2010-11 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

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Thumbnail image for daletallon1.jpgLast season: (32-37-13, 77 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 14th in Eastern Conference) The Panthers seem like they’re in a perpetual holding pattern. It was only fitting that the team was bad enough to earn the third pick in the draft, which fell just short of earning them a potential star such as Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.

Head coach: Peter DeBoer took advantage of the recent trend of AHL coaches gaining a promotion to the NHL. Who knows how patient the franchise is, but you almost feel like the 2010-11 season should be part of a grace period. The team is in a clear rebuilding stage.

Key departures: F Nathan Horton, F Gregory Campbell, D Keith Ballard. In the short term, the Panthers might actually take a step back. Horton is an injury-prone but talented forward who needed a change of scenery, but the team didn’t bring in an immediate replacement. Ballard is a solid if overpaid defenseman who might be missed a bit.

Key arrivals: D Dennis Wideman, F Steve Bernier, F Michael Grabner, F Chris Higgins, D Mike Weaver. Wideman is an up-and-down defenseman who can be leaky in his own end but also put up big numbers. Bernier and Higgins are frustrating players while Grabner might benefit from a great opportunity in Florida. First-round pick Erik Gudbranson might make a jump to the NHL right away.

Thumbnail image for vokounsquashed.jpgUnder pressure: Tomas Vokoun is in a contract year on a rebuilding team. If he can put together another impressive statistical season, he’ll either be rewarded by the Panthers or another team with a big deal.

Protecting the house: Vokoun is the starter and flash-in-the-pan backup Scott Clemmensen should stay in place, although super-prospect Jacob Markstrom might get some playing time if the team is far out of the playoff race. Goalies have been the strength of this team all the way back to Roberto Luongo’s time there (heck, some might say since the days of John Vanbiesbrouck) and that’s still the case.

The Panthers defense is a weird mix of damaged veterans (the much-maligned Bryan McCabe, Wideman and Bryan Allen) as well as young guys who might not be ready yet (Gudbranson and Dmitri Kulikov). Essentially exchanging Ballard for Wideman is a considerable downgrade for a decent-at-best group. On the bright side, the future looks pretty good for their blue line.

Top line we’d like to see: Cory Stillman-Stephen Weiss-David Booth. Stillman is a nice playmaker who is getting long in the tooth, Weiss has the two-way skills that make him a stat-blogger favorite and Booth is a power forward in the making if he can conquer his concussion issues. This line would have a little bit of everything, although it would be far from elite.

bryanmccabecaptain.jpgOh captain, my captain: I’ll admit, I had to look this up, but … McCabe? Really? Hahaha.

Street fighting man: The Panthers put up a lot of fights last season (50) compared to their division mates, but they no longer have their leading fighter Nick Tarnasky listed on their roster (he’s currently a free agent). Still, with new GM Dale Tallon, I imagine they’ll probably throw some punches. Bryan Allen had nine fights last season and Byron Bitz sounds like the kind of guy that might pick up the fighting mantle.

Best-case scenario: Well, I guess a dark horse run to a playoff spot would be the best-case scenario? Honestly, the team would be better off tanking for some blue chip talent.

Worst-case scenario: The Panthers seemingly always end up just short of a playoff berth which is a bad place to be in the current NHL. They don’t get the premium prospects that come with high picks or the prestige and gate revenue of a playoff run. Doing so again would make Tallon’s rebuild process go much slower.

Keeping it real: Tallon is doing a nice job, but there will be some growing pains. The team is better off being lousy this season as they amass young, talented through the draft and shrewd free agent moves. Aside from their goalie duo, the team really doesn’t have many strengths.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Florida rates a 1. Perhaps they could ride Vokoun’s talent (and the inspiration that comes with a contract year) into a stunning playoff run, but they’ll likely trade him in the middle of the season and truly commit to the rebuilding process.

The Buzzer: McDavid dominates; Fleury’s unlucky return

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Player Of The Night: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers have at least started to show some signs of life in recent games. They were shutout on Sunday night in Toronto, but sandwiched around that game were a convincing 6-2 win in Montreal and then a thoroughly dominating 7-2 win in Columbus on Tuesday night that left Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella completely speechless.

Leading the way for the Oilers was captain Connor McDavid as he went off with a four-point night.

The four points are a season high for him and the fifth time this season he has recorded at least three points.

That performance gives him 39 points in 31 games on the season and currently has him third in the NHL scoring race, three points behind Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Marc-Andre Fleury Probably Deserved Better In His Return To The Lineup

Marc-Andre Fleury made is return to the Vegas Golden Knights net and looked great, stopping 35 of the 37 shots he faced. Unfortunately that was not enough to get Vegas a win as they fell in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2.

One of those two shots in regulation that beat him? It was this.

That is unfortunate.

Still, that is another point for Vegas as they continue their push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference during their inaugural season in the NHL.

Highlight Of The Night

The Philadelphia Flyers were 4-2 winners over the Toronto Maple Leafs and have now, suddenly, won four games in a row following a 10-game losing streak.

They picked up the winner on Tuesday thanks to this goal that featured a crazy between-the-legs pass.

Highlight Of The Night Part Two

Now let us take a look at Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames. This came in a losing effort in the shootout but this is still a slick move. Maybe illegal? Either way, it counted.

Factoid(s) Of The Night

— By stopping all 32 shots he faced against the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy picked up his 20th win of the season. He is just the sixth goalie in NHL history to win at least 20 games within his first 25 starts of a season. [NHL Public Relations]

Matt Cullen scored his 250th career goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 shootout win over the Calgary Flames, making him the 29th American-born player in NHL history to reach that mark. [Minnesota Wild PR]

— Carolina Hurricanes goalies Cam Ward recorded his 300th career win on Tuesday night in their 3-2 shootout win over the Vegas Golden Knights. He is the fifth active goaltender to reach that mark. [NHL Public Relations]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 3, Ottawa Senators 2

New Jersey Devils 5, Los Angeles Kings 1

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Washington Capitals 5, Colorado Avalanche 2

Edmonton Oilers 7, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, St. Louis Blues 0

Minnesota Wild 2, Calgary Flames 1

Chicago Blackhawks 3, Florida Panthers 2

Carolina Hurricanes 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Vasilevskiy shines again as Lightning take top spot in NHL

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Tuesday’s game in St. Louis was a showdown featuring the top two teams in the NHL.

In the end it was the Lightning picking up the 3-0 win to extend their current winning streak to five games and to reclaim sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the NHL.

Their win improves them to 22-6-2 on the season and puts them two points ahead of the Blues despite having played two fewer games.

It was another impressive showing for Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who has been one of the underrated stars of this year’s Lightning team. Most of the attention has been directed to forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (and deservedly so!) but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as the Lighting’s full-time starter, has been one of the best goalies in the league so far.

Tuesday’s game was his third shutout of the season, and after his 32-save performance against the Blues his .933 save percentage is among the best in the NHL, while his 20 wins (in only 25 starts) are tops in the league. Nobody else in the league has more than 17.

While Vasilevskiy was shining in net again, Kucherov scored his 21st goal of the season to move back into a tie with Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the league. It was also his 42nd point which moved him into a tie with Stamkos for the league lead.

Brayden Point also continued his breakout season by opening the scoring with his 13th goal of the season. He also added an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s third period goal.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

John Tortorella had no time for questions after blowout loss (Video)

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Since being hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets John Tortorella has seemed to be a kinder, gentler coach.

The blow ups and battles with the media don’t seem to happen as much. We don’t get as many rants.

He just does not seem as angry all the time.

Losing 7-2 at home to the Edmonton Oilers, however, might change a few things.

That it was happened to the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night and Tortorella was in no mood to answer question about the game.

His press conference consisted of him stepping to the podium, saying there is no point in answering questions about the game, then leaving.

Here it is in all of its glory.

The only question we have: Is this shorter than the night he said the New York Rangers “sucked from head to toe?”

(Oddly enough, that game was also against the Edmonton Oilers).

That press conference lasted, roughly, 14 seconds from the time he started talking until the time he walked away (and also included the line “I know you have a job to do”).

Tonight’s comes in at just around 12 seconds. So we might have a record for the shortest John Tortorella press conference of all time.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski dies at 49

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski has died at age 49, according to the Calgary Flames. No cause of death was given.

Zalapski, a native of Edmonton, played 637 NHL games for Calgary, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal and Philadelphia from 1987 to 2000.

He was with the Flames from 1993 to 1998.

“We are proud that Zarley wore the Flames jersey, made Calgary his home following his playing career, represented our alumni executive and we will always remember him as a member of the Flames family,” Flames president and chief executive officer Ken King said Tuesday in a statement.

“This is a terrible loss of a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey. We express our sincere condolences to the Zalapski family.”

Zalapski was a member of the Canadian team that finished fourth in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

He had 99 goals, 285 assists and 684 penalty minutes in the NHL. Zalapski was named to the all-rookie team in 1989 and participated in the NHL All-Star Game in 1993.

Zalapski played stints in Austria and Switzerland after his NHL career and appeared in 11 games for the United Hockey League’s Kalamazoo Wings in 2004-05.

He was the fourth overall pick by the Penguins in the 1986 entry draft.