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.

Heinen over Wingels right choice for Bruins in Game 7

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The Boston Bruins will make one change to their lineup heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

Danton Heinen, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6, will be back in the lineup, while Tommy Wingels, who’s played in three of the six games during the series, will watch from the press box again on Wednesday. On paper, this doesn’t seem to be a significant change, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t just making changes for the sake of making changes.

Neither player has made an offensive impact in the series. Wingels has no points and a plus-1 rating in three games, while Heinen has no points and a minus-1 rating in five contests. Even though neither player has popped up on the scoresheet, there’s a significant gap when it comes to their advanced stats. Heinen has a CF% of 49.49, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you compare it to Wingels’ CF% (39.34), you realize that there’s a significant difference. To further point the arrow in Heinen’s direction, the 22-year-old has zone starts in the offensive zone just 37.5 percent of the time compared to 47.62 percent for Wingels.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 

So, in terms of offense, neither player has really contributed, but it appears to be pretty clear that the odds are on Heinen’s side when it comes to the way they’ve played this postseason.

If we take a look at the standard numbers during the regular season, it’s obvious that Heinen was the more productive player. The rookie had 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games, which is far from terrible for his first year in the NHL. Wingels, 30, had nine goals and 18 points in 75 games with the ‘Hawks and Bruins.

Getting an extra night off during the series could help Heinen find his game. And based on his comments after Tuesday’s practice, it sounds like the coaching staff made their instructions clear. Heinen mentioned that he needs to be more assertive, stronger on the puck and he needs to win puck battles so that he can have the puck on his stick a little more often.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

PHT Morning Skate: Is Tavares to Avs realistic?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bruce Cassidy has a few important lineup decisions to make heading into Game 7 against the Leafs tonight. Does Danton Heinen come back into the lineup? Should Ryan Donato suit up? (Boston.com)

• It’s no secret that the Canadiens are lacking quality bodies on defense. Winning this weekend’s draft lottery and drafting Rasmus Dahlin would fix a lot of problems. (Sportsnet)

• It was a tough year for Braden Holtby, but he managed to come through at the most crucial time of the season. (Washington Post)

• Bill Peters opting out of his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes was a good thing for his former team because they badly needed a change behind the bench. (Cardiac Cane)

Leo Komarov is healthy, but it seems unlikely that Mike Babcock will play him in Game 7 against the Bruins tonight. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Two Denver Post writers debate whether or not it’s realistic to think that John Tavares could end up in Colorado. (Denver Post)

Shea Theodore has played some good hockey for the Golden Knights this postseason, which isn’t surprising when you look at his body of work in last year’s playoffs. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe is going to be honored by the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation. They’ll be retiring his number ahead of a game against Switzerland. (The Province)

• College basketball has a problem with their “one-and-done” rule. To fix it, they should take a page out of the NHL’s book when it comes to college prospects. (Raleigh News & Observer)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: NHL announces second round openers

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We have one game left in the opening round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins will do battle at TD Garden Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Game 7 with the winner advancing to face the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As we wait for the full second-round schedule, the NHL has released the start dates and times for opening games of each series, including the situations depending on whether the Bruins or Maple Leafs win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Thursday, April 26

• The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will kick off at 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) from Capital One Center in Washington, D.C.

• Out West, the San Jose Sharks will visit T-Mobile Arena and the Vegas Golden Knights for their opener at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN).

Friday, April 27

• The top two teams in the NHL will meet in the first game of their best-of-7 at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN) as the Nashville Predators play host to Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets.

Saturday, April 28

If Boston advances, the Bruins and Lightning will play Game 1 at 3 p.m. ET (NBC) at AMALIE Arena in Tampa.

If Toronto advances, the Maple Leafs will get their Hockey Night in Canada timeslot and visit the Lightning at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.