Tippett Shoots, Plus An Announcement

By BILL WHITEHEAD

Well, I picked a fine game to resume the blog with the first column of the season, huh?

Fresh off the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-1 pasting of the Florida Panthers, which dropped the Cats to 2-3-0 on the young season, it remains to be seen as to what this team’s identity is, and no answers were to be found in the City of Brotherly Love on Tuesday.

In fact, the best question might be this: What one thing – if anything – did the Panthers do well at Wells Fargo Center?

Faceoffs, special teams, blocked shots, puck possession? Nope, nope, nope and … definitely nope. They won shots and hits, but I’d rather have an advantage in those other categories.

A better question might be who was the one good thing about the game?

Simple. Owen Tippett.

The 18-year-old rookie more than made an impression in his NHL debut, zipping a game-high in both shots on goal (7) and attempted shots (12). If there’s one thing we learned about Tippett, it’s that he’s more than capable of getting the puck on net, and the Cats’ staff likes that.

Of all the stats out there, it seems the Panthers’ season will hinge on how many pucks they can get on goal, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they don’t hold their lead and wind up topping the NHL in the category.

“You kind of see the game and how much open ice there is and how the puck moves. You obviously want to get into the open areas,” Tippett said afterward of his debut.

But will the emergence of the shoot-first Tippett, who also schooled Philly defenseman Robert Hagg with a swift, slick move on a scoring chance in the third period in front of the Flyers’ goal, be enough to keep him on the roster after his 9-game stint he’s allowed as a rookie?

Can the Panthers afford to burn a year of Tippett’s entry-level contract and pro career and do they feel he is capable of being a significant part of what the Panthers hope is a playoff team?

The answers to those questions depend on how important you figure Tippett is when sized up against Denis Malgin and Connor Brickley in the bottom six, particularly the third line.

For now, Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann have locked up left wing and center on the third line, and though he slotted on opening night on the 3L, Brickley seems like a perfect candidate for the fourth, in the mix with Micheal Haley, Derek MacKenzie and nicked up Colton Sceviour for ice time. That was Brickley’s spot during his first stop with the Panthers when he was a camp surprise to open the 2015-16 season.

That leaves Tippett and Malgin vying for playing time on 3L if Nick Bjugstad remains on 2L, which is probably the best place for 27 to find and regain his offensive form.

All things being even and injuries not playing a major factor – and they could at some point – it’s going to be pretty crowded on the McCann-centered line, so a great case could be made for sending Tippett back to juniors, sharpening his game and seeing how far Malgin, a breakout from last year’s camp, has come and how much he’s improved in the offseason.

However, Tippett certainly made his best pitch to stay with the big club on Tuesday and be back in there against the Stanley Cup champion Penguins at home on Friday.

HEAR YE, HEAR YE! – It is with great honor that I announce that I am the new Florida Chapter Chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA), taking over for my good friend George Richards, who headed north to the Land of John Tortorella and will likely get some regular postseason work in late spring.

Richards took over the PHWA position from Brian Biggane of The Palm Beach Post years back – so long ago George couldn’t recall when. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Richards and Biggane, then you’ve missed out on chatting with two of the finest chaps to grace the BB&T press box. Both welcomed me 10 years ago when I began covering the Panthers and immediately treated me as another legitimate voice covering the team, which, frankly, deserves more coverage than it gets.

Both are good guys who are sorely missed in the close kinship of covering a team, but we still have a great group up there with writers like Alain Poupart (NHL.com), Walter Villa (SportsXchange), Paul Gereffi (AP), Jameson Olive (Florida Panthers) and others who spread the word of the Panthers. In my 20 years of covering sporting events, the BB&T Center’s press box tops the list as a working environment full of likeable co-workers and accommodating staff from within the team.

Again, it’s a pleasure to head a chapter of an organization that is home to many of the NHL’s finest writers, whose opinions and game coverage are read by so many in North America and all over the world and who help choose the league’s award-winners at season’s end.

I promise to uphold those duties done so well by Richards and Biggane before me.

**Bill is the Florida Panthers Chapter Chair of the Pro Hockey Writers Association. Follow him @BillWhiteheadFL

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The Next #FlaPanthers Coach is Available

By Bill Whitehead

On Monday I put forth the notion the Florida Panthers should look past the joy of Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov returning to the lineup and do even more to improve the team by trading for a veteran.

The name I tossed out was Detroit’s Thomas Vanek, who scored his 13th goal last night in the Red Wings’ tough 3-2 loss to Columbus. It was the 10th overtime loss for Detroit, which is the number they’ll look at when this season ends poorly for them.

The response to the proposition of a Vanek acquisition varied. Most thought it was a good idea but would be harder and take a sweeter deal than I proposed. Some felt Vanek would loaf in the playoffs and be of no help; others felt the Cats should wait a bit and see what unfolds on the road trip.

I said the Panthers should move right now and try to pry away the 33-year-old Vanek before the Penguins or another playoff club needing a veteran forward steps in. In fact, I said to “act fast.”

But when it comes to the search for the next coach to walk behind the Panthers’ bench, I have more urgent advice.

Act faster.

The Boston Bruins, who have frankly played better than most would have expected this year, handed bench boss Claude Julien and his 419 career wins and Stanley Cup championship a pink slip yesterday morning.

GM Don Sweeney, whose own future could be hanging in the balance, axed Julien, the league’s longest-tenured coach, as the Patriots were getting ready to celebrate their Super Bowl win with a parade through Boston.

A fellow hockey scribe suggested the Panthers, Jets, Avalanche, Islanders and Canucks should start the calls ASAP to Sweeney asking permission. Julien’s services will be in high demand, and you can rest assured Vegas and GM George McPhee will be interested in Julien’s services, too.

As Mike Babcock pointed out yesterday, when you fire someone with the numbers Julien has posted, you’d better have someone better in place. The Bruins now have Bruce Cassidy, who once referred to Jaromir Jagr as a “coach killer.”

Florida put the interim tag on Tom Rowe for a reason, and regardless of what he does this season, it’s hard to envision him being back as coach. He took over after 22 games and will receive the lion’s share of the blame if the Cats miss the postseason.

If they get in, well, he’d better win a round or two because he isn’t a fan favorite. That’s partially due to how Gerard Gallant was dismissed and also to the team’s performance. Whatever the reason, I’m guessing Rowe likely re-assume his former position after this season ends.

Which leads us back to a new coach.

That hasn’t been discussed much, mainly because so many teams still believe they have a viable playoff shot and aren’t willing to make a change at the top.

Plus, there’s no guarantee of a coach keeping his job when occupying a playoff spot. Ken Hitchcock was fired while the Blues held the second wild-card position, and Julien’s Bruins were in third in the Atlantic Division over the weekend.

Though his teams play well for him right away, Hitchcock is 65. Jack Capuano failed with a good Islanders roster. Gallant’s obviously not a candidate.

This column didn’t need writing then when those coaches were fired, but it does now, which takes us back to the 56-year-old Julien.

Unless Tampa Bay fires Jon Cooper any time soon (and the Bolts are playing better), this is a real no-brainer decision for the Panthers.

Hiring Julien right away demonstrates the organization’s commitment to winning, which they’ve shown with the Keith Yandle signing, trying to improve the team through trades and locking up the young core.

I’m not sure of the relationship Dale Tallon has with Julien, but they both seem like both old-school hockey guys who have deep backgrounds and like to ice teams that play with an edginess and tons of size.

Florida has some of the former but very little of the latter. However, a good coach coaches around what he has and gameplans to his strengths.

And there’s no denying that Julien is a good coach. Surly at times? Sure. Always appearing disgruntled while pacing behind his team? Yep.

But this isn’t a popularity contest. See Bill Belichick or Nick Saban on that front and how the word “championship” factors into their legacies.

It’s about winning a Stanley Cup, and Julien has done that.

Rumors are that Julien already has a couple of offers out there, but he hasn’t been hired as of this writing.

Tallon and the Florida Panthers need to change that.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and with the Associated Press and SportsXchange

#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

#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

#FlaPanthers Riding Homegrown Momentum

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?

However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.

Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.

Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.

But enough of that miserable night.

The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.

Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.

Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will  get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.

The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.

The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.

And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.

While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.

With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.

On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.

Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.

Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.

This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.

That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.

It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.

It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.

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