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For the Florida Panthers, Michael Hutchinson could be the perfect fit

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If the Florida Panthers are in the market for a goaltender — and they are, according to reports  — Dale Tallon might want to give the Winnipeg Jets a call.

The Jets hold the keys to the top goaltender without a job in the NHL this season. His name? Michael Hutchinson (a man feared by Chicago Blackhawks fans).

If one thing has become abundantly clear early in this current NHL season, it’s that organizational goaltender depth is something every team should be grooming.

Many teams have, or are currently, figuring out where they stand in this department. The Vegas Golden Knights have been hardest hit, so much so they had to use an emergency recall on a goaltender still trying to find his way in the Western Hockey League earlier year.

But the likes of Carey Price, Matt Murray and, most recently, Roberto Luongo, have given their respective teams no option but to look within (or claim Antti Niemi off waivers, which two of those three teams have done this year). The Canadiens found relief in Charlie Lindgren and Tristan Jarry has been a stud for the Penguins.

But Luongo’s injury might just force the Panthers in a different direction. James Reimer hasn’t been the model of consistency this season and has failed to take the starter’s reins in Florida and run with them. With Luongo on the shelf for the long-term and the fact that looking within isn’t likely to help in the Sunshine State, perhaps a phone call to Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could help turn the Panthers’ fortunes.

Hutchinson has been on a tear with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, where he ranks first in save percentage with a whopping .951 and is second only to Toronto Marlies netminder Garret Sparks in goals-against average with a 1.73. In 11 games played, Hutchinson has lost just once in regulation and holds a 9-1-1 record and his rich vein of form earned him AHL’s goalie of the month honours for November.

Hutchinson has played so well that when Steve Mason went down with a concussion last month, there was a low chance that Hutchinson would be recalled. He simply wouldn’t clear waivers when Mason makes his eventual return and the Jets would be out an asset that looks increasingly likely to garner a decent return.

‘Hutch’ certainly fits the Panthers’ criteria, suggested by TSN insider Bob McKenzie: He’s 27, a young netminder that comes with 99 games of NHL experience including some meaningful action when he helped the Jets secure a playoff spot during the 2014-15 season when Ondrej Pavelec went down with injury, winning 21 games in what was his coming out party.

Hutchinson has cooled off over the past two seasons, playing second fiddle to Pavelec in 2015-16 and then Connor Hellebuyck last season. When the Jets signed Steve Mason on the first day of free agency in July, it was all but assured that Hutchinson would start the season in the AHL and ride out the final year of his contract.

It’s become clear in Winnipeg that Hutchinson didn’t like being sent down. Most don’t. He has yet to give an interview to scribes this season.

But despite being upset, he’s handled it (mostly) the correct way: take it on the chin and go out and be a professional on the ice.

It could end up being the right fit at the right time for both parties. The Panthers need someone to steady the ship. Hutchinson, in the final year of a two-year contract, needs some NHL games to make his case for a spot on an NHL roster next season.

And the Panthers aren’t bringing Niemi back.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Aleksander Barkov on Panthers’ season, the shootout, playing with Jagr (PHT Q&A)

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While things are pretty bleak in South Florida, Aleksander Barkov is continuing to shine for the Florida Panthers. The 22-year-old center is having another productive season, which has been buoyed by an increase in ice time.

Over the summer new Panthers head coach Bob Boughner told Barkov that he wanted to give him more time on special teams, and so far through 28 games he’s at career highs in power play (3:39/game average) and shorthanded minutes (1:51/game average). Known for a strong two-way game, being handed more responsibility was music to the young Finns ears.

“I don’t mind it. I like to be on the ice in every situation and try to help the team,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “That’s why I play hockey. I want to be good anywhere, if it’s our own end or offensive zone or face-offs or whatever. I’m trying to get better every day.”

In order to prepare for the bump in ice time and because of injuries that caused him to miss 36 games over the last two seasons, Barkov changed his summer training a bit. He wanted to make himself lighter and faster in order to not expend as much energy on the ice. He focused on running and sprints and increased the amount of stretching, all of which he believes has helped him this year, and he has 10 goals and 27 points to show for it.

We spoke with Barkov earlier this week about his two-way game, his success in the shootout and playing with Jaromir Jagr.

Enjoy.

Q. The team is currently sitting in a position you don’t want to be in at this point of the season. What hasn’t clicked so far?

BARKOV: “Sometimes we’ve been playing pretty well, but that’s not enough. We need to play well all 60 minutes. It’s so tough to win in this league if you [only] play a 40-minute game instead of 60. We have such good teams in this league that can find a way to win games. We just need to concentrate on our own game and try to play our best game every night and give everything.”

Your two-way game is very noticeable and that’s led to some Selke Trophy talk. How much of your off-season work focuses on the defensive aspect of the game?

“It comes with the territory. If you’re in good shape, you can play anywhere, not just offense or not just defense. If you play in your own end for 30 seconds you still have that energy to go in the offensive zone or in the offensive zone you still have energy to go and play in your own end and not let them score on you.”

Along with your minutes your face-off win percentage (55 percent) is up quite a bit as well. Are you approaching face-offs this season using a different technique?

“Actually, I don’t think it’s a different technique, just we have a pretty good coach, Paul MacFarland, who is helping us a lot with face-offs and he’s telling us about other players and how they take face-offs and what should work against them. Of course, a lot of practice and confidence, too. You need that confidence in the face-off [circle] when you’re taking it, you know you’re going to win or at least tie him up.”

You’re at 51 percent for your career in the shootout. Before an attempt, do you have a move in mind that you want to do or do you just react to how the goalie is moving?

“I should have a move in my mind, otherwise it will probably not [be a] goal. If I take the puck and I know what I’m going to do, it gives me a lot of confidence that I can score.”

Is there a move that you’ve worked on in practice and haven’t pulled it out in a shootout yet?

“There’s a couple move but I still need to work on them in practice a couple more times to get confident with the move. Maybe we’ll see one day.”

You’re pretty good with that Kent Nilsson/Peter Forsberg/Jussi Jokinen move.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty good one. I have a long reach so it’s tough for the goalies. I know the goalies are watching videos too and they know that I like to do that so they try to play that way, so I need to create a lot more moves so they won’t know what I’m doing.”

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You got to spend parts of three seasons playing with Jaromir Jagr. With the time you spent on and off the ice, what kind of things did you learn from him?

“He might be the guy I learned the most from. A guy like him, when he came into our team you just couldn’t believe it happened. He was my favorite player when I was growing up and now we’re playing on the same team and maybe even on the same line. It was a dream come true. Of course, playing with him and practicing with him and just being around him, you learn so much, especially about living the life of a professional hockey player and what it takes to be a good player and to get to the top.”

When a guy like Jagr enters the room, a living legend, someone who won Stanley Cups before you were even born, were you nervous around him at first?

“When I first heard he got traded to our team we had a game that night, he wasn’t there yet but still I was thinking about that the whole game. I don’t remember anything about that game except that he got traded to our team. Then he came in an hour before the next game, so they put us in the same line and we never talked before, never did anything before, just go on the ice and I think we created two or three good chances with him during the first shift. Then we just noticed it was so much fun to play with him. He tried to get us a lot better and we tried to get him a lot better, and that’s how we had success.”

Was there one piece of advice that he gave that’s stuck with you ever since?

“If I want to be the best I have to work more than anybody else. It doesn’t mean that I have to go and skate with him at 5 a.m. or 4 a.m., whatever he does. All the time, try to work on your game, try to work on your body and try to be better all the time. Of course, rest is a good thing too. But try to work as much as you can.”

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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.

Roberto Luongo out for ‘extended period’ as Panthers turn to Reimer

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A forgettable start to the season got even worse for the Florida Panthers when goaltender Roberto Luongo went down during Monday night’s loss to the New York Islanders. Head coach Bob Boughner announced Wednesday morning that the netminder is will miss an “extended period of time” with a lower-body injury. He did not give a specific timetable.

“Whether that’s three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, we’re going to see how his rehab goes, that kind of thing,” he said via the Sun-Sentinel. “Definitely out for a while.”

This is the second injury that’s sidelined Luongo this season after he missed six games while nursing a hand injury in October. James Reimer will once again step in with Harri Sateri recalled to back up. Reimer has made 12 starts this season and posted a .901 even strength save percentage, via Corsica.

“This is a pretty big loss for us. [Luongo’s] been awesome for his whole career with Florida,” Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Of course it kind of sucks, but that’s the luxury of having James Reimer as a second goalie for us. That’s a pretty good thing that we have two goalies that can be first goalies in the league.”

The Panthers are currently tied for the third-fewest points in the NHL with 24 and wrap up a homestand later this week before hitting the road for a five-game trip. They’ll also be facing a pair of back-to-backs over the next three weeks, and since Luongo won’t be returning any time soon it could be Sateri making his NHL at some point, or maybe general manager Dale Tallon dips back into the market for an option other than the 27-year-old Finn.

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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.

Oilers show rare restraint by demoting Yamamoto

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Aside from “not messing up Connor McDavid,” the Edmonton Oilers haven’t inspired a lot of confidence in how they handle young forwards.

It’s not just about getting questionable returns for high picks like Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, and Jordan Eberle. There have been some bumpy development paths, and some of those wounds are self-inflicted, as management has a shaky track record of burning through rookie years in ways that are often wasteful.

Jesse Puljujärvi isn’t the only example one could reach for, but he’s the most recent. Puljujärvi finds himself below the NHL level at the moment, which isn’t a big deal – he’s still just 19 – yet he already burned through the first year of his entry-level contract in 2016-17 by playing 28 games.

Considering the Oilers’ recent history of paying huge premiums for second contracts (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl raising the already-high-bar that was $6M going to guys like Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), that situation might make some a little queasy.

Then again, perhaps they’ll get their act together going forward?

Monday presented some reason for optimism, as the Oilers showed a rare bit of restraint (for them) in assigning Kailer Yamamoto to the WHL. They did so while preserving the high-value ELC years of his rookie deal, as they made this call before he exceeded the nine-game mark this season. This is usually simple stuff for NHL teams, but Edmonton bungles this often enough that it’s worth celebrating.

Goodbye Moto

This makes for quite the whirlwind few months for the 19-year-old.

It’s common to see high draft picks make an immediate jump to the NHL, and for guys hovering around the top 10 to at least get a cup of coffee. Yamamoto, however, was the 22nd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. It’s rare to see guys in that range demand a long, immediate look, and so far it looks like the Oilers got a steal in the undersized forward.

He forced his way into some prominent situations, too.

While his ice time and opportunities were erratic, it’s worth noting that, per Natural Stat Trick, his most common even-strength linemates were Connor McDavid and Patrick Maroon. Yamamoto didn’t look out of place in his audition on that first line, providing a silver lining while Leon Draisaitl (another forward who burned through his rookie deal faster than maybe necessary) was injured.

Somewhat amusingly, Yamamoto might have actually made one of the better arguments to stay up, as his possession numbers and production indicated that he’s a quick study.

In the long run, this is a better move for the Oilers, especially since McDavid’s raise won’t kick in until 2018-19. They’ll need to find bargains going forward, so getting the most out of Yamamoto’s dirt-cheap rookie contract could be absolutely crucial.

Now, three full years of Yamamoto as he really kicks into gear could drive up the price of his second contract, too. Eh, worry about that when you get there … that’s practically the Oilers’ developmental model anyway, right?

Panthers send Big Red down

Owen Tippett drew some attention in getting a look with the Florida Panthers, in part by comparing himself to rookie Phil Kessel.

Tippett won’t be making that jump, as the Panthers demoted him today. He didn’t get a huge chance, generating a goal in seven games while only averaging 11:07 TOI per night. (At least Tippett fired away relative to spotty ice time: 17 SOG in seven contests isn’t bad in sparse minutes. The kid still seems confident.)

This situation is a lot clearer for the Panthers than it was for the Oilers, but either way, both teams probably made the right calls.

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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 will bring hockey to Dominican Republic

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The Florida Panthers are set to bring hockey (and Stanley C. Panther) to the Dominican Republic from Sept. 8-10.

Specifically, their latest youth hockey and community outreach initative will take place in Santo Domingo with the help of JetBlue.

Forward Vincent Trocheck and TV analyst Randy Moller will be on hand (along with Stanley C. Panther, of course).

During that trip, the Panthers will make a stop at CURE Hospital and run a steet hockey clinic for as many as 100 students.

Pretty neat, eh?

This isn’t the first time the Panthers hopped on a JetBlue plane as part of this outreach program, either. The team also visited the Bahamas (more about that here) and Puerto Rico in the past:

The franchise is really developing a knack for expanding its audience through means that may seem unconventional to other NHL teams. This fits in nicely with endeavors such as featuring Spanish announcers for select Panthers games.