Ex-Cat Goc Sees Improvement in Young #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Pittsburgh Penguins center Marcel Goc isn’t surprised by the development of the Florida Panthers and the position they’re in.

“They played well against us (Saturday). They came hard at us with a strong forecheck, and every time they had a chance they threw the puck at the net. They tried to create trouble for us,” said the former Panther Monday following morning skate.

“But I see a few faces I don’t recognize from when I played (there).”

Goc will play in his first game back at BB&T Center after being traded Mar. 5 for third- and fifth-round picks. The German center said he isn’t shocked at how quickly Florida (14-9-8) has transformed from lottery team to a potential playoff club.

“Their young guys – Barky and Bjugstad – they play well, and they try to play them a lot so they get more confident,” Goc said. “What are they, 21, 22ss or something like that? I think they have a bright future ahead of them. They have more consistency from last year than they did in their first year, but that’s the case with everybody. They’re going to be a big part of this organization.

“I worked on faceoffs with them a lot together. It’s funny taking them across from them now.”

Goc has three points (1-2) in his 30 games played with the Penguins this year.

MORE MUMPS – Pittsburgh, who has been saddled with a bout of the mumps, sent three more players home before the game against Florida. Centers Steve Downie and Brandon Sutter and goalie Thomas Greiss all flew back to Pittsburgh to undergo further testing.

Pittsburgh iced just 18 skaters at morning skate, with goaltending coach Mike Bales tending net opposite Marc-Andre Fleury. As of morning skate, the Penguins featured 11 forwards, seven defensemen and one goalie.

The Penguins called up goalie Jeff Zatkoff from Wilkes-Barre in the afternoon to back up Fleury. The AHL team last played Saturday and won’t playing again until this Saturday.

FEISTY FOLLOW-UP? – The two clubs combined for 76 penalty minutes Saturday night in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 home win, but Florida coach Gerard Gallant and players from both teams said they didn’t expect a flare-up in what should be Florida’s biggest home crowd of the season. The Panthers racked up 32 penalty minutes, the most accumulated since 37 against Toronto on April 10, 2014.

“What ‘tonight’?” Gallant answered when asked if Florida would miss Shawn Thornton’s toughness. “We’re playing the best team in the league, and I don’t think it’ll be about toughness tonight. It’s going to be about working hard, speed, competing and playing hard. You don’t see those games anymore.”

Emotional Florida winger Scottie Upshall, usually in the middle of the fray, received just two minutes for tripping Evgeni Malkin. Upshall and his teammates said staying penalty-free was more important than settling the score in a playoff-style matchup.

“We hope to stay out of the box. Penalties are going to hurt you. I actually like the 2-game series. I kind of think they’re fun. I like the way they lead up. It’s a little mini playoffs series, and guys really hone in on the little things,” Upshall said.

“We know that Pittsburgh’s a great team and if you give them power plays they’re going to win. We need to stay disciplined tonight and play hard. That (killing off six Pittsburgh power plays) isn’t going to happen in back-to-back games against those guys.”

Nick Bjugstad likes playing in the high-tension games where it gets a little chippy, and even had a few in college at Minnesota.

“It was more gritty than I expected it to be…That game was just more intense. This game might not be as intense, you just never really know. You never expect something like that last game, but they’re fun because everyone’s into it, everyone’s battling,” he said.

“We’d always get into it with North Dakota, but there’s no fighting so that changes (things).”

Added former Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad: “Obviously, you want to keep calm and try to get the game back in your control. You want to find a calm center to your game and not take calculated risks.

The nose is just fine

The nose is just fine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I didn’t have many games like that in the OHL, maybe one or two a year. Usually against London or someone like that, but not even close to the caliber it is in the NHL.”

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

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#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

No Room for Grimaldi Right Now With Cats

By Bill Whitehead

As stunning as the news was last Tuesday that Rocco Grimaldi was being called up from San Antonio so he could help out in Los Angeles, the word Sunday that he had been sent back down was, well, non-stunning. After sparking a rally in Nashville that helped the Panthers shock the Music City faithful and had them staying a little later at Bridgestone Arena than expected, the Cats decided to ship Grimaldi back to the AHL.

No surprise there.

First, understanding the connection with Grimaldi is necessary. The first NHL Draft that I covered was the 2011 one in St. Paul, a weekend that produced Calder Trophy-winning rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, Grimaldi in a second-day shocker, Vincent Trocheck and other exciting prospects like Kyle Rau, Jonathan Racine, Yaroslav Kosov and Logan Shaw.

Being drawn to and liking the 5-foot-6 Grimaldi, a polite, forthright, devout son of parents in law enforcement, proved to be as easy as Florida GM Dale Tallon picking the California native with the 33rd selection overall. Grimaldi was cordial in speaking with the media, had a plan of playing in college at North Dakota and expected to be with the Panthers after that. The one word I left Minnesota with to describe Grimaldi after talking to him was “determined,” which probably has plenty to do with his upbringing, skill level and competitive spirit, perhaps due to his physical stature.

Fans loved him and lined up to meet the 21-year-old forward in camp. His play in the preseason on a line with close friend Trocheck (read about their friendship) and Quinton Howden had fans loving him even more. His play in seven NHL games so far has only fortified Cats fans’ opinions, and their ire at him being sent down again is justified.

But there’s just no room on this roster.

The injured forwards who traveled with the Panthers on their recent 2-1-1 road swing against Western Conference playoff teams are getting healthy. Sean Bergenheim, Brandon Pirri and Dave Bolland all skated and appear close to returning. Bolland has been day-to-day since being injured in the season’s fourth game – Gerard Gallant’s first win – on Oct. 17 in Buffalo. Florida was 1-2-1 after that Roberto Luongo 1-0 shutout; they’re now 7-5-6. That’s how long Bolland has been out.

Yet Bolland has to play. He wasn’t brought in by Tallon just to mentor upstarts Grimaldi and Trocheck at practice and sit in the press box on game night. Earning $5.5 million this year and also the next four, No. 63 must be on the ice. His contract and keen ability to be injury-prone may irk fans, but has he been bad for Florida so far? A fair assessment can’t be made over four games played – four games, mind you, where the Cats were deplorable, when everyone thought the sky was falling, and when all talk of the Panthers around the league usually ended with “McDavid Sweepstakes.”

Bergenheim needs to be in, too. He scored the only goal in that Buffalo win, and when healthy – a big assumption – he’s productive. Same with Pirri, who Heimlich Maneuvered the club when the offense was gagging on early-season fumbling and bumbling. The healthy ones are making their cases as well. Tomas Kopecky contributes a ton, while Tomas Fleischmann played his best hockey at the end of the road trip. Scottie Upshall, who missed the last two games, is an emotional player who leaves it all on the ice, often with good results.

It’s a forward-filled roster that’s bursting at the seams. It’s like a fat man after a cheap lunch-time buffet: swelled, plump, and with few options.

Grimaldi will be back at some point this season. Injuries open up spots all the time, and his talents are undeniable. He’s fast, relentless and low to the ice (naturally). And on a team that’s pass-happy, he’s generally a shoot-first guy. His bond with Trocheck is tight, too, and the duo should be paired up in Florida red sweaters for years to come. Plus, if you’re really upset that he was reassigned to the Lone Star State, find solace in that he’s still in the organization; he possesses the kind of talent that could easily have been the centerpiece in some offseason trade, though there was no talk one was in the works.

My least favorite player quote right now – perhaps of all-time and you hear it often – is, “It is what it is.” I’ve heard it in baseball clubhouses, NASCAR garages, football locker rooms, hockey dressing rooms. You name the sport and designated changing room or interview area and I’ve heard it uttered when, frankly, the athlete had nothing else to say. As an aside, I’d love to hear an athlete say for once, “It’s not what it is. Really, it’s something entirely different that you couldn’t comprehend at all. It simply isn’t what it is.”

But this Florida Panthers’ roster? It is what it is.

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

 

#FlaPanthers: Five Things Learned in Five Games

By Bill Whitehead

We’re only five games deep into the 2014-15 season, but the Florida Panthers have already given their fans some dire concern but with glimpses of hope, moments of worry tempered by anticipation. A 1-2-2 start has alternately been decent but disappointing (Tampa Bay), abjectly miserable (New Jersey), utterly embarrassing (Ottawa, in a home attendance “sit-anywhere-you-want-to, hell-nobody’s-here” Internet/Twitter mess), and good-but-could’ve-been-better (win over Buffalo, shootout loss to Washington). It’s just a five-game snippet, but something can be and has been learned in that time.

Here are five observations over five games, some positive, some not:

 

  1. The defense is better than expected. The Cats gave up five goals against the Devils, but throw those out (I know, they all count) and the defense has allowed just five goals in four games, excluding the shootout marker. Of course, a large part of that lies with Roberto Luongo, who blanked Buffalo for coach Gerard Gallant’s first win, and Al Montoya, who has been exceptional in both appearances, though he failed in the shootout against the Caps. Granted two of those wins are against mediocre Ottawa and awful Buffalo clubs, but Tampa Bay and Washington are likely playoff teams. This defense should keep Florida in many close games.
  2. The top six can’t be any worse. The top two lines of Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Scottie Upshall have combined for exactly four points, and only two – Huberdeau and Boyes – have goals. Worst still, top centers Barkov and Bjugstad are scoreless, as is Jokinen, the club’s major offensive acquisition in the offseason. Jokinen, who has shown some nice passing, was the lone missed shot in the shootout in DC. No team wins in the NHL consistently without production from its top six.
  3. Willie Mitchell has been well worth the money. The 2-time Stanley Cup winner has been a solid addition to the blue line, adding a calming presence and making all the small plays necessary of a player who has competed in over 900 NHL games. He’s also served as a fine replacement for Ed Jovanovski, another defenseman who was the previous captain. Another trait the two blueliners share: They will speak at length – at incredibly fantastic length – about their play and the state of the game or team. Mitchell’s value will continue to increase as strengthens relationships with his defensive unit and learns his teammates’ characteristics. A great stabilizing, experienced addition by GM Dale Tallon.
  4. Brandon Pirri must play. A team that struggles so mightily to score and appears goal-challenged most of the time cannot – simply can’t — repeatedly scratch the one player on the club who can snipe a bit. Shoot first instead of pass? That’s Pirri. One-time a pass, an amazing feat for this group? That too is Pirri. Win draws, push the play forward and put the puck on net? Pirri. Clearly, he has some faults that Gallant doesn’t like. At the Philadelphia draft, one Western Conference beat writer told me Pirri felt like he deserved more playing time in Chicago’s top six and was upset he wasn’t getting it, so maybe that’s why he was expendable to the talented Blackhawks. However, the Cats need him and must have him in the lineup.
  5. Aaron Ekblad belongs here, as does Derek MacKenzie. Ekblad, the 18-year-old rookie and No. 1 overall pick, has transitioned well into the NHL and has shown a flare for offense. He’s defensively responsible, solid in all aspects of his game and likes to shoot the puck – just like he repeated to us in Philadelphia – and should be here for the long haul this season. MacKenzie, a fourth line scrapper, wins face-offs and is as gritty as a Burning Man Festival attendee after a week spent in the Nevada desert. He hits and hits and hits, and physicality is infectious along a team’s bench. Florida already appears to be a much more physical club than in previous years. A large part of that credit goes to the feisty MacKenzie.

Also, the season is not over. The hockey world appeared bad after New Jersey humiliated Florida last weekend, but it’s equally bad or worse with other teams. Edmonton, a team loaded with top talent, has scored six more goals than Florida but is 0-4-1 and has one point. Buffalo is as bad and dismal as a horrible winter storm in western New York, and Carolina’s not much better. As for scoring deficiency, Winnipeg tallied one goal over a three-game stretch and has two in its last four games.

Plenty of hockey remains in this season, but it’s up to Gallant and the real quality drafted talent – Bjugstad, Barkov and Huberdeau – plus high-dollar acquisitions like Dave Bolland and Jokinen to give Florida the offensive punch it needs and turn these close losses into wins.

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

Panthers have ties to Toronto

The Florida Panthers (28-44-8) host Toronto (38-34-8) tonight here at BB&T Center (7:30, FSN). As I sit here being entertained by the Union College-Boston College Frozen Four semifinal – featuring Cats’ prospects Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen – here are a few notes for Florida’s 81st game of the season:

 

FACING THE HOME TEAM: Six current Florida players and two coaches have their roots in Ontario, the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Captain Ed Jovanovski, Krys Barch, Jesse Winchester, Brad Boyes, Brian Campbell, Brandon Pirri and Erik Gudbranson are all Ontario natives, as are interim head coach Peter Horachek (Stoney Creek) and assistant John Madden (Barrie).

 

THE LONE GUY: Barring an incredible finish by Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall or Nick Bjugstad, right winger Brad Boyes will end the season as the only Cat with a 20-goal effort. Boyes had 20 markers through 76 games and has been one of Florida’s most reliable scorers after being brought in on a tryout during camp. Bergenheim is the next highest goal-scorer with 16, then points leader Upshall (15 goals, 22 assists) and Bjugstad (14 goals).

 

ONE-TIMERS: Florida is 2-1 against Toronto, outscoring the Leafs 10-8 with six of the Toronto goals coming in a 6-3 home win on Jan. 30…Entering Thursday night’s game, Florida held an overall record of 26-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…The Panthers own a winning record against Toronto in South Florida, posting a 14-13-5-2 mark…Florida recalled G Scott Clemmensen earlier on Thursday…Florida had lost 283 man games before Thursday’s game…D Dmitry Kulikov is just one point shy of 100 NHL points…F Brandon Pirri has 12 points (6-6-12) in his last 16 games, including a four-game point streak from Mar. 31 to April 6 (3-2-5).

 

THIS DATE IN CATS’ HISTORY: Defenseman Bryan McCabe, currently the team’s manager of player development, tallied his 1,000th NHL point by recording an assist in a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay on April 10, 2010.

Cats’ 3-2 SO Win Shows Signs of the Future

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Every Florida Panthers game, even the bad ones like three of the four that resulted in losses on the recent West Coast road trip, gives fans a slight peek at the future. Tuesday at the BB&T Center was not one of those bad showings. In fact, the 3-2 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators gave everyone a few vivid snapshots of what should be a much more promising 2014-15 campaign, such as…

Roberto Luongo – The two goals in 23 seconds was exciting, as were the shootout exploits by two of the club’s young talents, but if Lou doesn’t stand tall in net, especially in a bizarre first period that saw Ottawa fire 20 shots on goal that led to absolutely nothing, then this game goes down as something like a 5-2 loss or worse.

I’ve covered a lot of spring training baseball the last month, and I’ve not seen any ballplayer flash the leather like Luongo did Tuesday. Not speedy center fielder Matt den Dekker of the New York Mets, a Ft. Lauderdale native – just check out this catch in the 2010 College World Series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZf6o7rM58  – or third baseman Ryan Zimmerman or outfielder Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. Nothing I’ve seen was as good as Luongo was. Repeatedly the Senators tried to beat Luongo high on his glove side, and they failed almost all the time. Fittingly, the game ended with him shutting down Milan Michalek on a backhander that found Luongo’s webbing.

“That’s good for me. That’s where I like to make a lot of saves,” said Luongo, who had 37 of them.

Without Lou’s first-star efforts, Florida (27-38-8) doesn’t beat the desperate Senators. It’s that simple.

Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri – Trocheck’s third career marker on a pass from Scottie Upshall capped a two-goal, 23-second comeback and really got the crowd buzzing. Trocheck has scored on an empty-netter, a wrap-around and now a hard charge to the net on a 2-on-1 break that started with him keeping his feet moving, feeding the puck around behind Luongo and getting on a rush with Uppy. Pirri was solid throughout and appears to have a scorer’s mentality, which is truly needed on this pass-first team that appears rather hesitant to shoot at times like in the 4-on-3 power play in overtime.

The two paired up in the shootout to produce two slick goals and provide the offense that lifted the Cats to the win. Many fans denounce the shootout and call it gimmicky. That’s fine. Regardless, the Panthers are suddenly becoming very good at it and stand at 8-6 in the 1-on-1 skill session. What they’re also doing is creating incredible depth in the shootout. Next year the team’s 1-5 shootout specialists could be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, all-time NHL leader Brad Boyes, Trocheck and Pirri – and perhaps an additional winger or two most expect the Panthers to go after in free agency on July 1. That group will get you the extra point more often than not, and we all know that’s often the difference in making the playoffs.

“I was shocked to see that I’d go first (in the shootout). When he said I was going first, I was a little nervous, but luckily it worked out. That’s my go-to move. Luckily there’s no video of me doing it in the NHL,” said Trocheck of his first shootout attempt in his 11th game.

Following the contest, Florida interim head coach Peter Horachek had some very complimentary words of praise for Trocheck. The two started the season together in San Antonio, and Horachek said he was impressed by the Pittsburgh native from the start and loved his compete level.

Horachek may or may not be the head of Florida when this season concludes. GM Dale Tallon relieved assistant GM Mike Santos of his duties earlier in the day, and Santos, who joined the organization in 2010 after being directory of hockey operations in Nashville, was instrumental in bringing along Horachek. Who will be behind Florida’s bench next season is an unknown, and probably becomes even more of a dicey decision if Peter Laviolette, Guy Boucher, Claude Noel and other coaches are available and the organization is truly committed to spending money to ice a winning team.

I don’t know if Horachek will be back, but I do know I want no part of any transaction that would ship out Trocheck and/or Pirri anywhere to bring back anything deemed more valuable. Trocheck has too much upside and should have nights like Tuesday for years to come in a Cats’ sweater. As for Pirri, Tallon’s likely already won that deal with Chicago – and that’s not even mentioning the two other former Blackhawks he dealt for in Olsen and Hayes. That deal looks more than favorable as well.

Again, these are small snapshots in a game in front of just 13,435 fans, but all things considered, the pictures from Tuesday night came out just fine.

#FlaPanthers #Devils pre-game notes

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Some pre-game observations and notes before the Florida Panthers host the New Jersey Devils tonight at 7:30 here at BB&T Center. Some quick hits below:

DEVILISH TIME: Florida’s game tonight marks the 82nd time the clubs have met. The Cats hold a 26-41-7-7 record against New Jersey and are 15-17-4-4 at home against them. The two teams meet for the final time in New Jersey on Mar. 31.

ON THE SCORESHEET: Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic tallied his first NHL point in Tampa Thursday when he assisted on Brandon Pirri’s goal late in the Panthers’ 5-4 loss.

SCORING LEADERS: Jaromir Jagr leads New Jersey with 57 points (21-36), while Patrik Elias (42 pts., 14-28) and Adam Henrique (38 pts., 23-15) follow. Florida is paced by Scottie Upshall (32 pts., 12-20), Nick Bjugstad (31 pts., 14-17) and Brad Boyes (30 pts., 17-13).

FORMER BUDS: Cory Schneider gets the starter in goal for New Jersey and is ranked third in the NHL with a 2.07 GAA. He faced former teammate Roberto Luongo on Nov. 24 earlier this season when Luongo’s Canucks beat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout.

ONE-TIMERS: Bjugstad has nine points in his last nine games and is riding a career-best four-game point streak…New Jersey’s Henrique, who beat Florida two years ago with the game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, has 11 points in his last seven games…The Devils currently hold the 10th position in the Eastern Conference while Florida is 15th, leading only Buffalo…Pirri has goals in back-to-back games and has three points in his first five games with the Cats…Jimmy Hayes’s two goals against Boston last Sunday in Florida’s 5-2 loss marked the first multi-goal game and third multi-point game of his NHL career; his seven goals are also a career high…Brian Campbell grids second in the league with 27:20 TOI/per game. He has also registered 28-plus minutes in 13 of his last 28 games played.