprawling or sliding save here or there keeps Florida right in the mix of a tie game or close in a 1-goal contest. Suddenly, Florida getting no points for losing in regulation becomes one or two points for carrying a contest into overtime. The Panthers know all about getting those bonus points, which propelled them to the Southeast Division crown two years ago.

He made a big stop Saturday with 3:36 remaining in regulation when he got a piece of a blast by Mikael Granlund with his blocker, and the puck caromed off the crossbar. His brilliant stop of Parise in the dying seconds of overtime sent the game to a shootout. In the extra session, he denied Parise and Koivu, two shootout wizards who are successful nearly 50 percent of the time. In all, 30 saves, the game’s first star and the chief reason Florida was able to get its third win.

I felt Thomas would steal 5-8 games for Florida this year.

Saturday night was No. 1.

Florida Looking For Answers in Nashville

By Bill Whitehead

This may fall in the “Understatement of the Week” department, but here it goes anyway: The Florida Panthers are suffering from a serious lack of chemistry and effort through their first six games. There, I said it. And trust me, I’m not the only one saying it. In fact, here’s what Kevin Dineen had to say after Florida’s mail-it-in matinee on a Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Kings:

“As the game wore on, we got worn down. That’s going to happen. The problem that we have is I think our hockey IQ dropped as well. We thought we could play a fancy game and you cannot play a fancy game against the Kings, the Blues, the majority of the NHL. You can’t play that way and have success. It’s a continuing work in progress for us to play the game the proper way, which isn’t always easy.”

— Dineen after Florida’s 2-hour, 13-minute afternoon break

Can’t argue with that assessment much.

In six games, Florida (2-4-0) has put together solid effort in three of their contests – Dallas, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The other three – St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles – were dumbfounding, wretched performances that left fans shaking their heads and wondering, “What’s the real Florida Panthers team here – the good one that’s won a couple of games or the bad one that looks like they’re playing together for the first time?”

At this point, Florida’s like Sally Field in the 1976 movie Sybil when Field starred as a meek substitute school teacher who turned out to be schizophrenic with multiple personalities. No one – not Dineen, Dale Tallon, a media member or the greatest Panthers fan out there like (feel free to insert your name here) – knows what team will take the ice Tuesday night in the Volunteer State against the Predators.

I do know this: Nashville can’t score. At all. And it’s always been their MO. The Predators are last in the Western Conference’s Central Division with a 2-3-0 record and have scored just nine goals in those five games while yielding 15. Meanwhile, Florida has given up 24 goals in six games, so you have a team that’s scoring less than two goals a game hosting a team that allows four a game. Something’s got to give.

The X Factor in Tuesday’s game: The Panthers haven’t played well in Nashville in the five-plus years I’ve been covering them. Dineen and Tallon still haven’t found what they’re looking for, but it’s Nashville, the home of country music, not U2, that may hold the answers. I’m waiting to see something new from these Cats that’s as purty as some sappy country-and-western duet featuring twangers like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Maybe it will be the return of Nick Bjugstad that will make the Cats sing.

But Dineen and Tallon will take anything from the game at this point — team identity, good chemistry or a unified hard-working effort would do just fine for starters.

Two points, too.

Kings Blank Panthers Behind Scrivens, Strong Defense

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. – Maddeningly, the Florida Panthers still can’t solve the riddle that is Los Angeles Kings backup goaltender Ben Scrivens.

Making his first start of the season for his new team, Scrivens stopped 20 shots in his third career shutout as the Kings prevented the Panthers from getting back to .500 and recorded their first win in regulation, beating Florida 3-0 at BB&T Center on Sunday afternoon.

After a scoreless first period, Los Angeles (4-2-0) received goals from Daniel Carcillo and Justin Williams in a 6-minute span that essentially put Florida (2-4-0) away and kept them from capitalizing on any momentum gained from Friday’s energetic 6-3 home-opening win over Pittsburgh.

Carcillo’s goal was his first this season and came after taking a pass from Mike Richards, who was camped behind Florida goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Williams scored on a give-and-go pass from Anze Kopitar after a turnover by Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell — the 500th career point for Williams.

Perhaps most disappointing was Florida’s effort level and lack of chemistry, especially on the offensive end, which more resembled Thursday’s 7-2 loss in Tampa than the victory against the Penguins the next night. The Panthers played a solid first period against Los Angeles, the Stanley Cup champions over New Jersey two years ago, but came up empty with listless play and token effort in the final 40 minutes.

“In every game we’ve played this year we’ve gotten off to a good start. That hasn’t been an issue. It just has to do with the level of consistency in our competitive battles,” said Florida coach Kevin Dineen.

Florida leading goal scorer Brad Boyes faced the Kings in the Western Conference while with the St. Louis Blues. He said the Panthers missed scoring opportunities early, which played into Los Angeles’ style that makes it tough for opponents to play from behind.

“We did have a few opportunities. We had a couple of looks, but you’ve got to score on those. It’s a momentum shift and a difference. Because if you don’t, they don’t give up a ton. We got caught up in that and didn’t get ahead when a few opportunities were there,” Boyes said.

Added Kris Versteeg: “They’re a team that plays a pretty well-rounded game. Just obviously a few bounces here and there and they score, and we couldn’t capitalize on our chances.”

The 27-year-old Scrivens, the backup to stellar Los Angeles netminder Jonathan Quick, was acquired from Toronto in the offseason when the Kings sent highly sought after reserve goalie Jonathan Bernier to the Maple Leafs on June 23. Scrivens was 7-9-0 last year, including blanking Florida 3-0 on Feb. 18 and beating them again a month later as Toronto won both games in South Florida.

Florida took a few chances in the last period to score, but Jordan Nolan slipped behind Jonathan Huberdeau and scored his first goal of the season on a pass from Jarret Stoll from the half boards for a 3-0 lead.

Both clubs are back in action Tuesday. Los Angeles plays at Tampa Bay while the Panthers head to Nashville to face the Predators — their fourth Western Conference opponent in seven games.

Panthers Preview: Cats to Meet Winless Flyers, Berube

By Bill Whitehead

After the Florida Panthers’ impressive open to the 2013-14 season last Thursday, a 4-2 win at Dallas, the Cats were called quite a few things by the media – much better, more positive adjectives than during the summer. The catchy catchword coined was “intriguing.” This group of Panthers, routinely picked 30th in season previews by most of the so-called experts, was now intriguing.

What made them intriguing? Effort. Marcel Goc’s hard work, two goals and 16-for-20 showing in the faceoff circle. Erik Gudbranson’s willingness to put health in the way of a laser slap shot that was headed toward an open net. A strong showing  by Tim Thomas after a year layoff. And, of course, the Kid – Aleksander Barkov – who made history with his game-tying goal in the third period.

All of that was intriguing. What happened two nights later in St. Louis was anything but intriguing. More like perplexing and kind of reminiscent of last season.

Florida played a top quality club in the Blues, a team that’s a serious Stanley Cup contender, and what ensued was more than a complete letdown after the euphoria of the road win in Big D. When Florida played last time in St. Louis two years ago, the Blues did most of their damage with their bodies, literally pounding the Cats into submission in a 4-1 win. This time St. Louis did it on the scoreboard, thumping Florida 7-0 and leaving many to wonder if this year’s Cats were more like last year’s.

So much for “intriguing.”

To make it worse, the Panthers attended the Jacksonville Jaguars game against the St. Louis Rams the next day, pitting two of the worst teams in the NFL who set back football decades each week when they take the field, which posed the question: “Hadn’t the Panthers been through enough suffering in the Midwest?”

Well, on to the City of Brotherly Love. And please, no Tastykakes or PECO power play for this game.

The Opponent: The Flyers are 0-3 and a dangerous bunch, threatening to start the season 0-4 for the first time in club history. The team opened with losses to Toronto and Montreal before heading to Carolina for a Sunday matinee game against coach Peter Laviolette’s old team. As was the case in the first two games, the offense was anemic, and despite good goaltending from Steve Mason, Philly dropped a 2-1 decision as former Panther Radek Dvorak netted the game-winning goal. The Flyers have been outscored 9-3 in the three contests. To create even more unrest and uncertainty, the organization canned Laviolette Monday morning and named Craig Berube as its coach.

What to watch for: While the offense has been bad and Danny Briere is no longer a Flyer, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Scott Hartnell and newcomer Vinnie Lecavalier are offensive talents who will have to be accounted for. Third-year player Sean Couturier, taken in the same draft with Jonathan Huberdeau in Minnesota, continues to improve. Florida’s defense will have to been very good in front of its goaltender because the Flyers throw everything on goal, which can be productive (but hasn’t so far) but can also lead to odd-man rushes going back the other way. Laviolette wanted to rotate his goalies, meaning Ray Emery would likely have started against Florida, but that system may be scrapped with Berube in charge.

What Florida must do: The Cats have to improve on the power play, currently scoreless in 11 chances. Last year Florida had the No. 6 power play and allowed just one shorthanded goal. Expect Calder Trophy winner Huberdeau – who has a highlight or two, courtesy of departed Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov – to have a breakout game and get his first goal or two of this season.

WHAT: Florida Panthers (1-1-0) at Philadelphia Flyers (0-3-0)

WHERE: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia

WHEN: 7:00, Tuesday

Panthers Preview: Adding in Camp Creates Buzz

By Bill Whitehead

Few teams are able to make a major splash just three weeks before the season begins and send a shock wave throughout the league.

The Florida Panthers managed to do just that.

In need of a backup goaltender after reserve Scott Clemmensen went down due to minor knee surgery, the Panthers extended inquiries to previous goalie Jose Theodore, quirky Ilya Bryzgalov and former Stanley Cup winner Tim Thomas.

Thomas, out of the game all last year after leading Boston to a Stanley Cup title two years ago, accepted the offer of a tryout, joined the club and signed a 1-year contract the day before the Panthers were sold for $250 million to New York financial executive Vincent Viola and Douglas Cifu.

Newcomer Brad Boyes, also brought in on a tryout and who made the final roster, vouched for the work ethic and grit of his former Bruins teammate.

“He never gives up on anything. It’s impressive. He’ll keep going. He’ll get angry (if you score on him in practice)…It shows in the games he plays, the number of highlight saves he’s made. A guy like that, with his resume, on a team like this is going to be positive,” Boyes said.

“He’s a proven winner.”

Thomas played against cross-state rival Tampa Bay in two preseason games for the Panthers, an organization celebrating its 20th anniversary. His performance in the finale – a 5-3 win at BB&T Center – was typical of what most expect from a 4-time All-Star and 2-time Vezina Trophy winner.

“There are some new guys on this team, and we’re looking to become a team and have confidence in each other,” Thomas said. “We need to have confidence we can win a game when we’re up in the third period. I was real happy with what I saw in front of me.”

Said coach Kevin Dineen of Thomas, who will start Opening Night in Dallas: “His intensity and compete level is a great example for our whole team. It’s a good addition.”

Tomas Fleischmann, who has played in every game during his two-year Florida career, said a sense of excitement was created with the news of Thomas joining the team.

“We didn’t have (his kind of experience) last year, and we had injuries in goal. He’s going to help (Jacob Markstrom) get better. Every time I played against him, he worked hard. It’s good for every guy to see in the dressing room. It’s a great thing for us. He works hard and everybody’s going to see it. They’ll try to work harder than him and that’s what’s going to make us better,” Fleischmann said.

Tomas Kopecky scored 15 goals for Florida last year, tying his career high and pacing the Panthers. The winger said he spoke with fellow Slovakian Zdeno Chara, a teammate of the goalie’s in Boston, over the summer to learn more about Thomas.

“He definitely knows how to win. Zdeno said he’s very competitive, even in practice. He’s going to make you better during the practices. He’s a tough goalie when he’s on his game, and his results speak for themselves,” Kopecky said.

Florida continued to make additions last week, inking offensive defenseman Tom Gilbert and skilled but oft-injured blueliner Ryan Whitney to shore up an experienced defense that features Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Weaver.

Forward Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov, the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft, made the roster and is expected to make big contributions. The 18-year-old Finn will likely center the second line featuring top rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and Boyes.

“The kid is awesome. He’s a great center,” said Fleischmann of Barkov. “I’ve been excited to play with him. He’s a great guy and he knows what he’s doing. It took him a couple of periods to get used to (the speed). He’s just going to be an unbelievable player, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Two crucial transactions occurred during free agency that resulted in one win and one loss for the Panthers.

Shawn Matthias, a restricted free agent, was signed by GM Dale Tallon to a two-year, $3.5 million contract. Matthias, 25, made a handful of electrifying plays during a breakout season that saw him record a career-high 14 goals, tied for second with Huberdeau. However, the club did lose unrestricted free agent center Stephen Weiss, who debuted with Florida in 2001 and signed with the Detroit Red Wings.

HEALTHY CATS

Only three clubs – Detroit, Ottawa and Philadelphia – lost more man games than Florida, who had 361 in last year’s 48-game season. The return of forwards Sean Bergenheim (groin), Kris Versteeg (knee) and Scottie Upshall (ankle), who played in zero, seven and 27 games, respectively, will be a boost.

FRESH DIVISION

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement that saved half of last season resulted in change. Southeast Division champs two years ago, Florida joins the Atlantic Division with Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto. The Cats can expect plenty of Canadian travel in its near future.

PREDICTION

35-37-10 (80 points)

Tim Thomas in the crease can flat out steal the Panthers five or six games this season, maybe even a few more if the defense in front of him is improved from a year ago and the offense can fulfill its potential. Florida’s roster is a much better one now that when camp opened, too, and health will be the most important factor. If healthy, Florida can be a fringe playoff team but that’s if everything goes right, and more than likely some woes will develop. Still, the Panthers should finish better than the 16th in the Eastern Conference many pundits predicted and likely in front of Buffalo and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division.

Note: Be sure to read the links below to the shorter version of my preview of the Florida Panthers and the upcoming season. It appeared in Wednesday’s three Scripps newspapers on the Treasure Coast.  Some extra player nuggets, photos.

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