#FlaPanthers: Coaching Change Inevitable

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

A Healthy Bergenheim A Must for Florida

By Bill Whitehead

Compared to recent offseasons, especially two years ago when general manager Dale Tallon was involved in a spending spree, the Florida Panthers had a relatively quiet time of it when it came to transactions following a very disappointing and mostly unhealthy time of it last year.

The club acquired forward Bobby Butler on June 14 from Nashville, a frequent trading partner, for defenseman T.J. Brennan, who showed promise offensively last season in his brief time with Florida after being acquired from Buffalo. Butler, a University of New Hampshire alum, hasn’t matched the lofty numbers he posted in a short 2010-11 campaign when he scored 10 goals in 36 games for Ottawa.

During free agency, Florida broke out the wallet like a Lotto winner who had hit just four numbers. The team couldn’t reach terms and lost longtime center Stephen Weiss to Detroit but did re-sign Shawn Matthias, who started to live up to expectations last season. The Panthers also signed defensemen Mike Mottau and Matt Gilroy, plus forwards Joey Crabb, Jesse Winchester, Jon Matsumoto and Scott Gomez. The moves could be as much for depth at San Antonio as much as Panthers’ production, but Gomez and Crabb should see a good amount of ice time in Florida.

But while the summer has been fairly quiet and not as eventful as the past, the Panthers saw a familiar face on the ice last week, one who was instrumental in helping the team reach the playoffs two years ago — Sean Bergenheim. The Finnish winger had surgery in March but has resumed skating after a variety of hip, abdominal and groin injuries. At one point he was off the ice for nine months. While he may not be 100 percent ready when camp opens, his return to the Panthers sometime early in the season would be a boost for a club that could use some contributions from the third line.

Two years ago Tallon received his fair share of criticism for signing Bergenheim, a free agent who was coming off a sensational post-season for Tampa Bay, from Versus NHL analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. While writing for NHL Hot Stove, I offered this piece in October, 2011, basically saying that Bergenheim should take the criticism to heart and work the words to his advantage.

His work ethic and high-energy play put Milbury and Jones in their place.

The hard-working left winger posted 17 goals and six assists in 62 games in his first season with Florida. When the playoffs started against New Jersey, the Panthers, during pre-game introductions, displayed Milbury’s and Jones’ comments on the then-Bank Atlantic Center scoreboard — it’s no longer the BAC, and that scoreboard is history, too — and Bergenheim responded. He scored three goals and added three assists against the Devils, including Florida’s first goal.

That’s what he brings to the table — hard-nosed, intense play that often results in the 29-year-old crashing the net or hanging around it for a loose puck. He honed that style with the Lightning under former coach Guy Boucher, and it’s intensity that the Panthers could use.

Cats fans can hope for other unrestricted free agents the Panthers may sign late in the process. Brad Boyes tallied 35 points in 48 games for the Islanders last year and seemingly regained his scoring touch. Mason Raymond has the blazing speed Tallon really likes but, hey, so did Michael Grabner. Chad LaRose could add offense and some grit, both which would come in handy. Former Red Wings Daniel Cleary and Damien Brunner also remain unsigned and bring different assets to a club. And while Toronto and Nazem Kadri are having difficulties in meeting the 22-year-old’s contract demands, I don’t know that Tallon really wants to go there. Also, Florida decided not to re-sign Peter Mueller.

Truth is, I wouldn’t expect any of those to be suiting up for the Panthers. Instead, the focus should be on what’s here right now.

Technically, Bergenheim’s not one of Tallon’s recent acquisitions, but a healthy No. 20 back on the ice who can give the Panthers 15 to 20 goals in 65 games or so would likely do just fine.

Maybe even better than anything obtained during the offseason as part of Florida’s free agent non-frenzy.

Just Who Are These New York Islanders?

By Bill Whitehead

Remember the New York Islanders and how they factored into the Florida Panthers’ season a year ago? They were the season-opening opponent, hosting Florida on Long Island in that incredibly outdated, mausoleum of a hockey arena. The Panthers’ win that night was typical for the 2011-2012 season and set the tone for the team’s run to the Southeast Division crown with a 2-0 win behind a power-play goal, reliable defensive play and stellar goaltending.

Jason Garrison scored the power-play goal that night after Stephen Weiss scored Florida’s first goal of the season. In his Florida debut, goaltender Jose Theodore was rock solid and showed a preview of the consistency he would give the club in net during the season by recording 27 saves in authoring the 31st shutout of his career. Oddly, one of those players is already gone, and a very good chance exists that the other two won’t be back as well. Weiss and Theodore are both unrestricted free agents, and their future with the Panthers is uncertain right now.

Instead of remembering the past, though, the Panthers (13-22-6, 32 pts.) will look to the future in Tuesday night’s game (7 p.m., Sun Sports). Fans are still waiting for Nick Bjugstad to score a goal or get on the score sheet. Same for Quinton Howden. In fact, the first goal by either will put him just one behind Drew Shore. Yep, that’s another achievement worth clamoring for — a third goal by Shore. The rookie has seemingly hit the wall, scoring just twice in 36 games. Defenseman T.J. Brennan has two in 12 games, and had two taken away on deflections. Also, it would be nice to see Jonathan Huberdeau (one goal in last 15 games) get a leg up on the Calder competition.

Someone said the other day that he was in a bar in New York, and hockey highlights came on the TV. A fellow patron leaned over and said, “Hey, did you see that Islanders game?” I think the last time anyone said that, even in the City That Never Sleeps, may have been 1983 when The Police (“Every Breath You Take”) and Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”) were battling it out for top song and most of the guys had steely eyes and were riveted on steel worker Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. That’s not exactly yesterday, folks. In that game last Saturday that the bar patron was referencing, the Islanders lost to the hated rival Rangers, dropping a 1-0 home game in overtime, but the rallying cry could likely be heard echoing throughout those dark, dank spaces of Nassau Coliseum: “Hey, at least we earned a point!”

Sound familiar?

The Islanders (21-16-5, 47 pts.) are clinging to the seventh spot in the playoff standings, just three points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, and are a fun team to watch. They have a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate in skillful John Tavares (24-18-42), plus 30-point scorers in wingers Matt Moulson (13-26-39) and Brad Boyes (8-23-31). Casey Cizikas burned Florida last month with the game-winning goal in New York’s 4-3 win at BB&T Center after the Panthers rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Michael Grabner, a player Cat fans are all too familiar with, is a burner on the ice who presents plenty of problems for defensemen on long stretch passes. On the back end, veteran Evgeni Nabokov is 20-11-5 in his 36 starts, logging a 2.50 GAA and a .911 save percentage.

But, really, who are these New York Islanders?

Simple. They’re the feel-good story of the Eastern Conference, an underdog team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007 — a club that is generally overlooked, underestimated and not taken very seriously by hockey fans in the metropolitan New York area. A team who has stunk up the joint for a long while but appears to be headed to the postseason.

They’re last year’s Florida Panthers.

GETTING DRAFTY: In Calgary, the improving Flames dropped a 4-3 game to the Minnesota Wild, who received two goals from newly acquired Jason Pominville. The Flames have 36 points — four more than last-place Florida…In Denver, Columbus tied the game late on a goal by R.J. Umberger, then Nick Foligno scored with 28.7 seconds left in overtime to carry the Blue Jackets past the Avalanche for the win. The single point added by Colorado brings their total to 35, putting them 29th in the NHL…Carolina (36 points) and Tampa Bay (37) both play tonight — the Hurricanes in Ottawa, the Lightning in Winnipeg.