Dale Tallon’s “State of the Cats”: Part I — Adding Talent

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – The following is the first segment of a number of blogs that will feature an interview with Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, who met with the media over the weekend to discuss a variety of issues – kind of a “State of the Cats” address, if you will. One major point, obviously, he made will be the onus of fixing the club, and it won’t necessarily be by watching the youth develop.

 

PART I: ADDING CATS

Specifically, Tallon said he will add to this team in the offseason, and the feeling was pervasive that it won’t be your run-of-the-mill low-level signings. The club has $30 million to spend over the summer, and the new ownership has made it clear the Panthers need to be pointed in the right direction and have some kind of buzz about them when camp opens.

“We’re going to fix it. We’ve got to surround these kids with some great players,” Tallon said, alluding to Florida’s deep pool of young talent.

While goaltending primarily is no longer an issue after the acquisition of Roberto Luongo – though a strong case could be made against Dan Ellis and his poor play since his arrival – Tallon said to expect changes on the blue line and up front.

“I’d like to bring in at least five (veterans). We have 11 kids in our system under 23 years old that are over 6-foot-2. So we have those coming. But we have to go in the free agent market or make a trade at the draft to get probably two defensemen that are experienced, good NHL defensemen,” he said.

On the offensive front, Florida finished the season with 188 goals, a 2.29 per game clip. Only Buffalo, at 1.82 per game before Sunday’s game, was worse, so a priority will also be placed in finding a winger who can alleviate some of the pressure that’s on the defense.

“You have to have a guy that can score goals and score easily. We’re at the bottom of the heap in scoring. We’ve had a lot of close games. We need a scorer to play with Barkov, we need a scorer to play with Bjugstad, we need one to play with Trocheck, Shore or Pirri. All of these assets we have, some are going to have to go to wing. They can’t all play center. It’s easier to go from center-to-wing than wing-to-center,” Tallon said.

He said that acquiring Luongo could be valuable at attracting talent, just like the organization did when they traded for defenseman Brian Campbell at the Minnesota draft in 2011.

“I think getting Louie here is going to help us close the deal on these free agents. It’s going to be a real asset for us. I think you sell winning and a desire to win. We now have the ability to put a team together to win, and that’s what players want. You can have the best facilities in the world; they just want to go somewhere where they win,” said Tallon.

“I was denied for two years in Chicago – a great city, an Original Six team – nobody wanted to come because the perception was they didn’t want to win. But that’s a perception that’s gone away, and it’s gone away here. We’re going to get the players that want to win.”

 

Part II…coming soon

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QUICK TAKE: #Leafs 6, #FlaPanthers 3

By Bill Whitehead

Game 3 of Florida’s 4-game road trip saw the Cats (21-25-7) travel to the Air Canada Centre to face Toronto, who was 7-1-1 – the hottest team in the NHL – over their last nine games. Goalie Tim Thomas got the night off as Scott Clemmensen, who beat Toronto 3-1 in the ACC on Dec. 17, was between the pipes. Jimmy Hayes was one of the scratches as were two surprise ones – Erik Gudbranson and Tomas Fleischmann.

First period

Nick Bjugstad, who had the game-winner in the shootout in Detroit to open the road swing, continued his strong play after Drew Shore chipped out a pass to Scottie Upshall. Bjugstad just outworked Nazem Kadri across the blue line, took the sweet pass from Upshall and flipped a shot over Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier at 1:39 for his 12th goal. Basically, Bjugstad showed Kadri what 6-foot-6 gets you in a 50-50 battle.

Scott Gomez, in for injured Aleksander Barkov, stole a puck from Cody Franson along the boards and passed it over to Brad Boyes, who was streaking through the center of Florida’s offensive zone. Boyes quickly passed it to Sean Bergenheim on the 2-on-1 advantage against Toronto defenseman Tim Gleason. Bergenheim beat Bernier for his 13th marker.

Kadri and Franson redeemed themselves at 16:49 after the defenseman banged home a shot from way out. Kadri kept the puck alive behind Clemmensen by outworking Brian Campbell. The period ended with Florida holding a 2-1 edge on the scoreboard and an 11-9 shot advantage.

The good: Bjugstad, the Bergenheim-Gomez-Boyes line, the faceoff circle (went 12 of 24) for the Panthers, who played a good first period on the road.

The bad: The power play went 0-for-2 and continued to prevent the Panthers from stretching a 1-0 lead at the time into a 2-goal advantage.

Second period

Not much good happened as Clemmensen gave up goals to Mason Raymond and James van Riemsdyk in the first minute of play. The Raymond goal, his 14th, was a soft one as Clemmensen whiffed on the shot from the left circle. Again, the Panthers had the better scoring chances but couldn’t cash in and trailed 3-2 after 40 minutes.

Third period

Struggling Nikolai Kulemin’s eighth goal at 4:00 put Florida down 4-2, and Clemmensen gave up another terrible goal when Joffrey Lupul beat him on the short side with a quick shot for a power-play goal. Dmitry Kulikov scored on a blast from the point with 5:31 left past Bernier, but Florida limped out with their second consecutive bad loss in three nights.

FINAL

Toronto 6

Florida 3

Quick take:

The offense for Florida (21-26-7) seemed to be on the right track with the early goals by Bjugstad and Bergenheim, but the power play was garbage as usual and the Cats couldn’t capitalize or take advantage of numerous chances against a not-so-stellar Leafs D. Clemmensen was simply the worst Panther on the ice and gave Florida no chance to win, allowing three bad goals and failing to make big stops that starting goalie Tim Thomas often makes to keep games close.

 

This was one of those games the Panthers haven’t had too often this year: An offensive fast start with a 2-0 lead, then blowing it with poor goaltending and a suddenly non-existent offensive attack. It was a win that slipped away for a team that desperately needs every point.

On to Columbus to finish a road trip that was so promising to start and has transformed into utter disappointment…

CAT-QUICK GAMER: #FlaPanthers rally past #RedWings, 5-4, in Shootout

By Bill Whitehead

Nick Bjugstad and Tim Thomas finished off all the hard work the Florida Panthers did in the third period on Sunday.

The Panthers rallied by scoring two goals in the game’s final six minutes, and Bjugstad tallied the game-winner in the shootout’s only goal as Thomas slammed the door on all three Detroit shots, leading Florida to a wild 5-4 victory over the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

With Aleksander Barkov missing his second game due to a lower-body injury, interim coach Peter Horachek called on Bjugstad, who was 1-for-3 in his career in the shootout, to go first against Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson after Thomas denied Tomas Tatar.

Bjugstad drove in hard and flipped a high shot over Gustavsson’s glove for a 1-0 edge. Thomas then showed his glove skills against Daniel Alfredsson and Patrick Eaves, making glove saves against all to secure the win in his home state of Michigan.

The win lifted Thomas’s record to 6-2 in the shootout, while the Panthers improved to 7-5. Detroit, who now has 11 overtime/shootout losses, fell to 3-8 in the shootout. The Red Wings also dropped to 9-11-8 at home.

“We were fortunate that a lot of guys came up big. Timmy came up big in the shootout, too. I was a little nervous. I’d never gone first in the shootout  before,” Bjugstad said on the broadcast after the game.

Down 3-1 starting the third period, Florida (21-24-7) cut it to a 1-goal deficit when Jesse Winchester scored a greasy goal, his seventh, by poking a loose puck past Gustavsson at 9:12. But all the momentum was lost when Detroit (23-18-11) got an answer from Tatar four minutes later.

The Panthers, starting a 4-game road trip, mounted their comeback from there.

Tomas Fleischmann, mired in an awful slump, held the puck, weaved into the slot and fired a shot that ricocheted off Gustavsson. Drew Shore flipped the puck into the open net for his fourth goal with 5:32 remaining. Brad Boyes completed the comeback with a shorthanded goal when he fired one from the right circle, beating Gustavsson on the far side, with his 13th goal with 3:46 left in regulation.

The Panthers’ greatest defensive problem of late, clearing the puck out of their own end, bit them again in the second period. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski’s pass to Shore turned in to a turnover and a goal by Gustav Nyquist. More Florida miscues led to Detroit goals by Daniel Alfredsson and Riley Sheahan, leaving Florida in a 3-1 hole with 20 minutes to play.

Sean Bergenheim gave Florida a 1-0 lead just 1:48 into the fourth meeting between the teams when he took a pass from Dmitry Kulikov, raced in and beat Gustavsson.

Defenseman Tom Gilbert kept the Panthers in the game in overtime when he made a sliding kick save of a shot by Danny DeKeyser toward an open net after Thomas moved way above the crease to stop the initial shot. Gilbert finished with two assists.

Florida travels to Boston for a game Tuesday against the Bruins.

QUICK TAKES: #FlaPanthers pound #Pens, 5-1

By Bill Whitehead

When this road trip popped up on the schedule, I thought Florida could come away with four points – win two and drop one, likely at Pittsburgh against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday’s dreadful showing in that House of Horrors in my home state left little optimism about the remainder of the trip. Pittsburgh had won 13 straight, and Sidney Crosby had scored a point in 17 straight games at Consol. With goaltender Tim Thomas out because of illness, the odds seemed slim.

I guess we never saw this one coming, huh?

Considering the level of the competition, Florida likely played their best game of the season in the 5-1 win over the Penguins. Drew Shore, who had so many breaks go against him last season, scored twice and set the tone. Dmitry Kulikov, who was rumored to be on the trading block last month, was aggressive and skated hard in on Marc-Andre Fleury a few times, and scored the third goal that gave the Panthers (19-23-7) a 3-0 lead.

Oddly, Jonathan Huberdeau, desperately in need of a goal, didn’t get screwed out of a goal when the War Room in Toronto likely set the season-high for time spent reviewing a goal. Shawn Matthias had that Matty Moment I’ve been waiting for and simply outskated Matt Niskanen for the final tally 12 seconds after Huberdeau’s.

Here are my multiple stars from tonight’s win, in no particular order:

  • Scott Clemmensen, 35 saves. Had little faith in Clem going in, but he was outstanding. In fact, I bet he would admit the only goal he allowed was a bad one, but it doesn’t matter because he made so many great saves and was solid.
  • Drew Shore, two goals. His goals left Cats’ fans more surprised than Fleury after the roof shot on the shorty. He gave Florida momentum it never let go.
  • Jesse Winchester, three assists, plus-4. For someone who hadn’t played since Dec. 15, Winchester was sharp and is a welcome addition as a hard worker.
  • Dmitry Kulikov, goal. He’s been a big disappointment for most of the year, but he played headstrong and with purpose tonight. Also had a lethal howitzer that went high over Fleury. Maybe he’ll turn this around and live up to the potential.
  • Marcel Goc, one assist, 67 percent in the circle. Sure, his helper on Kulikov’s goal was fine, but winning 2 of 3 faceoffs kept Pittsburgh off balance.

Others were great, too. Erik Gudbranson sliding to make a block was just courageous and shows what a tough kid he is, and Mike Weaver was a plus-5. The PK killed off all three Pens power plays, making it 28 straight and 42 of their last 43 on the road. More importantly, the team stayed within the game plan and didn’t stray from it once the Penguins cut the lead to 3-1. Pittsburgh never was able to put together that “Five Minutes of Hell” I expected.

Mike Weaver, who was a plus-5, tweeted this after the game:

weaver

The goal in Buffalo: Score on the power play, get a marker from Flash and play with the intensity from tonight that will help the Cats come away with two more points.

Which wouldn’t be the way it was expected to go down when this 3-game road trip started.

Huberdeau Named Calder Trophy Finalist

By Bill Whitehead

In the closing minutes of that slugfest in Ottawa Sunday night — and slugfest might be too tame of a description — Brandon Prust crosschecked Cory Conacher. The former Tampa Bay Lightning fan favorite skated away, but Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher, likely angry as his team was on the receiving end of a 6-1 beatdown by the Senators, took the opportunity to fight with the former Canisius forward.

It was a three-second clash between two high-profile rookies, both Calder Memorial Trophy candidates all year, and the battle for the top first-year player was far more intense. Is it as intense as the 232 minutes produced in Game 3 of the Montreal-Ottawa series? Maybe.

The NHL announced its three finalists for the Calder on Monday, and Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau was among the trio who made the cut. Huberdeau, 19, being a finalist is no surprise. After all, we all saw him set the tone early by scoring against Carolina on the first shot of his NHL career.

Huby

Huberdeau’s numbers stack up well with the rest of the Calder competition, which just so happens to be Gallagher and Chicago Blackhawk forward Brandon Saad. Huberdeau was durable, playing in all 48 games for the injury-riddled Panthers. He was productive, too — tallying 14 goals and 17 assists, which tied him as the league’s top scoring rookie with Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov, last year’s first overall pick. The Quebec native, along with Kid Line teammates Drew Shore and Peter Mueller, gave Florida an offensive spark that was its best weapon on most nights. Huberdeau, the only NHLer to score on two penalty shots, also had three assists in the season finale in Tampa and created a few highlight-reel moments that should help him in the voting. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov.

HubyPS

As for Huberdeau’s competition, both have benefited from playing on far better teams and surrounded by better talent. Gallagher, a 21-year-old winger, had 15 goals and 13 assists in 44 games on a Montreal club that was very good for most of the regular season, though they struggled on defense at the end and are currently being manhandled by Ottawa through three games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. Saad, 20, had the good fortune of playing on a stacked team that was the best in the NHL during  the regular season. A native of Pittsburgh, Saad had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games.

Gallagher

Saad

The Calder choice will be a close fight and discussed much longer than the brief bout between Conacher and Gallagher, but perhaps native son Huberdeau can garner some of the Quebec media votes away from Gallagher to claim the prize as the league’s top rookie. It would be a nice reward, along with the No. 2 overall pick next month, to cap off a Florida season that was downright wretched.

With what’s on the horizon for the Panthers in terms of young talent — names like Bjugstad, Petrovic, Trocheck, Rau, Grimaldi and whoever gets chosen June 30 in Newark —  Huberdeau might just be starting a new Florida tradition over the next few years.

Florida Panthers Lose, Win at NHL Draft Lottery

By Bill Whitehead

It’s only been about 30 minutes since the NHL Draft Lottery was conducted, and I’ve got to admit one thing: I’m perfectly fine with the outcome, but only if the Florida Panthers stay where they are, which is picking No. 2 in the June 30 draft in Newark.

On Monday afternoon, Panther Parkway writer David Lasseter, a hockey enthusiast and avid music lover like myself, agreed with me that losing the draft lottery might not be the worst thing to happen to the Cats. A boatload of pressure comes along with picking No. 1 overall — Edmonton should be immune to that kind of stage fright by now — and one person close to the Panthers suggested to me that Florida might not have kept the top pick overall anyway. This source felt the Cats might succumb to the pressure and criticism and trade away the No. 1 selection.

News stories surfaced regarding that scenario.

A story in the Edmonton Journal stated new Oilers GM Craig MacTavish would try to make a splash by sending his club’s pick at No. 7, along with last year’s first selection Nail Yakupov, to the Panthers for their first choice. The speedy, flamboyant Yakupov was an interesting mention and might bring the kind of confident energy that borders on showboating to the Cats, but one soon wondered if former top selections Taylor Hall or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be available in place of the 19-year-old Yakupov. Jordan Eberle, who has blossomed, was likely untouchable.

Well, forget that idea…I think.

In the moments leading up to the lottery, I tweeted the following:

tweet

Truly, I don’t think the league did anything nefarious in its lottery or rigged it against Florida, but it is ironic that the one team that had connections to consensus top pick Seth Jones is the kid’s hometown club, the Colorado Avalanche, who won the right to select him. Jones is viewed as a can’t-miss defenseman: gritty, athletic, offensive-minded, and ready to play in the NHL in October.

But is Jones, the son of former NBAer Popeye Jones, what the Cats need right now?

Florida has been missing an electrifying superstar scorer since Pavel Bure. Forwards Nathan MacKinnon (below, left) and Jonathan Drouin (right), likely the second and third picks in some order after Jones, are elite offensive players who could make an impact in Sunrise right away.

NateMacKDrouin

Center MacKinnon (5-11, 179) has blazing speed that is top shelf, plus he’s a creative playmaker who can also score. He’s not Steven Stamkos — let’s get that straight right away — but he’s been mentioned comparatively in the same sentence as Stammer by some. Call him Stammeresque in places, which led to 103 points in 56 games this season for Halifax. He also centered a line for Canada in the World Junior Championships in Russia last December. His left winger? A young man named Jonathan Huberdeau.

Left winger Drouin  is a bigger version of Martin St. Louis, possessing incredible creativity and a sick pair of hands. Drouin played on a line with MacKinnon at Halifax this year and put up ridiculous numbers (133 points in 61 games) with MacKinnon centering him. Florida GM Dale Tallon was also recently in Halifax — maybe doing his homework or maybe just taking in some hockey that featured two prized prospects.

So it comes down to this: Does Florida want a No. 1 center who can create and get the most out of Huberdeau for the next 10 years or do they want another skillful French-Canadian winger who, along with Huberdeau, could baffle defensemen and embarrass goalies for a decade? Or does Florida trade out of that spot with someone who wants one of the two Halifax forwards, handing over a handsome bounty to Tallon and company in return?

Personally, I’ve liked MacKinnon from Day 1 over Jones, only because Florida is deep with young blueliners. Eric Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Alex Petrovic and T.J. Brennan comprise a promising defensive corps, with Colby Robak and Tyson Strachan a notch below and Michael Matheson, 2012’s top pick, waiting in the wings. So I’d take MacKinnon, call it a win and prepare for the blast of the goal horn more often, though the selection may end Stephen Weiss’s tenure with Florida.

Can Weiss honestly be put in front of centers Drew Shore, Marcel Goc, Nick Bjustad or Shawn Matthias, especially since he may be iffy coming off wrist surgery?

In a season full of losses, the Panthers may have appeared to have suffered another one on Monday night, but they didn’t. All they lost was Jones — if that’s who they truly wanted — or the bargaining power they would have had over Colorado, who covets Jones. And trust me when I say that Tallon, who drafted Patrick Kane first overall in 2007, would have found out how badly the Avalanche wanted Jones. He would have plumbed that depth.

The Cats didn’t lose at the draft lottery.

They won.

Cats End Season on High Note, Look Ahead

By Bill Whitehead

By both mediocre teams’ standards, the season finale between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning likely turned out for the best, with each club getting the most it could out of the outcome, a 5-3 win for the visiting Cats, who rallied twice in a strong performance.

For Florida, beating its in-state rival is always a good thing, and this season’s games with the Bolts have been particularly frustrating. The Panthers battled back from down 2-0 and 3-2 on Saturday night, scoring three unanswered goals to end the season 2-2-1 against the Lightning. But it could have been much better than that if Florida had taken care of business in its only two meetings with the Bolts in South Florida.

On Feb. 16 at BB&T Center, Florida appeared to be on the way to a 5-4 win but couldn’t clear the puck out of its zone — a season-long problem that hounded the  team — with Tampa’s net empty. Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left in regulation, and Benoit Pouliot tallied the game-winner in overtime.

A month later at home, the Cats turned in easily its most frustrating performance of the season in another loss — a defeat that truly defined the team’s shortcomings in the shortened season. Florida completely outhustled and outshot Tampa for the first 40 minutes, spending almost the entire time in front of Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback. Despite holding a 30-6 shot advantage after two periods and its opponent to a season-low 13, Florida dropped a 3-2 decision.

The Panthers (15-27-6) exacted a little revenge at the Tampa Times Forum, leaving the Cats fans who made the trip feeling a little better about the drive up I-75. The team showed a resilience that has been absent most of 2013, plus a snapshot (key word there) of its skill. Nick Bjugstad scored the first goal of his career. Alex Petrovic looked like a true NHL blueliner. T.J. Brennan looked like he had played with the Cats all year. Drew Shore and Quinton Howden were aggressive and had scoring chances. Eric Selleck scored his first NHL point by stealing the puck from Vincent Lecavalier in the third period and speeding toward Lindback, resulting in a tying goal by Scottie Upshall. And the prized rookie Jonathan Huberdeau strengthened his bid in his quest to win the Calder Trophy with three assists, including one on the empty-net goal by Marcel Goc that shut out the lights on Tampa’s season that started so promisingly but spiraled out of control.

The Lightning (18-26-4) started 6-1 and pulled out wins early in dramatic fashion, appearing to be a playoff team, but they only won 12 more times, fired mad genius coach Guy Boucher, traded away fan-favorite Calder candidate Cory Conacher for yet another goalie (Ben Bishop) and ended the season with a fizzle. This despite having flashy Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and sharpshooter Steven Stamkos, who both had fantastic campaigns.

More significantly, though, for the Bolts is that it didn’t completely blow the season by beating Florida to close the year. In fact, St. Louis’ possible game-tying shot with the Tampa net empty that rang off the iron before Goc’s goal may have been a godsend. A win or overtime loss would have moved Tampa out of the top three draft spots (a club outside the top three could also do that Monday night by winning the draft lottery, with the Lightning then drafting fourth).

The top three selections in the draft, in some order, should be defenseman Seth Jones, center Nathan MacKinnon and left winger Jonathan Drouin. Unless it wins the lottery or makes a trade, Tampa won’t get Jones, which would be a huge asset to a club bereft of defense, but GM Steve Yzerman could walk away with MacKinnon or Drouin when he leaves the podium in Newark on June 30. That wouldn’t have happened if the Bolts had beaten Florida or even lost in overtime or a shootout if St. Louis had scored in the last 90 seconds.

Both teams’ futures look good. No team in the NHL showcased more top-shelf, highly drafted talent than Florida this year. Kris Versteeg likely won’t be healthy enough to open next season, but his and Sean Bergenheim’s return, plus some roster tightening — and maybe a deal or two at the draft — and the Cats should be a far better team next year. Adding one of the three top picks or trade out of the top spot for an impact player will just make them stronger.

The Lightning, meanwhile, will bring back all that offensive wizardry and a coach who has produced winning teams, but until it strengthens its blue line and finds a legit No. 1 goalie, Tampa won’t be a serious postseason contender. Both Lindback and Bishop have been backups during their careers. With Nashville having Pekke Rinne, who wasn’t going to be beaten out by Lindback, and Ottawa icing ex-Panther Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, both Lindback and Bishop were expendable. One of the tall goalies will have to step up and win the job in camp, not in a season-long tryout each night.

It was locker cleanout day on Sunday, but next season likely can’t get here soon enough for both teams.