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.
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By BILL WHITEHEAD
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.
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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.
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By BILL WHITEHEAD
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
BY BILL WHITEHEAD
It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?
However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.
Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.
Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.
But enough of that miserable night.
The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.
Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.
Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.
The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.
The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.
And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.
While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.
With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.
On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.
Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.
Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.
This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.
That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.
It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.
It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.
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BY BILL WHITEHEAD
SUNRISE — The 2016-17 season hasn’t even started yet for the Florida Panthers, yet I feel like the Cats are already struggling to hang on somewhat.
The major injury to Jonathan Huberdeau (out 3-4 months) and the minor one to Nick Bjugstad (out a month) have given the club its fair share of bad news and we haven’t even dropped the puck yet. The setbacks have some of the prognosticators frowning on the new-look Panthers — both in their attire and the players on the ice — but the pundits were going to choose Tampa Bay to regain the Atlantic Division, regardless of coach Gerard Gallant and his staff being without Bjugstad and Huberdeau.
Good teams rally in times of crisis, though, and this group of Cats should be up to the task of solidly securing a playoff berth. To do that, their primary scorers must do their jobs plus have secondary scoring and improve the power play.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has a slogan: “Try Not to Suck.” The Panthers don’t have to adopt that motto, however. There’s should simply be “Just Be Better.”
Here are a few reasons they could be better, plus a prediction:
BREAKOUT PLAYER: Jonathan Marchessault. If you looked at Tampa’s roster and its crop of UFAs and RFAs on July 1, the two names that jumped off the screen at you were Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Most had Stammer pegged for Toronto while Kucherov couldn’t hammer a deal. Florida never had a shot at 91, though I’m confounded as to why the Panthers didn’t offer-sheet Kucherov, the 23-year-old Russian right winger who is a deadly sniper. Let’s face it, the Cats will need a top RW shortly, and six years or so of Huberdeau-Barkov-Kucherov is enough to make you salivate.
But the third name on that list — and the most obtainable one — was Marchessault, who was looking for minutes and a better opportunity with his minutes limited on Florida’s west coast.
A huge favorite of the Bolts and coach Jon Cooper, Marchessault should have the breakout year this season that some have predicted. In Lightning games I watched, he and teammate Vladislav Namestnikov were always a problem for the opposition, using their speed and skill to create scoring chances where none seemed to exist.
That kind of production is why he’s on the top line now at left wing in place of Huberdeau. I expect him to get time on the power play, exceed expectations and be the acquisition I thought he would.
In Season 3 of The Walking Dead, the Governor reunites Merle and Daryl, unveiling the latter to the former, saying to Merle, “You wanted your brother, now you got him.” Well, Marchy wanted more minutes.
Now he’s got them.
MUST-DO-WELL PLAYER: James Reimer. With starter Roberto Luongo coming off hip surgery, Reimer will play an enormous role in spelling Florida’s 37-year-old starting netminder.
The choice of Reimer was a solid one. Jhonas Enroth was another possibility, but the 28-year-old Reimer was signed to a 5-year/$17 million contract and will have plenty of chances to get starts here and there and show what he can do.
Like Marchessault, a great opportunity exists for him with the Cats.
O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN: Derek MacKenzie. From the start, I thought D-Mac displayed the traits necessary — most notably his leadership qualities — to earn the C on his new Florida sweater.
Did he play enough to warrant it? The top six definitely plays more.
Is he high-profile enough? Luongo, Jagr, Barkov and Ekblad are the familiar faces.
Does he score enough? He was tied for 11th with Kulikov in team points with 17.
All of those questions could start with “No” as an answer, but MacKenzie brings more to each 60 minutes than just stats. He’s a tireless worker, excellent penalty killer, gritty as my wife’s homemade soaps and shows the leadership every player in the room looks up to.
Hey, Jagr said it was an easy, perfect choice. That’s good enough for me.
THE SEASON: 43-28-10 (96 points). The early injury bug will be important for Florida to overcome. Don’t expect a 12-game winning streak, but an offensive improvement on the blue line should create more goals, and newcomer Keith Yandle should be a force quarterbacking the power play.
Tampa will win the Atlantic while Florida will finish second, then host Montreal in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where Quebec native Luongo will shut down the Habs and send Florida to the second round.
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