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.

It doesn’t sound promising for Matt Murray

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Matt Murray wasn’t available for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. If he ends up being an option vs. the Washington Capitals, it might not be for a while.

The Penguins provided a less-than-promising update on Monday: he hasn’t yet resumed skating.

Now, there is some time for him to even get ready by Game 1, as their second-round series doesn’t begin until Thursday.

Considering Washington’s firepower, it would be nice for the Penguins to have two championship goalies to choose from in case things get ugly, but at the moment it seems like it’s Marc-Andre Fleury or bust.

“MAF” has his critics, but his overall work was strong vs. Columbus.

He won four of five games, generating a fantastic .933 save percentage. That’s a promising start to the playoffs, providing some hope despite a shaky .907 career playoff save percentage and a middling regular season (18-10-7, .909 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).

The less-than-positive aspects of Fleury’s numbers make Murray’s continued injury issues more unsettling, but Pittsburgh will just need to hope for improvements.

Or for Fleury to remain at the top of his game.

Kings want to increase scoring, but can Stevens make it happen?

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If sheer exposure to a team translates to make that team better, then no candidate can lift the Los Angeles Kings quite like John Stevens.

The hockey world tends to lose track of assistant (or “associate”) coaches far more easily than the main guys, and that is the case with Stevens. Seriously, Stevens has been with the Kings since 2010-11. How many Kings fans occasionally forgot he was there?

(Be honest.)

Anyway, Stevens has been able to keep an eye on the Kings for some time, so does he really have a chance to make them better? That remains to be seen, but give Stevens and new GM Rob Blake credit; they at least seem to offer some specifics about improving Los Angeles’ offense beyond “score more goals.”

The presser starts around the 8:00 mark:

Stevens provides a fun line about wanting to “lead the league” in goalie interference challenges which …

*gets interrupted by Bruce Boudreau GIF*

No, but really, LA Kings Insider transcribed some of the more interesting bits about how management believes that they’ll approach zone entries and attempting to score from the center of the ice. Here are some choice bits via Rosen’s transcription:

Blake: “We were at the bottom of controlled entry, goals off of controlled entry … We were near the bottom at getting the puck to the slot whether we were skating it or passing it so there were a lot of things that, the way goals are being scored now, that we weren’t having success in.”

Stevens: ” … Analytics tells you we don’t get enough scoring opportunities from the middle of the ice and that’s clearly an area where, whether it’s quickly off a transition forecheck and you’re going to try to get to those areas, you’re going to have people there more, and spend more time around the net. But it’s clearly an area we’re going to focus on.”

***

OK, so there’s a blueprint. But roster construction matters as much as system – let’s not forget that the Kings remained a possession mammoth until the end and that Darryl Sutter remains a respected coach – and that’s where the real questions come in.

Simply put, there are some reasons to wonder if things might actually get worse.

The Kings will find out if Anze Kopitar merely experienced a down year or if this is the new reality as he turns 30 in August. Jeff Carter could hit the wall some expected him to already hit. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are two rare Kings scorers who are in their primes … but they’re not going to be nearly as cheap after getting new deals this summer.

Ultimately, Stevens can only do so much. Blake will need to be creative to help this team … be more creative.

But hey, at least they have a plan that seems a bit more concrete than only spewing out buzzwords like “being tough to play against.”

Blues think they’re ‘as sound as ever’ on defense without Shattenkirk

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Knowing Kevin Shattenkirk wasn’t in their long-term plans, the St. Louis Blues traded the talented defenseman and braced for the immediate blow to their playoff hopes.

That never happened. The Blues actually got better without him.

When the Blues dealt the pending free agent at the trade deadline, they seemed to be creating a giant void on their blue line and gift-wrapping the NHL-best Washington Capitals with their deepest defense in a decade. Yet St. Louis has thrived thanks to the elevated play of captain Alex Pietrangelo and second-year defenseman Colton Parayko while Shattenkirk plays a limited, specialized role for Washington.

With Pietrangelo taking over top power-play duties, Parayko pitching in and 6-foot-4, 221-pound Robert Bortuzzo providing some bulk on the back end, the new-look Blues cruised into the second round with a 4-1 series win over Minnesota and haven’t missed a beat without Shattenkirk.

“We’re bigger, all six guys are big men, and now we have two players that play with a little more nasty than we had when we had five guys that played one way and sort of Joel Edmundson doing the majority of the physical work,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “Now we have two players that are bringing some of that physical play.”

Armstrong won’t mince words: He didn’t trade Shattenkirk to shake things up. He dealt the 28-year-old for picks and young forward Zach Sanford because there was no chance of re-signing him this summer.

On the flip side, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan only got involved in the bidding when it became clear Shattenkirk was a rental and not long-term commitment.

After being a top-four defenseman in St. Louis, Shattenkirk is a third-pairing player and power-play specialist for Washington. He was among the team leaders in overall minutes in Games 1 and 2 before having his ice time slashed to a career playoff low 12:54 in Game 4 and ranking fifth or six on the Capitals’ blue line the remainder of their first round series against Toronto.

Shattenkirk said he’s fine with that and doesn’t need an explanation from coach Barry Trotz, who called ice time “irrelevant” to players this time of year. He’s still on the top power-play unit, is counted on to feed Alex Ovechkin the puck from the point in crucial situations and leads Capitals defensemen with three points.

But he’s not in St. Louis anymore.

“I do think that we roll our D pairings a little bit more here, and everyone gets to play a regular shift for the most part,” Shattenkirk said. “St. Louis, we were a little more reliant on our top two guys of playing the big-time minutes, and then power plays and penalty kills kind of determined where the rest of us played more or played less.”

Saying so long to Shattenkirk shifted the big-time minutes on the right side to Pietrangelo and Parayko. Ranked 26th among NHL defensemen in points and 11th in ice time before the Shattenkirk trade, Pietrangelo was second with 18 points and fourth at 26:35 a game after it.

Thrown into tougher situations than his first playoffs last season, Parayko has grown up fast without Shattenkirk around.

“It’s good for me,” the 23-year-old said as the Blues prepared to face the Nashville Predators. “I think that’s the best way to do it, get in there and learn from experience.”

Even the experienced Blues defensemen like Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson have thrived since the trade. Part of it is the structure of Mike Yeo, who replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach in early February, but the defensive improvements have made up for the loss of Shattenkirk’s offensive talent that will earn him a big contract somewhere July 1.

“Defensively I think we’re sound as ever,” Gunnarsson said. “Without Shatty I think we were lacking, especially the first couple games (of the playoffs), some offense. He was huge on the power play for us and that poise with the puck. Some guys stepped up.”

Yeo said his team being in must-win mode from the deadline on helped spur a late-season run that allowed them to also eliminate the Wild in five games. And if the Blues need an offensive spark from a right-handed-shooting first-round pick, they can plug 23-year-old Jordan Schmaltz into their lineup.

In Washington, Shattenkirk is glad to be on a Stanley Cup contender readying for a second-round matchup against the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He doesn’t mind St. Louis enjoying success without him.

“When I was there this year, we knew we had that capability. For whatever reason we just couldn’t get to our full potential,” Shattenkirk said. “They were a group that believed that they could play this way all year, and they’re doing it at the right time.”

AP freelance writer Nate Latsch in St. Louis contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:Jake Allen gives Blues “a sense of calm.”

Anderson, Cogliano, Ryan named 2017 Masterton nominees

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The PHWA announced the three finalists for the NHL’s 2017 Bill Masterton Trophy: Craig Anderson, Andrew Cogliano and Derek Ryan.

As a reminder, the award is for “the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Ryan distinguished himself as a 29-year-old who battled his way to time in the NHL, managing a goal in his debut game with the Carolina Hurricanes.

For what it’s worth, some believe that Bryan Bickell should have represented the Hurricanes.

Cogliano stands out as one of the “iron men” of the NHL for the Anaheim Ducks. The PHWA notes that he’s never missed a game in his career, managing a streak of 779 games.

Finally, there’s Anderson, who managed an impressive season in net for the Ottawa Senators while his wife Nicholle battles a rare form of throat cancer. That emotional story continued after Anderson backstopped the Senators in beating the Boston Bruins in the first round.