#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 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

Little Things are Big to the #FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — Clearly, finishing off this Atlantic Division race with Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit won’t be easy. In fact, nothing has been easy this entire six-game homestand, which saw a couple of awful losses, three significant injuries and some spotty overall play at times.

But that’s life in the ultra-competitive Atlantic, where keeping up with the Joneses — in this case the Bruins, Bolts and Wings — is a daily chore. The Panthers sat by this week and watched their lead shrink.

Florida lost two brutal games against St. Louis and Nashville, plus saw Brandon Pirri, Quinton Howden and Jonathan Huberdeau go down to injury. Can’t say confidence was too high going into the final four games at the BB&T Center.

However, as they seemingly have all year, the Panthers responded in the next four games, grabbing seven points of a possible eight to end the home stretch on a high note. Couple that with the fact that Florida finished with the same points lead — five — that it did when it started on Feb. 12 and you’ve got the makings of successful stint in Sunrise.

Not bad considering how this all began against the Blues and Predators.

“It was good. It was a good finish to the homestand,” said Florida coach Gerard Gallant, whose club moved to 77 points after increasing its record to 35-18-7 with a 3-2 win over Arizona on Thursday. “We lost the first two games and weren’t too happy about it. We got back and had three wins and an overtime loss in the next four.

“It’s a good way to finish and we’re a good road team.”

Little things played a big role in the win for Florida, a game in which Gallant said there was “no flow.” The Panthers head out to Columbus and then Minnesota over the weekend for games with 3:00 start-times.

Jussi Jokinen, who was angry over a high stick that left him bleeding butt wasn’t called in the first period, kept the puck in the offensive zone but was leveled by Martin Hanzal in the third. Jokinen’s puck push sent it to Jaromir Jagr, who slipped it back to Aleksander Barkov for his second goal, the ultimate game-winner, and a 3-1 lead.

Earlier in the second, Logan Shaw and finally Barkov won a tough battle in the low slot with Zbynek Michalek and Klas Dahlbeck, with Sasha scoring his 17th goal and sixth in his last six contests — along with a six-game stint sidelined with an injury.

Brian Campbell got a stick on Antoine Vermette’s potential game-tying goal and Roberto Luongo denied him in the game’s final minute. Erik Gudbranson then tied up Shane Doan in front of the crease to send the puck away from Luongo. Derek MacKenzie, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen all won faceoffs, which didn’t happen much for the Cats as they lost 59 percent of the draws.

All the game’s little things — all those sticks getting in the way, blocked shots, taking hits to keep a puck in the offensive zone and securing faceoffs when they mattered the most — added up to two huge points to end a homestand that started so poorly but ended so well.

EMPTY-NETTER: Center Nick Bjugstad, one of the three I cast my vote to for the three stars of the game, had his best showing since returning from his injury and was a problem all night for the Coyotes. He drove to the net hard and cut through the Arizona defense seemingly at ease at times, slicing his way through a blue line that features silky skating Olive Ekman-Larsson. However, Bjugstad blew past and got the best of OEL and Michael Stone to draw a pair of penalties.

He laughed when I brought up the subject of whether or not he should have received a penalty shot, especially on OEL’s hooking infraction.

“Yeah, I thought I should have,” said Bjugstad, whose smile stretched like his 6-6 frame. “I was wondering and asking someone on the bench what was the stipulation for getting a penalty shot. I felt good and just need to keep going from here.”

A big boost from Big Nick and a return to his physical dominance will go a long way to improving Florida’s offense on this road trip and in the remaining 22 regular-season games.

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

Jagr Signing a Top Priority for #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

Okay, so there are two weeks left in the season, the Florida Panthers are vying for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, Dan Ellis has just backstopped the biggest win of the year on the road against another playoff contender, and coach Gerard Gallant said the best player on the ice for Florida in that win was Jaromir Jagr?

Yeah, was one or all three of those part of your September predictions for a club that finished with the second-worst points total in the NHL last year?

The crazy ride gets crazier in Boston in what will again be “the biggest game of the year” and another “Game 7,” but for just a moment, let’s look at what the 43-year-old Jagr has done in 14 games with Florida and how he figures in to future plans in South Florida.

First, let’s go back to the afternoon of Feb. 26. I learned of the Jagr deal, with Florida sending back second- and third-round picks to the Devils, by text. While leaving Starbucks, my phone simply popped up with “Jagr to Panthers.” That was it. No details, no terms, not even the other side of the deal with what New Jersey was getting. It was a venti java-spewing moment, but fortunately I hadn’t started the consumption process.

The fallout of the Jagr trade orchestrated by Florida GM Dale Tallon may be the other memorable moment from that day. Hockey pundits and web sites had their instant analyses ready for rollout, and most viewed the Jagr acquisition as pure desperation by Florida, who was trailing Boston in the wildcard hunt by two points. As a letter grade, many doled out the Panthers a Bart Simpson-like “D” rating, while some called Jagr a borderline retired player who would just fade away into the South Florida sunset like most Floridians past their prime. By most, the trade was a stinker.

Fourteen games later, those same naysayers are writing different stories. Jagr has 12 points (4-8) in those games. The Panthers have been in the thick of every one of them, and easily could have beaten the Stars, Rangers, Canadiens and Lightning with a bounce here or there. Florida has made its share of mistakes but has played with or clearly outplayed most clubs during the brief Jagr Era in Sunrise.

Which brings us to this: How brief will that era be?

Tallon caught plenty of flak for the Dave Bolland signing, much of it is warranted. Now, talks between the Panthers and Jagr’s camp have begun. A potential Jagr deal is Dale’s do-over, a mulligan the golfing Tallon would enjoy swinging at in light of the Bolland criticism. However, the reality is that Jagr, a UFA who is making $3.5 million this season, can just walk after these next two weeks.

But I don’t think that happens.

I’ve arrived early to the BB&T Center press box a couple of times the last month, looked through binoculars and watched a lone Panther get on the ice and skate around, working his way through pre-game preparation. Each time it has been the grizzled, gray-stubbled Jagr.

Now that the love affair with the Hamburglar has cooled as Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond has come back to earth after an incredible run, Jagr’s resurgence and Florida’s last-ditch run at a wildcard berth may be the best story in hockey.

Jagr scoring two goals only added to the narrative on Sunday in Canada’s capital. Both were pure goal scorer’s markers – the first a clever shot on the short side against the play’s flow after cutting back against Sens defenseman Mark Methot, the other an incredible wraparound that left ex-Cat Craig Anderson way out of position and the Senators blue line helpless. The latter goal was the kind that happens to the Cats, not the type they net.

With every clang of the crossbar and potential goal that has rolled off a stick in front of a gaping net, Florida fans have clamored louder and repeatedly for a legit finisher to join the Panthers. Well, he’s here. Jagr, now with 720 career goals, is obviously not the player he was 10 years ago, but he’s also obviously more worthy of the minutes he’s getting with Florida than he did with New Jersey. His points pace would be 70 for a season, and let’s not forget that Nick Bjugstad topped the Panthers last season with an NHL team record-low 38 points.

Jagr’s line consisting of center left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov has produced 13 goals and 25 assists since 68 has arrived. The top line is the centerpiece of a promising young team that many view as a Cup contender for years to come.

“They’re so talented,” Jagr said of his linemates after the 4-2 win over Ottawa. “They’re going to surprise the league in two years. They may win the Cup.”

Tallon needs to make sure that Jagr is here for that.

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

#FlaPanthers notes: Kulikov, Shootouts and Playoffs

By Bill Whitehead

Monday’s suspension of Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was warranted. It’s the kind of dangerous hit the NHL is trying to get away from and put in its past like the era without visors and immovable steel goals that were anchored into the ice.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking there isn’t another name than had an impact on Kulikov receiving a 4-game suspension without pay. And that name?

Tyler Seguin.

If Kulikov’s blow below the waist would have been to the leg of Shawn Horcoff or Travis Moen or almost any other Dallas Star, there’s no way Kulikov would have been hit as hard and received the punishment he did.

But Kulikov hit the Stars’ star.

Seguin, a 29-goal scorer and an exciting point per game player, is one of the league’s stars, and let’s face it, the NHL protects its big names. Kulikov, who has no history of dirty play, was also a bit of a victim of the media on the night after the hit.

During intermission of Saturday night’s Toronto-Montreal tilt, the majority of the Sportsnet crew chose to vilify Kulikov, whose rebound from last year’s terrible play on the back end is one of the Panthers’ best stories this season. His presence was missed in the St. Louis game, though the performance by call-up Shane O’Brien, a steady Alex Petrovic and an increasingly impressive Steve Kampfer became better after a sketchy first period against the physical Blues.

I suggested Sunday night that the Russian defenseman would get five games, then maybe get a game or two reduction. My reasoning for it being as harsh was this: Seguin, the Sportsnet team’s over-the-top persecution of Kulikov, Florida’s tenuous relationship with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and, well, Seguin. And Seguin.

But here are some names of players who were scofflaws when it came to dishing out hits that were clearly over-the-line against Cats yet received no suspensions: Anton Volchenkov, Jaroslav Spacek, Mike Richards, Radko Gudas, Rick Nash and Keith Yandle. Surely there are some offenders I’m leaving out.

Kulikov deserved a suspension because the NHL is trying to put that type of dangerous play in the past, like the hit by Brad Marchand on Sami Salo – very similar contact. It’s unfortunate what happened to Seguin, which hurts the Stars’ playoff hopes.

The NHL, though, carried the punishment a couple of games too far.

 

GOING WITH YOUR GUT: Florida coach Gerard Gallant has made it known he plays a hunch at times and goes with a gut feeling, but his Sunday shootout decisions have left many puzzled, myself included.

If you want to find the origin of the recent stretch of misery, look no further than the game against the Nashville Predators. The talk after the game was, hey, playoff teams don’t blow 2-goal leads in the third period at home and make matters worse by losing in the shootout. However, that’s exactly what Florida did.

But what was perplexing was not so much Gallant’s decision to trot out the four shooters he did – Brandon Pirri, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland – but the three sharpshooters he didn’t use at all. That would be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. You can make a case for the first three of Pirri, Boyes and Bjugstad, but not Bolland over Huby, Barky or Jussi. Ever.

There was more.

In the 5-round shootout against St. Louis, he failed to call on No. 16 to go out there and win it. Instead he slipped in Jimmy Hayes, a brutish net-front presence who isn’t exactly Phil Kessel-like in his one-on-one skills. Shootouts are about dazzling dangles and dipsy-do. That’s not Hayes’ game. Barkov, who beat Pittsburgh with perhaps the shootout goal of the year, must be wondering what he has to do to crack the top five in future shootouts.

Every Florida 5-rounder should have some combination of Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Boyes, Barkov and Jokinen starting it.

Every. Single. Time.

 

WATCH OUT BELOW: Florida’s focus since the turn of the year has been the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, who linger above the playoff cut line. However, the club just below the Panthers – the Philadelphia Flyers — have made a serious push and trail Florida by just two points with the Cats having a game in hand. Philly (24-22-10) has transformed from sellers to potential buyers as the deadline approaches, buoyed mainly by their current 7-1-3 run. The Flyers open a 3-game home stretch with Columbus tonight then Buffalo on Thursday, so they could put even more pressure on Florida.

As for the Panthers (24-19-12), tonight’s game against a wreck of a Toronto team is not a must win, it’s a must-must win. Very musty. Double musty. The Maple Leafs (23-29-5) have been in a disastrous freefall since the Panthers’ 6-4 victory spurred by a 4-goal third period on Dec. 28, and we’re currently in Day 3 of the Leaf Rebuild that has already seen Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli leave Leaf Nation. Tonight Toronto will play fast as they did in Sunrise, has ex-Cat Olli Jokinen on the roster and called up prospect Brandon Kozun from the the AHL Marlies.

But the Leafs are damaged goods at this point, and anything less than two points tonight will be a huge letdown and leave the #OneUnderTheSun crowd quite upset – which they should be. Florida blew extra points against Nashville and St. Louis and really wasted strong goaltending efforts in their last three contests against Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis, coming away with just one point.

Yet as Cats’ broadcaster Steve Goldstein said post-game on Sunday, we’re talking the possibility of Florida Panthers playoff hockey as the trade deadline nears. Florida looks now more like buyers instead of sellers, and fans are studying the standings, out-of-town scoreboard and upcoming schedules as if they were cramming for finals.

No one saw that one coming in September.

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

#FlaPanthers Ekblad Living Up to the Hype

By Bill Whitehead

It would probably be asking too much for Aaron Ekblad to wax too sentimentally over returning to Philadelphia, site of where he was drafted just six months ago. Ekblad went through all the fanfare then of being the likely No. 1 pick – visiting downtown, hitting Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks and taking batting practice at Citizens Bank Park.

But it’s unlikely the emotions of coming back to the City of Brotherly Love (it’s actually his second time back, having played in Florida’s 4-1 loss on Nov. 6) will faze the 18-year-old defenseman because, well, we’ve learned that not much affects Ekblad at all.

Not the media and fan attention, not the immediate success, not recently being named the third star for the first week of this month, and not being thrust into the Calder Memorial Trophy race for the season’s top rookie, likely led by Nashville’s 20-year-old Swede Filip Forsberg and his 12 goals, 18 assists and point-a-game pace.

In fact, Ekblad’s fantastic story from heralded, can’t miss prospect to rookie blueliner who’s fitting right in should have added another chapter Tuesday in Florida’s epic, almost neverending 20-round shootout win over the Capitals. After Tom Wilson missed to open the top of the fifteenth round, Ekblad had a chance to win it, and while few have been able to deny the Ontario native this year, Washington goalie Braden Holtby managed the feat. No knock on fellow blueliner Dylan Olsen – one of five Cats shooters who kept victory possible — but if you were betting on which defenseman would be successful late in the shootout, the smart money would’ve been on Ekblad, not Olsen.

All of this credit goes to Florida GM Dale Tallon.

Tallon’s phone rang constantly with the proposal of deals in June when the Panthers’ brass was deciding on whom to take. Yet Tallon said the day before the draft he knew the name of the player he was drafting and felt confident that wouldn’t change over the next 24 hours. Of course, he wasn’t tipping his hand.

On the day of the draft, the rumors kept floating. Vancouver really wanted in, and defenseman Jason Garrison and the Canucks’ first-round pick at No. 6 (eventually Jake Virtanen) were involved. The Maple Leafs popped up in the conversation, too, and Toronto’s pick at No. 8 seemed like a prime spot with Tallon having praised the offensive wizardry of William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, who were expected to be taken in that range. The Flyers, trying to incite the home crowd, also made pitches, one rumored to include Vincent Lecavalier among others. Heck, maybe even a Schenn or two could have been had in the right deal.

 

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Tallon, though, stuck to his guns and took the BPA – Best Player Available – and went with Ekblad. He did create a little drama by mentioning the Ontario Hockey League – the league of both Ekblad and Sam Bennett – but ultimately no one was shocked by the pick.

 

Now, 29 games and 18 points into Ekblad’s first season, not a soul in Florida would do anything differently at that draft if there were a do-over. No one would take ex-Cat and current Tampa Bay 30-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison and his 3-point, 13-assist performance in four more starts, plus the pick and other spare parts from Vancouver, over Ekblad. Lecavalier is 34 and played in just 16 games and has fewer goals than Ekblad. Brayden Schenn is on pace for a nice 20-plus goal season, but he and the Flyers’ pick at No. 17 wouldn’t have been worth it, so that would be a no as well. Nylander and Ehlers were chosen by Toronto and Winnipeg at eighth and ninth, respectively, but Ekblad’s contributing to Florida’s playoff push right now while those two are still working on their NHL futures.

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Ekblad’s been that good. Just ask his teammates.

“I call his stick a slingshot because (the shot’s) off so quick and pretty hard. He’s a good defenseman to have. He’s always getting pucks through and always making good plays,” Nick Bjugstad said recently after Ekblad’s 3-assist game against Buffalo.

Added Tomas Kopecky: “He’s such a smart player. He kind of reminds me of Nick Lidstrom. He’s so quick on that blue line, and every shot is getting through. For the guys standing in front (of the net), it’s so easy when you know that puck is going to arrive. They all get there.”

When Ekblad was reminded that he was among the league’s leading scoring defensemen, he put that all into perspective, too, saying, “Those guys are great players. I’m sure they’ll surpass me again. I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that. I’m happy to be producing…our guys are making great plays and giving me that opportunity.”

Tallon praised Ekblad’s character and all-around game over the summer in Philadelphia. And the former Barrie Colts defenseman, as humbly as possible, assessed his game by saying he was solid in every phase of play. He reiterated this in every interview, whether it was the first time we talked to him or third or fourth.

In 2006 after a loss on Monday Night Football, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green lashed out at the media after his club blew a lead to the Chicago Bears. Green yelled emphatically and repeatedly that the “Bears are what we thought they were.”

Aaron Ekblad definitely is who Dale Tallon thought he was and who we are learning he is.

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