Cam Tucker

AP

It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT

The Florida Panthers entered last season with high expectations, given their playoff appearance in 2016 and a busy summer of acquisitions and signings that followed.

But they were unable to live up to those expectations, as injuries plagued them throughout the season, and they ultimately fell short of the postseason, finishing 14 points back of Toronto for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

There has been significant change both on and off the ice for the Panthers since April.

They lost Jonathan Marchessault, who had a breakout 2016-17 campaign but was surprisingly left unprotected in the expansion draft, to Vegas. They sent Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights in a trade. The days of Jaromir Jagr in a Panthers uniform appear to be over. Thomas Vanek went to the open market and is still unsigned.

They have added Radim Vrbata to their group of forwards and Evgeni Dadonov has returned from the KHL, where he lit it up with St. Petersburg SKA. It appears the Panthers have big plans for him.

The biggest changes, though, came in the coaching and management departments.

Dale Tallon is back in the general manager’s role, while the club introduced Bob Boughner as its new head coach. Boughner spent the last two years as an assistant with San Jose, and has head coaching experience from his time with Windsor in the the Ontario Hockey League.

Today at PHT we’ll look into the key storylines surrounding the Panthers with training camp approaching.

 

Stepan feels ‘like a young guy,’ but will take leadership role with Coyotes

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The Arizona Coyotes have big plans for Derek Stepan — at least while prospects like Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller continue to develop — as the club’s No. 1 center next season.

He’ll begin training camp next month with a Coyotes team that has made some big moves this summer, but is still very young. How young? Stepan is 27 years old, with 515 career regular season games played, and he’s among the oldest forwards in Arizona.

Ten players on their roster are 24 years of age or younger, according to CapFriendly.

Given Stepan’s experience, especially on a playoff team in a big market like New York, is likely valued with an impressionable group of forwards, as well.

“I still feel like a young guy,” Stepan told NHL.com.

“But now I look at the lineup and I think there’s only going to be one guy that’s older than me up front (forward Jamie McGinn, 28), and maybe two or three guys on the back end (defensemen Zbynek Michalek, 34; Alex Goligoski, 32; Niklas Hjalmarsson, 30). It’s definitely a new experience, but something that certainly doesn’t worry me. I’ve been in a leadership role in New York and I’ll just transfer into a new one in Arizona. I couldn’t be more excited.”

The previous leader in their locker room, Shane Doan, was not brought back and is currently a free agent. It’s been reported that Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be named as the new Coyotes captain.

Predators prospect Farrance goes end-to-end for beauty goal at Summer Showcase

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So, how about some hockey highlights in August?

Nashville Predators prospect defenseman  David Farrance went end to end, splitting the Finnish defense to score a beauty on Friday, as Team USA continued its World Junior Summer Showcase with a 4-3 win.

That goal, with 6:10 remaining in the third period, counted as the winner. The Predators selected Farrance in the third round, 92nd overall this year. He’s slated to attend Boston University this upcoming season.

Yes, it’s August. But that’s a terrific goal.

Canucks forward Dorsett will be ‘ready for camp’ after neck surgery

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Derek Dorsett‘s third season in Vancouver ended prematurely in November, following neck surgery a few weeks later. But it appears he’ll be ready for the 2017-18 campaign.

Last December, the Canucks announced their rugged winger underwent “cervical fusion surgery to repair disc degeneration” in Dorsett’s neck.

On Friday, Rick Dhaliwal of News 1130 Sports in Vancouver spoke to Dorsett’s agent, Jason Davidson, and reported that the 30-year-old Dorsett is no longer dealing with issues in his neck ahead of training camp.

In 14 games with the Canucks last season, Dorsett had one goal and four points. He’s known more for his toughness as a bottom-six forward, with two more years left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $2.65 million, per CapFriendly.

The Canucks have 14 forwards under contract for next season, not including prospects Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin and with restricted free agents Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce still left to re-sign. Of those 14 players, only Dorsett, Loui Eriksson and Daniel and Henrik Sedin are in their 30s, as Vancouver transitions younger players into the roster.

From ‘pain’ to playoffs, young Maple Leafs face heightened expectations next season

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

In the span of a year, the Maple Leafs went from the bottom of the NHL standings and front runners in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes to a playoff spot.

Matthews was taken first overall and made an immediate impact on opening night for a Maple Leafs team — and a fan base — in dire need of hope for a better future.

There is an abundance of hope in Toronto these days.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were excellent in their freshman campaigns and Nazem Kadri at age 26 had his best season with career highs in goals (32) and points (61). How quickly the fortunes of an organization can turn around, though, with a lottery win and a shot at a generational talent.

Two years after coach Mike Babcock predicted “pain” for the franchise as it underwent its rebuild, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Then they gave the Capitals everything they could handle in six games before Toronto was eliminated.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to get excited about over the years. Never mind their Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. They made the playoffs only once from 2005-06 to 2015-16 and that lone postseason appearance concluded with an epic third-period, Game 7 meltdown versus the Bruins.

This past season, however, had a different feel. The future looks bright, like success beyond 2016-17 can be sustainable. It’s not just with Matthews, Nylander and Marner. On defense, the Maple Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen bounced back from a difficult start with his new team. He’s under contract for four more years.

Excitement brings higher expectations, for next season and beyond, as the club may be approaching a window to win a lot quicker than many would’ve predicted a year ago.

Take, for instance, today’s poll question: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season? That would be a lofty expectation. The results as of the publishing of this post were nearly 50-50.

They’ve even added notable veteran players like Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and, at three years and more than $18 million, Patrick Marleau to enhance their roster with more experience.

Their possible success, as is the case with every team, next season will depend on multiple factors. Will Matthews, Marner and Nylander be able to build off their impressive rookie seasons, or will there be a dreaded sophomore slump in there? It will also require their best players to stay as healthy as possible.

All three of their top young forwards were able to remain, for the most part, healthy during the regular season, with Marner playing the fewest games — at 77.

Andersen had the second most starts (66) of all NHL goalies last season, behind only Cam Talbot, and the Leafs will count on him again to provide the goaltending necessary to make the playoffs.

Pressure to win is inherent in playing hockey in Toronto.

Since the second lockout, however, the standard had been set very low. That was until last season, when Matthews and the Maple Leafs went from a painful rebuild to raising expectations.

The hockey world now waits to see if this young and talented team can handle the pressure and set the bar even higher next spring.