Tag: Willie Mitchell

Calgary Flames v Florida Panthers

Risk Factors: Florida Panthers edition


From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

1. Panthers will only go as far as Luongo takes them.

Roberto Luongo is a star goalie. No disputing that. His return to the Florida Panthers prior to last season’s trade deadline essentially ended a long-running goalie soap opera in Vancouver.

And he saw plenty of rubber upon his arrival back with the Panthers. In his second game, against the Boston Bruins, he faced 41 shots and turned away 37 of them. On one occasion, he was in goal when the Panthers gave up 54 shots. He likes getting shots, likes getting the work to get in a rhythm.

But Luongo is also 35 years old. Not exactly ancient, but definitely at the age when bodies with over 800 NHL games played start breaking down.

Behind him, in the back-up position, is Al Montoya, a former sixth overall pick from the 2004 NHL Draft. Since then, Montoya has appeared in just 91 games on three different teams. His numbers last year in Winnipeg were decent — 13 wins in 28 games, and a .920 save percentage and 2.3 goals-against average.

From a two-time Olympic gold-medal winning goalie to one that has never gotten his NHL career on track. That’s the immediate scenario should an injury or prolonged absence to Luongo occur, and he has dealt with groin ailments during his time in Vancouver.

How will Luongo’s body hold up over the course of the season, and just how many games does Florida’s coaching staff intend to play the veteran puck stopper?

His Panthers teammate Willie Mitchell — they were together in Vancouver for a time, too, and named the club’s captain this week — remains optimistic Luongo will put together a strong season.

“No one wants to win a Stanley Cup more than Roberto; he cares so much that sometimes I hate to say this but you care too much and you start chasing it trying to make other people happy … instead of trying to be Roberto Luongo, one of the best goalies in the game,” Mitchell told the Sun-Sentinel.

“Coming back down here is a breath of fresh air for him because, who’s kidding who, it’s not [the same] market, there’s not that pressure and he could be himself. I think you’ll see the best of him.”

Anything less, and the Panthers, even with a young and upstart roster, might be in for a long season.

2. Aaron Ekblad’s inexperience is a concern.

There is less risk here in the short term, we admit.

The Panthers can choose to keep Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, in the NHL on a nine-game trial and then send him back to junior after that. Or, they can choose to keep him up with the big club for the entire season and his entry-level deal would set in.

From the Miami Herald on Oct. 3:

Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad played his biggest minutes of the preseason Thursday. He said the game was “tenfold” different from his preseason opener last weekend in Nashville.

“I was much more confident, very excited to play,” said Ekblad, the top pick of the 2014 draft. “I was more calm, more patient. I made some plays I wanted to make.”

(Florida GM Dale) Tallon said Ekblad would remain with the Panthers for “a while” and will get at least his nine-game NHL tryout.

There is a huge difference between playing defense in junior compared to the NHL. It’s faster in the big league. The players are bigger and stronger. If Ekblad does play a full season, how will he cope with the demands of the schedule, the travel and adjusting to a much different game?

He’s only 18, by far the youngest of the eight defensemen still on Florida’s roster. If he struggles, will his confidence take a hit? If it does, how might that affect his development?

3. Not so home-ice advantage.

The Florida Panthers did play to some capacity crowds last season. Lucky for them, the Montreal Canadiens were in town and suddenly attendance for one night only skyrocketed.

In the end, though, they averaged just 14,177 fans per game, according to ESPN. Only the Phoenix Coyotes, now known as the Arizona Coyotes, were worse.

From the Miami Herald in March:

The team tried to create excitement in a market that yawned. The Panthers slashed prices on season tickets — some were going as low as $7 per game — with a number of perks to those who signed on.

The numbers may have been low for the Panthers in the past, and that’s with lowered ticket prices and different deals. Then, just last month, owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu spoke to the Miami Herald and the message about declining attendance didn’t sound positive whatsoever.

No more discounted tickets or giveaways, according to the Miami Herald.

“We are 100 percent ready for the reality that we’ll have smaller attendance this season,” Cifu told the newspaper.

“We want people who are there to be paying a fair price, the same price and enjoying a great product on the ice. We can get 15,000 in there if we gave away 5,000 seats. We don’t want to do that. It’s not fair.”

This may not translate to a risk on the ice. The Panthers are coming off a season in which they were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

But dwindling attendance would perpetuate a grim opinion for the future of NHL hockey in south Florida even if the owners state they are committed to keeping the team in that area despite “tremendous losses of money.”

Panthers name Willie Mitchell captain

Willie Mitchell

The Florida Panthers have named veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell as their captain, according to Harvey Fialkov of the Sun Sentinel.

Mitchell, 37, signed a two-year deal with the Panthers in the offseason, after winning a pair of Stanley Cups with the Kings. He takes the ‘C’ from Ed Jovanovski, who was bought out this summer.

Five NHL teams are still without a captain: the Sabres, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Rangers, and Sharks.

Meanwhile, in other Panthers news…

Related: Panthers, O’Brien talking contract

Luongo’s ‘mind is at ease’ in Florida

Roberto Luongo

Roberto Luongo’s tenure with the Vancouver Canucks was a roller coaster. He won the Jennings Trophy, earned a couple Vezina Trophy nominations and came tantalizingly close to winning the Stanley Cup. He fell short though and in his final years in Vancouver, he was in the middle of a goaltender controversy between Cory Schneider and him, which led to persistent trade rumors.

All that’s in the past now as Vancouver shipped him in March to Florida, where he spent five seasons before his stint with Vancouver began. Luongo has high hopes for the Panthers, but beyond that he also sees the appeal of being in a less intensive hockey market.

“For sure my mind is at ease and I can focus on one task, and that’s stopping pucks,” Luongo told the Sun Sentinel. “There was a lot of that stuff going on in prior years and I was still able to do that. It’s nice to just not have that worry sometimes when you’re away from the rink or about your future.”

In addition to getting a full season out of Luongo, the Panthers are hoping that veteran additions like Willie Mitchell, Shawn Thornton, Jussi Jokinen, and Dave Bolland will compliment their young core and help lead them back into the playoffs after they finished with a 29-45-8 record in 2013-14.

Panthers sign first overall pick Ekblad

Aaron Ekblad
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On Wednesday, Aaron Ekblad — the No. 1 selection at this June’s draft — took a major step towards beginning his NHL career by signing a three-year, entry-level contract with Florida.

“We are very pleased to have signed Aaron,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said in a statement. “He is a talented, strong, smart and hardworking defenseman who is ready to take the next step in his professional career.

“We look forward to watching him compete and develop at our prospects camp, throughout our main training camp and in preseason competition.”

Financial terms of the deal weren’t released but Ekblad, 18, is limited by the CBA for what he can earn annually (last year’s top pick, Nathan MacKinnon, had a $925,000 cap hit but made $3.775M with signing and performance bonuses.)

As for his spot with the Panthers…Ekblad looks to be in line for a top-6 spot next to Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen. That said, he will be challenged by a pair of fellow youngsters (Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic), and there are reports claiming veteran d-man Shane O’Brien is headed to Florida’s training camp on a PTO.

It’s also worth noting that, as per Tallon’s statement above, Ekblad will participate in both Florida’s prospects and full training camp, meaning he’s cleared to play after suffering a concussion in an exhibition game on Aug. 4 during Canada’s world junior summer development camp.

Under Pressure: Dale Tallon

Dale Tallon

There’s no question Florida Panthers’ general manager Dale Tallon went out and added some significant pieces to help his budding stars this offseason.

But his time to get this struggling franchise to become a regular playoff contender is quickly running out.

The team’s attendance is at the bottom of the league and the debt is piling up. Tallon is under pressure to turn the ship around in Florida.

Since taking over in May 2010, Tallon has got his club to the playoffs just once, during the 2011-12 season, where they lost in seven games of the first round to the New Jersey Devils.

Tallon is also on his third coach in Florida.

He hired Kevin Dineen prior to the 2011-12 season. Then in November 2013, Tallon replaced Dineen, who led the Panthers to a record 56-62-28 with Peter Horachek. Horachek lasted just 66 games as the team’s interim coach.

On June 21, Tallon appointed his latest bench boss, Gerard Gallant. Gallant’s only other head coaching experience in the NHL was parts of three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2003-06 where he failed to reach the postseason.

Gallant’s track record, though brief, doesn’t really give you confidence if you’re a Panthers fan does it?

Tallon may not be doing much more hiring behind the bench, I mean how many swings and misses does a guy get?

This summer, Tallon signed Shawn Thornton, Dave Bolland and Willie Mitchell – all who have Stanley Cup experience in addition to Jussi Jokinen and Al Montoya. Tallon has to hope the vets mixed with the youngsters proves to be the right chemistry because if his job isn’t on the line at the moment, it certainly will be soon.

Florida finished with just 66 points last season well back of the 93 points Detroit needed to qualify for the second wild card spot. The Panthers play in the Atlantic Division with Boston, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Detroit – it’ll be a tall task for Tallon and Co. to avoid missing the playoffs for a third consecutive year.

Related: Panthers’ power play can only improve next season