By BILL WHITEHEAD
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