#FlaPanthers Jimmy Hayes Has to Move Those Feet

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Wednesday morning – and perhaps it was really Monday night – could have been better for Florida Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes.

Hayes, tied for fourth in team scoring with nine points, was one of the last Panthers to head off the ice at BB&T Center, strolling in hot and sweaty along with defenseman Colby Robak, as Florida wrapped up morning skate in preparation for its game against former Southeastern Division rival Carolina.

The extra skating meant the pair would likely be scratched for the 7:30 game against the Hurricanes (6-11-3). Coach Gerard Gallant said Scottie Upshall (lower body) would likely be out “a week for sure” due to his hard hit into the boards Monday night. Upshall was wearing a walking boot Tuesday. Derek MacKenzie, who felt flu-like Tuesday, was expected to play.

Gallant suggested Hayes’ potential scratch stemmed from effort.

“He’s a guy who sat in the stands the first few games, and he’s played hard for us,” said Gallant. “But we’ve got to keep on Jimmy and make sure he’s working. He’s a big guy. When he’s effective, he skates hard and moves his feet and is an important guy for us.”

And when he’s not moving those feet anchoring his mammoth frame?

“Everybody’s different. Some guys you have to push them a little harder,” Gallant said. “For me, I talk to Jimmy quite a bit and say, ‘When you’re playing well you’re moving your feet.’ These big guys look lazy out there at times…We keep telling him, ‘You’re a good hockey player and a goal scorer. Get to the net, move to the net and make sure you’re working hard.’

“He’s working hard, and he’s a good kid. We like what we’re seeing from him. Goals are scored around the blue paint. When you work hard to get there and you’re a big-bodied guy and tough to move, you’ve got to pay a price to score goals.”

Hayes is tied with Brad Boyes in points (9) despite having played in only 13 of the 19 games for the Panthers (7-6-6). Jussi Jokinen leads with 12 points, followed by Nick Bjugstad and rookie Aaron Ekblad with 11 each.

Hayes, originally drafted by Toronto, and teammate Dylan Olsen, were traded to Florida last Nov. 14 in a deal that sent Kris Versteeg back to Chicago. Hayes was playing in Rockford (AHL) at the time but saw the opportunity in Florida.

“It was a new team and a chance to establish myself. I’m grateful and happy for that opportunity. I feel like I’m a full-time NHLer now and starting to contribute the way I want to. It’s good not to be the guy walking around on eggshells not sure where he’s going to be every day. I never say I’m complacent, but it’s good to have a role on an NHL team,” said Hayes, who missed six of Florida’s first eight games in October.

The Boston College alum said he knows he has to play near the blue paint.

“It’s where I’ve been my whole career being 6-foot-5, so I just had to take hold of (the spot) as a pro. Not many guys go there and stuff, so I was able to establish a spot there,” he said.

Vincent Trocheck and Tomas Fleischmann, both scratched Monday, are expected to be in the lineup in place of Hayes and Upshall, while Olsen replaces Robak.

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

Advertisements

Surprising Offense a Bright Spot for Dylan Olsen

By Bill Whitehead

Late in Florida’s 3-2 shootout win over Washington Friday night, I turned to press box seat mate Erin Brown (@rinkside on Twitter) and made a pretty accurate but not so fresh observation about a certain Panther on the ice. “You know,” I said, watching the Panthers’ blueliners skate, “there’s a whole lot to like about Dylan Olsen’s game.”

That assessment comes after watching Olsen for just nine games with the Panthers following his trade along with fellow former Blackhawk Jimmy Hayes, also playing impressively, for Kris Versteeg. Later while all of the media was drawn to the forward side of the room because of the 10-round epic shootout, I kept peering over to the defensive side where Olsen was nowhere to be found. After talking to Jonathan Huberdeau about his Barkov-like move and listening to Tomas Kopecky describe his game-winning shot that beat Washington’s Philipp Grubauer, I finally saw Olsen and headed over.

Olsen, who has seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), is known as a defensive-oriented defenseman, but you wouldn’t have known it early in second period. After Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad kept the puck in the Caps’ end, Kopecky took a pass from the Calder winner and had his shot from the slot deflected by Alex Ovechkin. Olsen corralled the puck and fired the game’s first goal past Grubauer from a bad angle near the bottom of the left circle.

The goal gave Olsen, a 2009 first-round draft pick (28th overall), a 5-game point streak, which is quite a surprise for a player who had two goals during his 69-game AHL career. Olsen has brought a physical, responsible defensive game and has stood out with partner Erik Gudbranson, whom he played with at the U18 tournament at Fargo in 2009 and in the World Junior Championships at Buffalo in 2011.

For a moment, forget about the deal with Chicago that current Panthers GM Dale Tallon made with his former organization. Olsen and Hayes have been exceptional with Florida in their brief time, while Chicago has Versteeg in their bottom six. The Panthers made out well in the deal, and the Blackhawks are super talented and won’t miss Olsen and Hayes — right now at least.

I finally made my way to Olsen and asked straightforwardly, “Should we have just expected this offense all along?”

“It’s kind of weird,” Olsen replied with a chuckle. “This has never happened to me before, having put up points like this. I guess you could call it kind of lucky, but it’s been going really well. The forwards are dominating down low and grinding out their players. Obviously, playing with Gudbranson and shutting down other teams’ top lines and playing well defensively is really contributing to our offensive success.

“The puck popped out, nobody was there, I figured take it to the net. Sure enough, nobody came out to block it or anything. I just saw an opening and put it on net.”

After watching NHL Tonight, I realized why Olsen wasn’t immediately available. He was doing an Arena Cam interview with anchor Kathryn Tappen for the late night wrap-up show. At one point before Olsen’s spot came on, a graphic popped up promoting the 22-year-old Calgary native: Coming Up…Dylan Olsen.

Good to see the kid getting the publicity for the contributions and impact he’s made with the Panthers.

With Versteeg Out, the Question is “Who’s Next?”

By Bill Whitehead

I called it a night early on Thursday. After a long day of work, I shut it down about 9:30, which, of course, means I awoke seven hours later. I immediately checked my email and discovered that veteran winger Kris Versteeg had been traded by Florida to Chicago. I saw the other names involved, made a kind of “meh” sound, rolled over and shut my eyes again.

That’s what Versteeg had come to mean to the Panthers, at least in my book: Not worth losing any sleep over.

While it would be easy to knock Versteeg and his play – creative and with a sizzling finishing touch when it’s good; turnover-prone, pointless and usually featuring a lot of senseless overskating when it’s bad – the now 2-time Blackhawk played an important role in Florida’s Southeast Division-winning team two years ago. And forget about “loser points” and qualifying what happened in that division. Florida won that banner and earned it, and it will hang in BB&T Center (and the future names of the building) forever. As bad as that division was, someone still had to win it. Plus, imagine the disappointment Panthers’ fans would’ve endured if the club had blown it that last home game against Carolina after holding the division lead for so long?

Again, I’m happy with that banner. And it wouldn’t have been possible, simply no if, ands or buts whatsoever, without Steeger. He played on a top line with center Stephen Weiss and fellow winger Tomas Fleischmann on a line that was the most productive in the NHL the first third of the season and terrorized opposing defenses.

When Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon finally made his appearance on Friday morning’s conference call with the media, he sounded like a frustrated man – a man who has tried and tried to find answers with scoring, defense and goaltending but come up empty every time. Well, most every time.

He sounded like a man at his wit’s end. His head coach of 2-plus years? Fired. A club picked last by most of the pundits and playing like it? Yep, got that. The blueprint for success firmly on schedule and up to speed? Well, not so fast…

There have been successes along the way this season. Jesse Winchester has been the best Panther on the ice most of the year, and former Bruins Brad Boyes and Tim Thomas have played well. Scottie Upshall has stepped up his game, and Nick Bjugstad’s progress and standout play means his time in San Antonio is officially over. I hope he visited the Alamo because he’s not going back during hockey season.

Friday’s brief conference call centered around Versteeg, but it was really much more about Tallon and the Panthers’ future than it was about the crooning winger. We all wish Steeger well – he was a solid interview and gave it back at you at times – but he’s gone. That’s it. Most red-clad fans will now focus on the development of Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen rather than Versteeg. He’s in the past – a valuable part of the past, mind you, but relegated to memory status like an ex. An ex you think fondly of, but still an ex. I’ll remember this overtime winner against Carolina in a Sunday matinee game:

Now, it’s on Tallon. Sure, he signed Versteeg to that contract and the organization will eat half of the remaining contract, which doesn’t appear so great, but that deal also helped raise that banner that’s hanging in the rafters. He couldn’t have anticipated the forward’s hip and knee injuries, which have hampered Versteeg for two seasons, limited his production and devalued him immensely. And Tallon has other deals out there worse than this one. But this was all he was going to get for Versteeg: an AHLish forward with some promise and a late first-round defenseman, both with imposing builds and in the bigger, stronger, tougher mold Tallon wants.

“We’ve got to turn this this around. I only know one way to do it. I want to win now, too,” Tallon replied when asked about how the fans feel.

Now, to a degree, Tallon is on the clock. He has traded out his first player during a dismal season, and it’s a popular Panther. The frustration is seemingly growing, he doesn’t have much value in players he probably wants to get rid of, and there’s likely way too much of a bad season remaining, one filled with way too many 1-goal losses and “what ifs.” Whatever magic he possesses needs to be conjured to fix this mess somehow by dealing players, dipping down to San Antonio for Trocheck or Shore, or packaging some kind of deal that will make this team better.

Tallon’s reason for trading Versteeg was simple: It’s a performance-based business where results mean you either stay or go, and Kris wasn’t getting it done at all and was just basically filling a spot someone else could be playing. Now the onus is on Tallon to work the phones even harder and keep the Panthers from transforming into the league’s laughingstock.

Or he will go down trying.

Barch, Upshall Provide a Spark in Washington

By Bill Whitehead

Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen can take grief for a number of decisions when it comes to line juggling and such, but the third-year coach made a choice Saturday that worked wonders in the nation’s capital – inserting Krys Barch and Scottie Upshall back into the lineup after scratching them the night before against St. Louis. In that shutout loss, Dineen said only a handful of players gave quality effort.

Surely Dineen, whose seat must be getting a bit warmer, felt something needed to be done. Friday’s showing against the Blues was another anemic effort in a 6-game homestand (1-3-2) that was impotent, devoid of much energy and lacking production. He scratched Kris Versteeg, who has struggled mightily; Sean Bergenheim, recently in Dineen’s doghouse though scratched Saturday for rest; and Matt Gilroy, who was replaced by Ryan Whitney.

Barch and Upshall were both energetic and mixed it up in the third period. Barch made his presence known early in the period with a hard hit on Alexander Urbom but received a charging minor in the process, a terrible call considering Urbom had puck possession and the contact was clean. The hit seemed to fire up the Cats (3-8-3), who trailed 2-1 at the time.

Barch subsequently made news because of this:

Upshall sparked Florida and put the Panthers in good position with his clean but hard hit on Washington defenseman Steve Oleksy, who retaliated and drew a penalty. Less than a minute later and on its sixth power play – this time a 4-on-3 man advantage — the Panthers tied the game with some crafty passing behind the Washington cage that led to Brian Campbell connecting with Tomas Fleischmann, who tied the game against his former team with his third goal this season.

Versteeg, Bergenheim and Gilroy, and all the other Panthers for that matter, should take note because Barch and Upshall showed how to get in Dineen’s lineup: bust your butt as if you’re trying to make the team and don’t take a shift off. Barch was looking for anyone in Caps’ red to hit after his penalty, which figuratively lit up the Panthers much like he literally lit up Urbom. Upshall getting under Oleksy’s skin and goading him into a penalty led to the tying goal and eventually one point, which is more than Florida usually comes away with in that house of horrors in DC known as the Verizon Center.

Pay attention, Panthers, because Barch and Upshall illustrated how Dineen’s blueprint, not GM Dale Tallon’s, scores you some playing time.

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.

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: 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.

the_stuart_news_PantherC!

the_stuart_news_PanthersC3