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.

Russians win hockey gold with 4-3 OT win over Germany

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Olympic anthem was merely background noise, the doping scandal the farthest thing from their minds.

As the white flag with the five Olympic rings rose toward the rafters Sunday following the gold medal game in men’s hockey, the champion Russians in their nondescript red-and-white uniforms joined their fans cloaked in red, white and blue and belted out the ”State Anthem of the Russian Federation,” drowning out the recorded song that was required as part of International Olympic Committee sanctions.

This Olympic title meant so much more to the Russians, no matter that the tournament was missing NHL players and the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” were all here only after months of scandal.

Joyous players tossed coach Oleg Znarok in the air at center ice as fans let out the same ”ROSS-I-YA” chants that filled the arena in Sochi four years ago, where home ice meant nothing as the Russians lost in the quarterfinals. There was no such disappointment this time as the Russians triumphed in the tournament they were favored to win, capturing gold with a 4-3 overtime victory over Germany after Kirill Kaprizov’s power-play goal capped a classic final and gave the nation a jubilant moment following weeks of disappointment.

”We understood the whole thing from the start so we were calm about it,” coach Oleg Znarok said. ”Russia is in our hearts.”

The win came only a few hours after the IOC decided against allowing the Russians to march under their flag in the closing ceremony Sunday night after a curler and a bobsledder had positive drug tests during the games.

It didn’t seem to matter to the Russian players that they couldn’t wear the Russian Coat of Arms on their chests or that they won their first hockey gold medal since 1992 under the same circumstances as 26 years ago: playing under a neutral flag with the NHL opting to stay home after participating in the past five Olympics.

”The medal is the same with or without the NHL,” said defenseman Slava Voynov, who scored the opening goal with 0.5 seconds left in the first period. ”Maybe the tournament was a little different, but the emotions and happiness are the same.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a telephone call to Znarok after the victory, which gave the country its second gold and 17th overall medal of the Olympics.

Even with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Bobrovsky back in North America, this gold medal was particularly sweet because of the backdrop of sanctions and the Russians’ almost three-decade drought. After International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel put the first Russian hockey medals of any color since 2002 around the necks of each player, Russian Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretiak – a three-time Olympic gold medalist and Soviet Hall of Fame goaltender – gave out handshakes and hugs.

Winning this gold medal at his fifth Olympics meant more to 39-year-old captain Pavel Datsyuk than the two times he lifted the Stanley Cup.

”When you play for your country and I win this medal, this special time it’s more important,” Datsyuk said. ”I have accomplished my dream. Now I have no dream.”

The dream Russia couldn’t reach with NHL stars finally happened with Kaprizov scoring the winner on the power play 9:40 into overtime as Patrick Reimer sat in the penalty box for a high-sticking infraction.

A silver medal gave Germany its best finish at the Olympics after capturing bronze in 1932 and 1976.

”We all thought we would be sitting at home watching that final on the couch at home, but here we are,” Germany coach Marco Sturm said. ”The boys are going to bring silver home, and they should be very proud.”

Beating Germany, which stunned eventual bronze-medalist Canada to reach the final , gave the Russians their first gold medal in hockey since 1992 in Albertville when they competed as the Community of Independent States.

This one was expected all along.

Stocked with former NHL players – Datsyuk, Voynov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Nesterov – the Russians were by far the most talented team in the tournament. U.S. coach Tony Granato said they may be as good as 20 of the 31 NHL teams.

Oddsmakers made the Russians the favorite, and they showed it after an opening loss to Slovakia, getting better as the tournament went on, which was a complete reversal from Sochi.

”It means a lot,” said Kovalchuk, who was voted tournament MVP. ”This was my dream from when I was 5 years old when I started to play.”

The skill primarily from the Kontinental Hockey League was on full display with the gold medal at stake – and the Russians needed it against disciplined, opportunistic Germany, which had all of its players from leagues in its homeland.

Voynov, at the Olympics because he was banned from the NHL in 2015 for a domestic abuse conviction, scored what could’ve been a back-breaking goal with 0.5 seconds left in the first period, but Germany got a good bounce on a fluky tying goal by Felix Schultz midway through the second. That set the stage for a wild third period.

Russia’s Nikita Gusev scored when his shot bounced in off the helmet of Danny aus den Birken, but Dominik Kahun answered 10 seconds later. And when Jonas Muller slid the puck past Russian goaltender Vasily Koshechkin with 3:16 left and then Russia took a high-sticking penalty, it appeared like a major upset was on tap.

Instead, with Koshechkin pulled for the extra attacker to make it 5-on-5, Gusev scored again to help send the game to overtime. A penalty on Reimer gave Russia a power play and Kaprizov scored one of the biggest goals in Russian hockey history.

The Russians and Germany gave viewers something to remember to wrap up a tournament that was otherwise forgettable because of the lack of NHL stars and tepid interest in a nontraditional hockey country.

As dejected German players stood waiting for their silver medals, Russian players skated a lap around the ice to wave at and thank the fans who came to support them at an Olympics where they seemed like outcasts.

”With the support of our fans and loved ones, a big thank you,” Datsyuk said. ”It is not an easy time for us and it means a lot to us.”

AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker and James Ellingworth contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

The Buzzer: Gold for Russia (OAR), goalie interference fun

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Russia (O.A.R.) wins gold in overtime against Germany

Germany was an overtime goal away from a huge upset (note: miracle is loosely translated as “wunder” in German). Instead the Olympic Athletes of Russia will take their clunky name to a redemptive gold medal after beating Germany 4-3 in overtime thanks to a power-play goal.

With memorable moments like Ilya Kovalchuk being shut down on a heart-stopping semi-breakaway chance in OT, two Russian forwards were especially deadly.

Kirill Kaprizov scored “the golden goal” on that power play after racking up three assists during regulation. His partner-in-crime was Nikita Gusev, who generated two goals and two assists of his own.

Kovalchuk finally got a taste of Olympic glory, while Pavel Datsyuk joins the “Triple Gold Club.”

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Quite a tournament for Kaprizov, Gusev, and a certain Nashville Predators prospect named Eeli Tolvanen (more on him here).

Players of the Night

  • No Auston Matthews? The Maple Leafs wouldn’t respond “No problem,” but they might note that it gives other players a chance to step up. Lately, Mitch Marner has been on an absolute tear. He played a huge role in Toronto’s 4-3 win against Boston on Saturday, getting involved in all four goals (one goal, three assists).

This burst pushes Marner past Matthews for the team lead in scoring with 51 points. The splendid scorer has 14 points during an eight-game tear.

  • The Washington Capitals took care of business against the Sabres on Saturday, and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the charge with one goal and three assists of his own. He had been quiet before this outburst, only managing a goal in his previous five games. Kuznetsov has 59 points in 62 games this season.

So much goalie interference review fun

The Maple Leafs beat the Bruins after a goalie interference review went their way, which you can read more about here. The Oilers ended up holding off a mad Kings rally because of another really weird one. Ah, the NHL must love all the attention these nightmares are generating.

Highlight of the Night

A patently ridiculous save by Andrei Vasilevskiy:

Factoids

Taylor Hall cannot be stopped, and this time it even translated to a win for the Devils against the Islanders:

The team success hasn’t been there as much lately for Henrik Zetterberg, but he’s climbing some lofty heights from an individual standpoint:

Patrik Laine turns 20 on April 19, by the way.

Scores

Flyers 5, Senators 3
Flames 5, Avalanche 1
Jets 5, Stars 3
Maple Leafs 4, Bruins 3
Lightning 4, Canadiens 3 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Hurricanes 1
Panthers 6, Penguins 5
Capitals 5, Sabres 1
Blue Jackets 3, Blackhawks 2
Devils 2, Islanders 1
Coyotes 2, Ducks 0
Oilers 4, Kings 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins go from Nash trade rumors to loss, Bergeron injury

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There are times when the Boston Bruins have looked downright unstoppable. Saturday serves as a harsh reminder that things can change in a heartbeat, or at least that the threat is basically always hovering.

Consider this: earlier today, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Bruins were becoming frontrunners to trade for Rick Nash. Such a deal is still plausible, although John Shannon (also of Sportsnet) reports that Nash’s $7.8 million cap hit could cause some challenges, even this late in the season.

Either way, the Bruins’ outlook seemed shiny: they’re already a tough team to deal with thanks to an absolutely bear (sorry) of a top line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. The B’s have been so impressive, they even seem to be a threat to win the Atlantic.

Things went sour in multiple categories hours later.

The Bruins lost to their hated rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 4-3. That game ended in regulation, and the decisive goal brought about everyone’s favorite hockey thing: a goalie interference review. This didn’t go in Boston’s favor, and while some shrugged their shoulders, Tuukka Rask wasn’t thrilled:

With that, the Atlantic Division thing seems far less promising. To start, the Lightning managed a 4-3 shootout win. Even worse, the Maple Leafs took second place in the Atlantic by beating Boston.

If that wasn’t enough, the most integral part of the Bruins’ dominance is in danger. Reporters including NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty noted that Patrice Bergeron was seen in a walking boot:

On the bright side, all three situations could still turn out nicely for the Bruins.

  • The Bruins might actually be more justified in going after Nash if Bergeron’s a little banged up. Granted, a more severe injury might leave them more conservative at the deadline.
  • Games in hand make optimism easier to come by in the Atlantic positioning races. The Lightning have 87 points in 62 games played while the Maple Leafs are at 83 in 64. The Bruins are at 82, yet with only 59 games played, there’s plenty of time for the B’s to either regain home-ice advantage over Toronto or even push for the top spot in the division.
  • As you can see from Haggerty’s tweet, Bergeron’s issue might not be too bad, either.

So, this isn’t a doom and gloom situation for the Bruins, but it still stands to mention how bumpy things became for at least a while there. The B’s have to hope that most of this stuff sorts itself out, Nash or not.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers boost playoff hopes, end Penguins’ streak

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

For quite some time, it seemed like the Metropolitan Division would send five teams to the playoffs while the top-heavy Atlantic would only generate three.

The Metro still dominates the wild-card picture, but with all apologies to the scrappy Red Wings, the Florida Panthers stand as the one Atlantic team with a shot at crashing the party. For all of the front office upheaval, the past few nights provide evidence that they could do some damage if they walk in that door.

Maybe it’s fitting for an up-and-down team to see some extreme highs and lows in an eventual 6-5 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite some strong work from Evgeni Malkin, the Panthers went into the third period with a 4-2 lead. That wouldn’t end up being enough, as the two teams traded blows during a frantic, five-goal final frame. The Penguins briefly tied the contest up at 5-5, pushing for a seventh straight win, but it was not to be.

Ultimately, Evgenii Dadonov (first career hat trick) trumped Evgeni Malkin (two goals, one assist) in getting the late game-winner. Perhaps the Panthers will try to lift up a community rattled by tragic shootings, as this is the second straight game where they’ve notched decisive goals late in front of home fans.

(Thursday’s win against the Capitals was even more dramatic, as they rallied late after Roberto Luongo‘s stirring speech before the game.)

Now, the Panthers might not seem like much of a threat with 62 points, as the Columbus Blue Jackets currently hold the East’s final wild-card spot with 67. Games played paint a brighter picture, though.

Here’s how the wild-card races look, updated following the Devils’ win against the Islanders, which is a nice boost for Florida overall:

Devils (beat Islanders in regulation): 72 points in 62 games played, first WC
Blue Jackets (won tonight): 67 points in 62 GP, second WC

Islanders (lost to Devils): 65 points in 63GP
Hurricanes (lost tonight): 64 points in 62 GP
Panthers: 62 points in 59 GP
Red Wings (beat Canes): 61 points in 60 GP
Rangers: 59 points in 62 GP

On one hand, the Panthers’ situation isn’t that different from the Red Wings,’ at least if Florida doesn’t get hot. On the other hand, consider that the Panthers have a few games in hand on everyone ahead of them. The margin could close rapidly … or they could fade.

Credit the Panthers for making things interesting, and if things go well, making their competition sweat.

That’s the power of “Dadonov Strength.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.