#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

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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 4, #Leafs 2: Bjugstad with a Big Night

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla.Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri had big nights for the Panthers in Florida’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Thursday night.

Bjugstad assumed the team lead in scoring with two goals and an assist while Pirri celebrated his birthday by opening the game’s scoring as the Panthers won the season series from the Maple Leafs 3-1. Florida outscored Toronto 14-10 over the four games, with the Maple Leafs’ lone win a 6-3 home victory on Jan. 30.

Bjugstad assisted on Brad Boyes’ goal as the second period came to a close to give Florida (29-44-8) a 2-1 lead. He skated around behind Toronto goalie Drew MacIntyre, making his first NHL start, and fed Boyes, who tapped in the pass for his team-high 21st goal.

Bjugstad, a University of Minnesota alum who had keen interest in the Gophers’ Frozen Four semifinal against North Dakota following the game, scored from behind MacIntyre by fending off Toronto defenseman Paul Ranger for a goal 3:23 into the third. He soon added a shorthanded marker on a pass from Tomas Fleischmann to finish off a 2-on-1 rush less than three minutes later for a 4-1 edge.

“It was a good night. Boyes and (Sean) Bergenheim are great to play with. They talk to me a lot. They’re veterans and guide me through it. They’ve been very positive with me,” said Bjugstad.

The Minnesota native said Florida’s approach was to get pucks in deep and work behind MacIntyre.

“We were doing a lot of stuff down low tonight. We had to get pucks to the net. It was the first game for that goalie. We had to get shots on him. The pass (to Boyes), I saw him on the back door,” he said.

Pirri, a Toronto native, started the scoring when he whipped a shot over MacIntyre’s glove on the high side for a 1-0 lead at 6:06 of the first period. Linemate Quinton Howden set up the score with a pass from the boards to Pirri in the left circle, and Brian Campbell collected an assist on the tally.

“I had a lot of family back home who went to a local bar (to watch), so it was cool. It was good for us to get a good start, and we played well in the first,” said Pirri, who celebrated his 23rd birthday with his 13th goal.

Pirri, acquired from Chicago, has shown the offensive flair that the Cats desperately need.

“Obviously, getting points is nice, but the team won in the end. That’s what’s important. We’re just trying to build every game and get better,” he said.

Toronto tied it when Tyler Bozak fired in a shot off a pass from Jake Gardiner for his 19th goal, beating Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo over his blocker. James Van Riemsdyk also had an assist on the play for the Leafs (38-35-8), who were eliminated from a wildcard playoff spot when Columbus won in Dallas on Wednesday night. Ranger had Toronto’s other goal.

Luongo made 27 saves to earn the win while MacIntyre faced 37 shots from Florida, who closes its season Saturday night at home against playoff-bound Columbus.

NOTES: Pirri has 13 points in 17 games…Boyes has recorded three goals in his last five games…Bjugstad now has 38 points and leads the team in scoring, eclipsing Scottie Upshall’s 37. Bjugstad, who posted the first two-goal and three-point game of his career, is tied as the fourth-highest scoring NHL rookie…By winning its 67th meeting against Toronto, Florida improved to 27-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…Toronto starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre was selected in the fourth round by Detroit in the 2001 NHL Draft held at BB&T Center.

QUICK TAKE: #Leafs 6, #FlaPanthers 3

By Bill Whitehead

Game 3 of Florida’s 4-game road trip saw the Cats (21-25-7) travel to the Air Canada Centre to face Toronto, who was 7-1-1 – the hottest team in the NHL – over their last nine games. Goalie Tim Thomas got the night off as Scott Clemmensen, who beat Toronto 3-1 in the ACC on Dec. 17, was between the pipes. Jimmy Hayes was one of the scratches as were two surprise ones – Erik Gudbranson and Tomas Fleischmann.

First period

Nick Bjugstad, who had the game-winner in the shootout in Detroit to open the road swing, continued his strong play after Drew Shore chipped out a pass to Scottie Upshall. Bjugstad just outworked Nazem Kadri across the blue line, took the sweet pass from Upshall and flipped a shot over Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier at 1:39 for his 12th goal. Basically, Bjugstad showed Kadri what 6-foot-6 gets you in a 50-50 battle.

Scott Gomez, in for injured Aleksander Barkov, stole a puck from Cody Franson along the boards and passed it over to Brad Boyes, who was streaking through the center of Florida’s offensive zone. Boyes quickly passed it to Sean Bergenheim on the 2-on-1 advantage against Toronto defenseman Tim Gleason. Bergenheim beat Bernier for his 13th marker.

Kadri and Franson redeemed themselves at 16:49 after the defenseman banged home a shot from way out. Kadri kept the puck alive behind Clemmensen by outworking Brian Campbell. The period ended with Florida holding a 2-1 edge on the scoreboard and an 11-9 shot advantage.

The good: Bjugstad, the Bergenheim-Gomez-Boyes line, the faceoff circle (went 12 of 24) for the Panthers, who played a good first period on the road.

The bad: The power play went 0-for-2 and continued to prevent the Panthers from stretching a 1-0 lead at the time into a 2-goal advantage.

Second period

Not much good happened as Clemmensen gave up goals to Mason Raymond and James van Riemsdyk in the first minute of play. The Raymond goal, his 14th, was a soft one as Clemmensen whiffed on the shot from the left circle. Again, the Panthers had the better scoring chances but couldn’t cash in and trailed 3-2 after 40 minutes.

Third period

Struggling Nikolai Kulemin’s eighth goal at 4:00 put Florida down 4-2, and Clemmensen gave up another terrible goal when Joffrey Lupul beat him on the short side with a quick shot for a power-play goal. Dmitry Kulikov scored on a blast from the point with 5:31 left past Bernier, but Florida limped out with their second consecutive bad loss in three nights.

FINAL

Toronto 6

Florida 3

Quick take:

The offense for Florida (21-26-7) seemed to be on the right track with the early goals by Bjugstad and Bergenheim, but the power play was garbage as usual and the Cats couldn’t capitalize or take advantage of numerous chances against a not-so-stellar Leafs D. Clemmensen was simply the worst Panther on the ice and gave Florida no chance to win, allowing three bad goals and failing to make big stops that starting goalie Tim Thomas often makes to keep games close.

 

This was one of those games the Panthers haven’t had too often this year: An offensive fast start with a 2-0 lead, then blowing it with poor goaltending and a suddenly non-existent offensive attack. It was a win that slipped away for a team that desperately needs every point.

On to Columbus to finish a road trip that was so promising to start and has transformed into utter disappointment…

CAT-QUICK GAMER: #FlaPanthers rally past #RedWings, 5-4, in Shootout

By Bill Whitehead

Nick Bjugstad and Tim Thomas finished off all the hard work the Florida Panthers did in the third period on Sunday.

The Panthers rallied by scoring two goals in the game’s final six minutes, and Bjugstad tallied the game-winner in the shootout’s only goal as Thomas slammed the door on all three Detroit shots, leading Florida to a wild 5-4 victory over the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

With Aleksander Barkov missing his second game due to a lower-body injury, interim coach Peter Horachek called on Bjugstad, who was 1-for-3 in his career in the shootout, to go first against Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson after Thomas denied Tomas Tatar.

Bjugstad drove in hard and flipped a high shot over Gustavsson’s glove for a 1-0 edge. Thomas then showed his glove skills against Daniel Alfredsson and Patrick Eaves, making glove saves against all to secure the win in his home state of Michigan.

The win lifted Thomas’s record to 6-2 in the shootout, while the Panthers improved to 7-5. Detroit, who now has 11 overtime/shootout losses, fell to 3-8 in the shootout. The Red Wings also dropped to 9-11-8 at home.

“We were fortunate that a lot of guys came up big. Timmy came up big in the shootout, too. I was a little nervous. I’d never gone first in the shootout  before,” Bjugstad said on the broadcast after the game.

Down 3-1 starting the third period, Florida (21-24-7) cut it to a 1-goal deficit when Jesse Winchester scored a greasy goal, his seventh, by poking a loose puck past Gustavsson at 9:12. But all the momentum was lost when Detroit (23-18-11) got an answer from Tatar four minutes later.

The Panthers, starting a 4-game road trip, mounted their comeback from there.

Tomas Fleischmann, mired in an awful slump, held the puck, weaved into the slot and fired a shot that ricocheted off Gustavsson. Drew Shore flipped the puck into the open net for his fourth goal with 5:32 remaining. Brad Boyes completed the comeback with a shorthanded goal when he fired one from the right circle, beating Gustavsson on the far side, with his 13th goal with 3:46 left in regulation.

The Panthers’ greatest defensive problem of late, clearing the puck out of their own end, bit them again in the second period. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski’s pass to Shore turned in to a turnover and a goal by Gustav Nyquist. More Florida miscues led to Detroit goals by Daniel Alfredsson and Riley Sheahan, leaving Florida in a 3-1 hole with 20 minutes to play.

Sean Bergenheim gave Florida a 1-0 lead just 1:48 into the fourth meeting between the teams when he took a pass from Dmitry Kulikov, raced in and beat Gustavsson.

Defenseman Tom Gilbert kept the Panthers in the game in overtime when he made a sliding kick save of a shot by Danny DeKeyser toward an open net after Thomas moved way above the crease to stop the initial shot. Gilbert finished with two assists.

Florida travels to Boston for a game Tuesday against the Bruins.

The Florida Panthers: The Art of Regaining Respectability

By Bill Whitehead

During Florida’s first intermission break in Toronto, I ventured over to the Buffalo broadcast of the Sabres’ game against Winnipeg, whom the Panthers play Friday night to end the Cats’ 4-game Canadian road swing. While showing the clip of Tomas Fleischmann’s roof shot past James Reimer in the first period, the announcer wrapped it up by saying the Cats were “trying to get back to some form of respectability.”

I know what Rodney Dangerfield would’ve said to that statement, but I’ll just say, hey, this organization is always being slighted.

While an argument could be made that it’s ironic that Buffalo, owned by deep-pocketed Terry Pegula, was critical of Florida, the better story is the play of these Panthers, who at 3-11-4 were pretty much left for dead following a 4-3 Sunday loss to the Rangers in Madison Square on Nov. 10. Two months later, this story has taken a serious turn for the better and has made everyone in the NHL take notice. Eventually those folks in Buffalo will figure it out or look at the standings and see the team that had been one spot above them in the standings is now two notches ahead, and if they do a little math they’ll discern that the Panthers, now 13-17-5, are four points behind eighth-place Carolina.

A glance at the Eastern Conference standings also shows how hot the Panthers have been of late. From sixth-place Detroit on back — basically the group the Cats are fighting with for a playoff spot — no club has as many wins in its last 10 games than Florida, who is 6-4-0 after winning four straight and six of its last seven. Slumping Detroit is 3-5-2, Toronto is 3-7-0, Carolina and Philadelphia are 5-3-2, Ottawa is 4-4-2, the Rangers and Devils are 4-5-1, and Columbus is 5-4-1. That’s sixth through 13th in the conference, with the Cats bringing the heat from the bottom.

On the current road trip, the Panthers have enshrouded Canada like some bitter Siberian cold front. Florida dispatched of its neighbor to the north’s most heralded team on Sunday (Montreal) and did the same to its most beloved (Toronto) on Tuesday, but it all started after Florida lost to the Senators 4-2 last month. They were the better team in both of those games just as they were against Washington at BB&T Center last Friday when the Cats beat the Caps in the shootout’s tenth round. Really, the Caps should be thrilled they came out of that affair with a point.

How have the Cats done it? First, with good goaltending, as Scott Clemmensen has been a more than ample replacement for Tim Thomas, who has now been injured three separate lengthy times (a concern?). And with a defense that has been responsible in front of its goaltender and done a fantastic job with breakout passes and blocking shots. Then there’s the offense, which has been spearheaded by the B Line – Bergenheim, Barkov and Boyes – and supported by standout play from everyone in home red and road white, alphabetically from Barch to Weaver and every Panther in between. They’ve also done it lately without arguably its best young offensive player (Jonathan Huberdeau), its grittiest (Jesse Winchester) and its starting goalie (Thomas). Interim coach Peter Horachek and his coaching staff deserve plenty of credit, too, because something has definitely gotten through to the team since the staff took over — and it’s working.

We’ve listened to the excuses all year long after a Cats’ victory: “We weren’t prepared for the Panthers” or “We underestimated Florida.” We heard it in Vancouver and Detroit, plus countless others. That excuse is starting to lose its punch. In the NHL, a hockey club had better be prepared to battle for at least 60 minutes, maybe more, and no team should be lightly regarded. And if teams really find it necessary to play the Underestimation Game, maybe they should start with Buffalo and its fat bankroll in the East and Edmonton and its team of No. 1 picks out West. Those two are much better candidates than the Panthers.

And as for “trying to get back to some form of respectability”?

The Cats have moved well beyond that point.

Panthers’ Poor Play Leads to Little Confidence

By Bill Whitehead

A strange feeling came over me Tuesday night after Florida dropped yet another winnable game, springing out to a 2-0 lead before falling 4-2 to the Ottawa Senators at a sparsely filled BB&T Center. That feeling was a sense of ending. It was closure somehow found in another game that should’ve been a win on home ice but turned into a loss and left Florida 1-3-0 on its 5-game homestand. Really, home clubs staked to a 2-goal lead in the first half of the first period have plenty to play for and more often than not find themselves winning, but that wasn’t to be against the Sens.

What was that sense of ending on my part? Playoff chances? Those were likely sealed early in the season after Florida went into a serious nosedive after beating Dallas on Opening Night and the team soon lost goalie Tim Thomas to injury. Respectability? Not sure there’s a whole lot left after “Florida Panthers” began trending on Twitter Tuesday night. Guessing it had nothing to do with goals by Jonathan Huberdeau and Brian Campbell or another assist by Scottie Upshall and maybe more with those Barry Manilow-themed promos.

I think what closed shop and called it a day was optimism and confidence in this hockey club, at least from my perspective. Hell, maybe from the players, too. Did anyone truly have confidence in Florida after Soup put them up 2-0 by zipping a laser beam that beat former Panthers’ netminder and genuine good guy Craig Anderson? Did anyone dare presume Florida could play even — EVEN — with Ottawa over the final 51:38 and skate away with a 2-goal win and two points? Florida appeared to have Andy on the ropes early and hung in there for the most part despite committing eight minor penalties, including three by Upshall. As Ottawa popped shot after shot on Thomas, everyone knew Thomas would have to stand on his head and be a miracle worker in goal to get Florida any points at all.

As expected, Florida (7-16-5) couldn’t hold the 2-goal lead it set in the first 8:22 of the game. Now the team is left to battle with Winnipeg (13-12-4), who hasn’t played since drubbing the Rangers 5-2 in Madison Square Garden on Monday. Jets head coach Claude Noel, an interesting guy who doesn’t give the status quo quote and keeps you on your toes, was in attendance Tuesday and scouting the Panthers. He surely must be salivating over the chance for his Jets — featuring former Cats Olli Jokinen, Michael Frolik, Keaton Ellerby and James Wright — to put together another strong game and get a 2-game winning streak in order before heading to Tampa Saturday.

The Cats need a confidence builder, not just for them but for the fans as well. They say you have to have faith, but outside of a handful of players on the team – and it starts with Upshall, Thomas and Nick Bjugstad – that faithful feeling is fleeting. Thomas has been steady in net, but not much exciting has happened after that. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has rightfully found himself in interim coach Peter Horachek’s doghouse. Rookie Aleksander Barkov needs to start scoring goals and thinking shoot-first instead of pass, Huberdeau needs to net a few more and not have “sophomore jinx” mentioned near his name at season’s end, and the defense as a whole must improve to regain some of that respectability that has slipped away. And speaking of coaching, some of the bloom on Horachek has suddenly wilted. The team is again playing hard in spurts like it did under Kevin Dineen, and production hasn’t been good at either end of the ice. Of course, the results have been unacceptable.

And because the losses are unacceptable and we’re only 28 games into the season, I can’t believe GM Dale Tallon will sit through 54 more games and do nothing– possibly with performances like Tuesday night…or last Saturday…or last Wednesday looming on the horizon. The next miserable outing like Tuesday’s could be on Thursday. Would anyone be shocked by nothing more than a flyover by the Cats against the Jets? Not me anymore. If I know how Tallon does business, someone will be out the door here soon. Dmitry Kulikov, who is making rookie mistakes appears to show no progress, and Tomas Fleischmann, the team’s leading scorer the last two seasons and who has some value, might be good starting points for a trade or two.

Surely there must be something to like about this team right now, right? Something to get us all excited. Tell me where I’m wrong – leave a comment or contact me on Twitter. And take the poll below and tell me what the most glaring problem is.