#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

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.

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

The #FlaPanthers after 5 games

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Five games or so is really a small sample to figure out how good a team is in an 82-game season. It’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers (5-1-0) and Vancouver Canucks (4-1-1), who are atop the Pacific Division, are better than expected, but likely for different reasons. The Oilers are so deep with offensive talent they’re playing 2011 No. 1 overall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third line center. Vancouver? Who knows. They were expected to be pretty bad and in a youth rebuild.

But it’s really the Florida Panthers we’re concerned about. At 3-1-1 and embarking on their first real road trip, not a day-trip up I-75, here’s what we can glean so far from this version of the Cats:

STAYING HERE — Denis Malgin and Shane Harper. A few people griped a bit when the 19-year-old Swiss forward and the 27-year-old Californian broke camp with the team, but the lesson the pair has taught is this: Let’s give them a chance before we ship them out to Springfield.

Malgin was a big unknown coming in. With Lawson Crouse and Rocco Grimaldi out of the picture, more talk centered around Kyle Rau, Juho Lammikko, Jayce Hawryluk and even Dryden Hunt, a curious potential “diamond in the rough” signing, among the forwards who were looking to impress. However, Malgin tore it up in rookie camp and showed he belonged with the big club in the preseason.

He still belongs.

Much like Tampa’s 20-year-old Brayden Point, Malgin battles size issues as both are a couple of inches short of six feet. Yet what they’re not short of is talent and determination — you know, those immeasurables — that have put both players on teams that most feel should be in the playoffs. Though he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie yet, Malgin has outworked defenders and won battles that have led to goals, again showing that the staff’s decision to bring him up was the right call.

I tweeted Saturday night that Malgin was “clearly the most electrifying player who has never scored a goal,” but I think that changes and I’m going to go ahead and call my shot Babe Ruth-style: Malgin scores against Pittsburgh.

Maybe it’s because Malgin sounds like Malkin. Or because Malgin wears No. 62 like the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin, who was instrumental in their Cup run last year. Whatever. I’ll take any off-the-wall connection at all I can use, but it’s time for Malgin to score.

The well-traveled Harper nearly made the club out of camp last year, but that honor went to Connor Brickley. Now it’s Harper’s turn, and the former ECHLer is making the most of it. Unlike most from that league, Harper can flat out score — he’s done it everywhere he’s played.

His finish from nice assists from Greg McKegg and Alex Petrovic on 2-on-1s Saturday are skillful scores we don’t see often from NHL  fourth lines. But again, Harper has scored at all levels, so don’t be surprised when he shoots more often and it happens again.

Quite a few players have bounced in and out of Florida’s bottom six in the past year — some have been dealt, some demoted, some just outright handed their walking papers. Malgin and Harper appear to be good candidates to stay here all year, putting pressure on young players to step up their game if they want to get the call and likely keeping Shawn Thornton out of the lineup.

The lineup decision gets tougher when Nick Bjugstad returns in the near future and Jonathan Huberdeau in early 2017, too.

MUST SEE STs — The Florida Panthers’ special teams have always been interesting to watch and often a work in progress. That’s still the case this year.

First, the good: The penalty kill has been excellent through five games.

The PK is a major asset on a couple of fronts. First, it’s been non-existent much of the time because Florida has shown its discipline by being down a man only 11 times, a 90.9% clip that ranks ninth in the NHL.

The power play is a different story — so far.

Only twice in 18 opportunities (11.1%) has Florida scored on the PP, which is hard to fathom considering there’s a 750-goal scorer and two of the game’s best young centers on the ice.

“So far” is the key here. The PP has only reaped benefits for Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad, but it has shown signs of life. Look for Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle to start tallying goals with the man-advantage. Florida ices too much offensive talent to sit tied for 23rd in the PP.

Both special teams must improve into the top half of the NHL in order to have long-term success and make a deep run.

A TOUGH ONE — Like most, you probably feel the Cats gave away a point in the final seconds in Tampa in a game they deserved to win last week. In actuality it’s a three-point swing: the one Florida didn’t get for the win and the two the Bolts got instead of a regulation loss.

Making it worse is that the points transfer happened with a divisional opponent. And if Montreal stays hot and is for real and Florida and Tampa Bay fight but come up in second and third in the Atlantic, those three points could determine home-ice advantage in a Citrus Showdown in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But it’s a long season, one in which Florida will surely come out victorious in a game or two when they shouldn’t have. It’s a tough, tough season, too.

How tough?

Look at Trocheck’s face in the season’s first week. A pair of scabbed over wounds on each cheek, the Pittsburgh native wears black and blue instead of black and gold right now.But Trocheck won battles, scored a greasy goal and lobbied for a high-sticking call Saturday night after one of the abrasions was re-opened and bubbled blood.

Trocheck’s counenance is a canvas showing the determination and grind that comes with a grueling NHL campaign, with scabs, scratches and scar tissue the paint that splatters the canvas. Meanwhile, bruises, muscle pulls, dental issues and lingering body pain will define the days.

And it’s not even Halloween yet.

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

A Peek at the Crystal Ball: #FlaPanthers, 2016-17

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.

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

 

#FlaPanthers draft moments, plus tonight’s pick

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Sadly really, this piece doesn’t have the dateline “BUFFALO, N.Y.” leading it, but that’s the result of having other sports in full swing as the summer unfolds. Ever since the Florida Panthers’ brass decided to draft Jonathan Huberdeau five years ago, I’ve usually spent this week in the summer away from the oppressive South Florida heat and at the host site of the NHL Draft.

Until tonight.

For the just the second time since 2011, I won’t be at the draft as teams make deals on the floor of an arena and shape their future. I missed the draft two years ago in New Jersey – aka, The Barkov Draft – but that one was a real mess anyway, with too much back and forth from Newark to NYC. A bad experience other than snagging Barkov, of course – a brilliant move by Dale Tallon as the lure of Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin hung in the Jersey air.

The draft has been extremely rewarding to the Florida Panthers in the eight years I’ve been covering the team, but that’s usually what happens when your club is floundering. This year is similar to 2012, though, when the Cats actually drafted after the Chicago Blackhawks in Pittsburgh and selected Michael Matheson. I make the Chicago reference because I really had my eye on Teuvo Teravainen at that draft, and he’s been in the news lately.

There are a lot of those moments, though, in the time I’ve covered the draft.

I chatted with a friend as I rode the Light Rail in the Twin Cities, hoping Rocco Grimaldi would be available early in the second round after Florida chose Huberdeau the previous night. Grimaldi was there – the consensus was he was another first-rounder who just happened to be in the second round – and Tallon pounced when the 33rd selection came up.

Yesterday, he was traded, ending the Rocco Era in Sunrise.

Florida also made the 64th pick that day. We interviewed the young forward, who naturally had South Florida ties (they all do, it seems, though it’s usually through retired grandparents), liked what he had to say and went on our way. As I walked away, a scout said to me, “Keep your eye on him, he’ll be a good one.”

Yeah, he was probably right. Vincent Trocheck has been better than good; he’s been outstanding. And Kyle Rau, chosen at No. 91 that day, has a great chance to do with this team what Grimaldi couldn’t.

The same anticipation of watching these new prospects become a part of the organization and develop moved to Pittsburgh, where Matheson joined the fray. And from the Barkov Draft, second-round pick Ian McCoshen, who recently signed an ELC, could make an impression at rookie camp with bottom-pairing spots on the blue line up for grabs.

Florida chose the big prize in 2014, getting love from Philadelphia in the form of star defenseman Aaron Ekblad. I stayed up late that Friday night wondering who Florida would choose with the second pick on the next day when Round 2 began. Buffalo had the first pick, and the anticipation of the second round is indescribable because clubs selecting early have those “fallers” like Grimaldi just sitting there waiting to hear their names called.

Brendan Lemieux, goalie Thatcher Demko and Ivan Barbashev were the hot names, and I was keen on the latter, despite Tallon rarely selecting high-profile Russian players. I chatted with friends on Twitter about who to take, and most agreed on Barbashev but didn’t think Tallon would do it.

The next day Tallon followed up on a promise he made to Jayce Hawryluk, taking him and leaving us in the media with a great interview. Like Demko, who was a media darling in the prospect interviews, Hawryluk was very open and immediately likable. He talked about his village of a hometown and the hotly contested pick-up games he played with his older brothers, aggravating matches that often left him frustrated but determined to win the next time.

It was obvious to see that while this kid’s pest-like quality will likely lead to him being disliked by opposing teams and fans in the NHL, maybe to a Brad Marchand-like degree, Panthers jerseys sporting his name will be prominent at BB&T Center at some point. Especially if he keeps developing like he did these last few seasons in Brandon.

In fact, when speaking of that anticipation that comes with prospects maturing, are there two more we’re eagerly awaiting to see make it than Hawryluk and last year’s first-round Lawson Crouse?

As for tonight, I won’t fib and pretend I know too much about this draft. Like in Pittsburgh, there’s a tad less excitement when Florida picks this late; however, that’s the price of progress and success. But that old anticipation and anxiety will surface when the Cats’ selection comes up.

If I had two longshots, I’d go with Val-d’Or power forward Julien Gauthier or Wisconsin Badgers center Luke Kunin, both dynamic offensive players but who likely won’t be around if the Panthers stay at No. 23. Either would be excellent additions. Since draft analysis usually deals in hyperbolic comparisons, Gauthier reminds some of Rick Nash while Kunin is a Dylan Larkin clone.

So here we go: “With the 23rd pick, the Florida Panthers select…Alex DeBrincat, from the OHL’s Erie Otters.”

Russian-born Vitali Abramov, also a right winger like the American DeBrincat, is super skillful and dazzling at times, but it’s hard to pass on a player like DeBrincat, who has produced consecutive 50-goal seasons.

The 5-foot-7 winger has scored 102 goals in his last two seasons. USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen said he “might be the niftiest goal scorer in the draft.” He’s feisty, tenacious and a good skater, and oddly, most don’t mention his size as a liability. He outskates and outworks much bigger players, and he just scores and scores and scores.

Did I mention those back-to-back 50-goal seasons?

DeBrincat.

Scores.

Goals.

That would have me anticipating even more – despite not being in Buffalo.

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

#FlaPanthers Step Up Big Time on Road

If Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant drew up a script to play out over the last week — a pivotal seven days in the club’s quest to return to the playoffs — it surely wouldn’t have unfolded the way it did.

The home loss to Detroit on what was unofficially Kevin Spacey Night was a downer and uncharacteristic of the Cats. Blowing a two-goal lead had happened just three games prior against the Islanders. Doing it again on a night that had so much emotion and a franchise-record crowd of 20,817 was a complete surprise. The result in Madison Square Garden wasn’t any better.

However, as they have done all year, these Cats found a way to roll with it and land on their feet. In fact, resiliency may be the team’s best attribute, making what happened in Brooklyn and home against Detroit more of an aberration than anything else. More often than not, those late leads have been safe.

Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and everyone else slip up occasionally. It’s going to happen over 82 games. Doesn’t mean fans have to accept it, but the good fortune is having another game on the schedule. And the sooner the better to get that stinging loss off your mind.

Which leads us to the good news. You know, the part where the resiliency steps in and saves the week, season and playoff hopes.

It’s also the stretch — just a two-game one — where Vincent Trocheck stepped up and displayed his value and leadership, the top line started clicking and Roberto Luongo demonstrated that he’s still an elite goalie.

There’s definitely a Panthers Team MVP piece down the road, and Trocheck is one of four or five guys a case could be made for. On a two-game losing streak and playing in the House of Horrors that is TD Waterhouse in Boston, then in Tampa Saturday, the Panthers could have folded after trailing early in both. Trocheck provided the spark, though, scoring on a pair of top-shelf laser beams to change the direction in both contests. Plus, his grittiness–whether it’s playing while being high-sticked and without a few teeth, blocking a shot or diving to clear a puck–is unrivaled on the team.

The top line gained some life, too, showing signs of life in Boston and ending with Jonathan Huberdeau skating in for an empty-net goal by way of Sasha Barkov. That carried over against the Bolts when Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr scored on fantastic shots. Luongo, meanwhile, was far better than Tuukka Rask and Andrei Vasilevskiy, though the Russian goalie really had no chance on goals by Trocheck, Jagr, Huberdeau and Jiri Hudler.

As Miami Hurricane wide receiver Santana Moss said following a win in the Orange Bowl over Florida State: “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”

Florida’s performance in Boston and Tampa after a couple of tough losses and with first place in the Atlantic Division hanging in the balance?

Big time.

EMPTY NETTER: Minnesota Twins pitcher Phil Hughes (@PJHughes45) likely became a Lightning fan during his tenure with the New York Yankees, who train in Tampa in the spring. Hughes is a passionate fan and was taking in his first Bolts game this year Saturday. To get into the spirit, avid fan Hughes took it upon himself to fire a few feeble attempts at Aaron Ekblad and Jagr, two players with more awards already and a future Hall of Fame induction ahead of one of them, and who are undeniably better on the ice than he is on the mound.

 

 

While Hughes’ night started out like a giddy teenager tweeting for the first time, I learned the day after Florida thrashed his Bolts 5-2 while at Mets spring training through my New York media colleagues, one in particular who covered the righty when he wore pinstripes, that Hughes is by far one of the most approachable, nicest guys in sports.

So in summary, Phil Hughes is a bad tweeter, lousy rabbit’s foot for the Bolts, complimentary No. 3 starter (83-69, 4.33), but all-around good guy and one of the most likable blokes we sportswriters cover. Having never spoken with or covered Hughes, I’ll take my fellow scribe’s word on it.

And Hughes is a huge hockey fan, just like Keegan Bradley, the No. 98th ranked golfer in the world, is of the Panthers. Phil’s profile even reads “Way too big of a Lightning fan for my own good.”

His tweeting Saturday night was the “for my own good” part.

Sure, Hughes cheers for the enemy, so he’s misguided. Plus he called out two professional athletes better than him — one a certain Hall of Famer — but he was a decent sport at the end of a tough evening for him. Hughes drove up from Fort Myers the night before his start against the Yankees, his former club, in Tampa on Sunday just to watch his hockey team for the only time this season, then the Bolts get blown out of their own barn in the biggest game of the year so far by their in-state rivals who have now beaten them four out of five games.

Hughes’ hockey passion is what we like.

For that he gets a little bit of a pass, but it just barely touches the black of the plate.

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

#FlaPanthers, Bolts Battle for Top Spot

Well, the Florida Panthers’ visit to Habsland turned out to be so much better than their visit to NYC, huh? You know, that Monday night fiasco that quickly turned into the Brooklyn Disaster.

As bad as Monday’s inexplicable 3-2 loss was to the Islanders was — and it was right up there as worst of the year, maybe because of its terrible timing with the postseason looming — the Cats’ bounceback 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens was a 60-minute effort. Granted it came against a Habs team that resembled an AHL club, but, really, who cares at this point about the circumstances surrounding any of these games?

Did anyone really feel sorry for a rag-tag Florida (39-22-9) group that scratched Derek MacKenzie, Erik Gudbranson and Jussi Jokinen? Gudbranson’s absence was no surprise as he was seen limping around the dressing room following the loss in Brooklyn, but Jokinen’s ailment is just another in a slew of injuries and was a surprise. However, for Florida to compete at top level and succeed, key contributors 17, 44 and 36 need to be in the lineup. This is especially important in the pursuit of the Atlantic Division.

Just as Super Tuesday resulted in a four-candidate field being reduced to three on the Republican side, mainly because of the Sunshine State no less, I’ve said for weeks that I feel the three-team race in the Atlantic will eventually be trimmed to two. Florida and Tampa appear to have an easier path to achieving the divisional title as compared to the Boston Bruins.

Take Boston’s upcoming slate of games into consideration — and I write this as they lead San Jose 2-1 in the second period. Yet after that it gets no easier for Boston in its last 11 to end the season. Back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles at the end of the week, then traveling to face the Rangers next Wednesday. Florida rolls into Beantown the next night on a Bruins’ back-to-back. However, the real kicker is Boston going to St. Louis and Chicago to start April. The penultimate game is home against Detroit, who is fading and scrounging to hold onto the final wild-card spot.

In total, Boston faces seven playoff teams in its final 11 contests. The Bruins will face five of those seven teams currently holding a playoff spot away from TD Garden. The Bs have been the NHL’s best on the road, but that’s a tall task ahead of them.

I expect Florida and Tampa to reap the benefits of that, meaning the Atlantic winner would play Pittsburgh right now and the divisional runner-up would host Boston if the Bruins slip to third in the division. That will be a tough matchup for either Florida or Tampa.

In short, I just don’t think the Cats and Bolts meet in the first round.

But we still have a few weeks to figure that out.

EMPTY-NETTER: Jonathan Huberdeau was given the A on his No. 11 sweater as he returned home to Quebec. The Saint-Jerome native showed he was worthy from the get-go, engaging in some rough stuff right away and eventually leaving a mark on the game when he slid a beautiful pass over to Sasha Barkov for the game’s final goal. It was Huberdeau’s 35th assist, second on the team to Jokinen. Interestingly, the Montreal fans seemed to cheer loudly when the primary assist from one of their hometown lads was announced in French.

Say what you will about Montreal fans — they dress funny, they’re cocky bordering on arrogant, they feel entitled because of their rich history — but one thing is also worthy of mention: They are passionate about their hockey. That passion often translates into appreciation, which is why they cheered for their homey Huberdeau after he helped bury his childhood favorite team.

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