Florida Panthers rebuild is in full swing, yet again

One would think that a battle between the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators would be a pointless snooze fest that equated to “Can’t Watch TV.” But with the Panthers beating the surging Blackhawks and the Senators defeating the equally hot Devils on Tuesday, both teams are looking to finish their respective seasons strong even though both have publicly stated they are rebuilding for the future. Make no mistake about it though—they’re both rebuilding and have their eyes set on tomorrow while they continue to play out the rest of this season.

The Florida Panthers made it clear they were going with (yet another) rebuild the moment they hired Dale Tallon as General Manager. Tallon put together most of the key components in Chicago that brought them their first Stanley Cup since 1961, so the thought process was that he could bring the same type of magic to South Beach. He’d bring all kinds of talent to South Beach, as it were. Ownership knew that the rebuild in Chicago took a few years—but they also knew that the payoff for their hardships in the short-term could translate into sustained success in the long-run. That’s what they were betting on.

It certainly raised a few eyebrows when the Panthers were playing well earlier in the season. This is really only the first year of a three or four year reclamation project. How were they competing so early in the process? Besides their record, they were blowing lead after lead which meant they could be even better than the standings reflected. As recently as January, the team was up to 11th place and only a few points out of a playoff spot. With the deadline looming in February, the team knew they had to keep winning or there would be a mass exodus before they could say “3rd round draft pick.” They slipped and there are now ex-Panthers scattered all over the playoff races. So it goes.

Going into tonight’s games, the Panthers have 63 points which is good for 13th place in the Eastern Conference. They are currently 9 points behind the 8th place Buffalo Sabres (and more importantly a playoff spot) with 15 games left in the season. They’re not mathematically eliminated, but they’re on life support and some people are looking for the plug. But again, this is a long rebuild and the Panthers weren’t expected to compete this season.

In many ways, it could be viewed as a blessing in disguise that the Panthers faltered enough to give Tallon the go-ahead to trade assets. Had they continued to win at an average pace, they could have hung around long enough to add a few marginal pieces to make a run at the 8th seed. Sure, everyone wants to make the playoffs—but Tallon was brought in for more than a 1st round sweep at the hand of the Flyers.

Instead of making short-term moves that would only help for 6 weeks, Tallon made an array of moves designed to help the organization in years. Not weeks. He traded just about every veteran who wasn’t bolted to the floor for future assets that can help with the foundation. It was only last year that the Panthers had 6 picks in the first 50 selections at the Entry Draft. This season with a collection of mid-round picks, Tallon will be in the position to trade up again to add prospects to the cupboard he’s already started to stockpile. Last year he was able to add Erik Gundbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, and John McFarland to young guys in the NHL that includes Dmitry Kulikov, Evgeny Dadonov, and Keaton Ellerby.

None of the players the Panthers traded in the days leading up the deadline are guys Tallon identified as his young core. Michael Frolik was a young player who Tallon didn’t see a future with going forward. Guys like Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman, Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak, Chris Higgins, and Bryan Allen are all nice players now—but were worth more as tradeable assets today than they would be to a building hockey team in three years. He flipped the guys he could part with (and other teams desired) to stockpile more assets for the future.

Just as important as the players management decided to trade were the players they chose to hold onto. It’s no secret that plenty of teams were kicking the tires on both Stephen Weiss and David Booth. But when push came to shove, these were the guys the Panthers held onto to build around for the future. With just about every other veteran with value changing jerseys, they in effect handed the keys to Weiss and Booth to lead the rebuild.

There’s no doubt they’d like to see guys like Weiss and Booth take ownership of the team—and since the predictable fire sale on Deadline Day, both have played some of their best hockey of the season. Weiss has 4 points since March 1st and Booth has 3 goals and 5 points over the same stretch. Considering the Panthers are 11-3-5 when Booth scores, seeing him put the puck in the net is exactly the kind of leadership they’d love to see.

Of course, rebuilding isn’t always the easiest course for an organization. To look over Tallon’s shoulder during the tough overhaul, the Panthers have formulated the aptly named Blueprint Advisory Board. The BAB was put together to “help advise General Manager Dale Tallon and President & COO Michael Yormark on the overall direction of the Panthers organization.” Here’s an overview of the board’s duties:

“The Board will meet quarterly with Tallon and Yormark, at off-site South Florida locations, to conduct an open forum and honest dialogue about different aspects of the Florida Panthers organization including marketing and public relations, in-game experience, community outreach, charitable initiatives, and more. All Florida Panthers supporters will have the opportunity to contact the Blueprint Advisory Board via secure e-mail to make sure all of their opinions, thoughts, and priorities are accurately represented during Board meetings and communications.”

 

Hopefully for the fans in Florida, the board won’t get in the way as Tallon continues to build this team for the future. He’s proven recently that he knows what he’s doing—and the Panthers have proven in the past that they don’t. Those rebuild(s) went so well that former cornerstones are playing for different teams while the Panthers were forced to start at ground-zero last year. Again.

Clearly, the perpetual rebuilding is a difficult process as evidenced by Tomas Vokoun after recent win vs. Blackhawks:

“It hasn’t been easy at all, especially for the older players we have left because some of going through that another time. We get paid, we’re professionals, the fans come out so for me it doesn’t matter where we are in the standings, I’m going to play as hard as I can every game. Yes, it’s disappointing we are not going to the playoffs. We still have to put forth the effort.”

 

The hope is that this time is different. The Panthers have been around the league for almost two decades and have only been to the playoffs 3 times in their history. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2000 and they have only won a single playoff game since their Cup Finals appearance in 1996. It might be hard to admit, but they’re not an expansion team anymore. They’ve experienced the growing pains over and over, but it’s time to get it right. A rebuild is great for the fans because it gives them hope, but there’s no question that losing year in and year out is tough on fans and players alike.

Hopefully for the fans, the organization will have the patience to let Dale Tallon do his thing; and for their sake, hopefully he can catch lightning in a bottle for the second time.

NHL on NBCSN: Banged-up Lightning continue push for playoff spot against ‘Hawks

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

Despite the crazy amount of injuries that the Lightning have suffered (Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Jason Garrison are all out), they find themselves within striking distance of a post-season berth.

Coming into tonight’s tilt against the ‘Hawks, the Bolts are three points behind Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East. The Lightning have a game in hand on the Bruins, but Boston has five more regulation/overtime wins.

After dropping a 5-3 decision to Arizona on home ice last Tuesday, they rebounded by beating the B’s and Wings on the road on Thursday and Friday.

One of the big reasons why the Lightning have been able to stay in the race, is because of  the way Nikita Kucherov has played this season.

On Friday, with the Bolts trailing the Wings 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov helped set up Ondrej Palat‘s game-tying goal before adding the OT winner later on.

The 23-year-old is up to 38 goals and 40 assists in 67 games. He’s accumulated 29 of those points in his last 16 games and he’s put together four multi-point efforts in a row.

If the Bolts make it to the playoffs, is Kucherov the MVP?

Don’t expect the Blackhawks to be in a particularly good mood coming into this game. Not only did they drop Saturday night’s game in Florida, but they were absolutely annihilated, 7-0.

“There’s no reason we should be entirely satisfied at this point,” captain Jonathan Toews said after the loss, per the Chicago Tribune. “There’s always room to grow.

“We can’t expect it’s going to be easy hockey (the) last seven games. If we continue to play like that and think we’re going to turn it on come playoff time, we’ve got another thing coming.”

The Blackhawks had a bit of a rough week, as they lost 5-4 in OT to the Canucks on Tuesday before narrowly beating the Stars 3-2 in a shootout on Thursday. But overall, they’ve been on a pretty good run. In their last eight contests, they’ve gone 6-1-1, which is far from poor.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for the Bruins to move on from Tuukka Rask?

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Tuukka Rask has shown that he can be one of the top goalies in the NHL, but CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty thinks that his inability to deliver in big games is becoming a serious problem. Haggerty even suggests that the Bruins should consider shipping him out of town this summer. It’s an interesting thought. (CSN New England)

–Nolan Patrick is expected to go first overall in next June’s entry draft, but his draft year has been anything but ordinary. He missed the first 34 games of the season with an undisclosed injury, which must be pretty frustrating. But Patrick has gone through a similar situation before. When he was a young teenager, Patrick broke his collarbone twice. He was able to shake the injuries off and turn himself into a top prospect. (Sportsnet)

–Take a look at the top seven plays of the week in and around the NHL. If you’re fed up of seeing Sidney Crosby score ridiculous goals, do not watch this video. (NBC Sports)

–The Flyers got six goals from six different players in their win over the Penguins last night. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page. Philly is now six points back of Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

–Sabres forward Brian Gionta will be playing in his 1000th NHL game tonight. As you’d imagine, the 5-foot-7 forward didn’t have an easy path to the big show, but he was still able to carve out a great career for himself. “To be out there and part of his 1,000th game, it’s a proud moment for me,” teammate Josh Gorges said. “I know it’s a proud moment for him. We’ve talked about it before, and it’s an amazing accomplishment. … We’re all looking forward to it.” (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

–Did you really think that changing the goalies’ pants was going to result in more goals scored? Well, let’s just say it hasn’t worked out that way. Before the change, teams were scoring 2.73 goals-per-game. Since the change, that number is slightly down at 2.70. (The Score)

–Jets super fan Kiera Neal was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one, but Neal, now 10, is doing well and is cancer free. Her wish was to meet the Winnipeg Jets and her favorite player Dustin Byfuglien, and the people at Hometown Hockey made it happen:

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers: