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It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

2017-18

44-30-9, 96 pts. (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Mike Hoffman
Bogdan Kiselevich
Michael Hutchinson

OUT:

Radim Vrbata
Connor Brickley
Curtis Valk
Chases Balisy
Harri Sateri

RE-SIGNED:

Jared McCann
Frank Vatrano
MacKenzie Weegar
Alex Petrovic

The Florida Panthers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point.

One. Measly. Point.

Imagine where they’d have been if they kept Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Gerard Gallant, am I right?

All jokes aside, the Panthers actually had a pretty good year after finishing 26th in the NHL in 2016-17.

They managed through a coaching change, a new system and a time where both Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were hurt (thanks to the now-departed Harri Sateri) and still got to watch some of their biggest names — Aleksander Barkov (78 points), Vincent Trochek (75 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points) — flourish in career years.

Evgenii Dadonov came back from an extended stint in Russia with a love for producing points. He had 65 to sit fourth on the team after spending six seasons in his homeland. Dadonov and Barkov looked at home with each other on the top line, and the addition of Nick Bjugstad to the line later in the season formed a nice trio.

What didn’t help was the lack of secondary scoring. Outside of the five listed above one forward, no one topped 15 goals or 30 points. That said, the Panthers scored 40 more goals last season compared to the one previous. It’s a step in the right direction and fueled by young players that are only getting better.

That number could increase again this season, too. The Panthers went out and traded for Mike Hoffman after the debacle in Ottawa. Hoffman, despite off-ice issues with between his significant other and Erik Karlsson‘s, was solid on it with 22 goals and 56 points for a terrible Senators team.

Hoffman should slide into the left wing spot alongside Trocheck and Bjugstad, solidifying two quite good scoring lines.

A little more scoring from the bottom six could go a long way this season, as could an improved power play (21st) and penalty kill (16th).

The team was anchored on the backend by Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, but the Panthers still need to find a way to stop so much rubber coming their way. The Cats gave up 34.6 shots per game, third most in the NHL. A little shot suppression would surely help, and they’re hoping it comes in the form of Bogdan Kiselevich. Unless you’re an avid KHL supporter, you likely haven’t heard of Kiselevich, but in Florida, he’s expected to be a top-four pairing defenseman after an all-star season in Russia.

“Bogdan is a solid, shutdown defenseman who adds depth to our blue line and possesses a strong work ethic,” general manager Dale Tallon said when they signed the 28-year-old. “He’s proven himself to be a reliable defensive presence on the international stage and in the KHL and has the ability to be a steadying influence on the back end for our young defensemen.”

To its credit, Florida’s defense battened down the hatches as the season progressed, so finding that same stride early in this coming season will be crucial to a good start, which they didn’t have last year after going 7-11-2 in their first 20 games. Sometimes it’s about how you finish, and with the 24-8-2 record from Feb. 1 onward, the Panthers certainly closed out the season on a high note.

A healthy Luongo as a starter for the duration of next season would be a blessing for the Panthers. When he played, Luongo was the same solid netminder he’s always been, posting a .933 save percentage five-on-five and a very respectable 9.41 goals saved above average.

Reimer played more games than Luongo because of the latter’s injury but is slated to start the year as the backup once again. He had a .917 save percentage at five-on-five. The Panthers brought in former Winnipeg Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson, who provides good depth should the injury bug sting again.

Florida has been building quite the farm system over the past few years. Hoffman’s addition is the only opening day roster move Dale Tallon has pulled the trigger on so far, but there’s hope that a couple youngsters could make the jump.

Not trying to jinx it, but Panthers feel like a team on the brink — words not always uttered for this particular Florida-based team. Two very good scoring lines, an improved defensive group and an elite goalie (when healthy).

Keep it all consistent and it usually adds up to playoff hockey.

Prospect Pool

Henrik Borgstrom, C, 21, University of Denver (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

In his second season with the Pioneers, Borgstrom once again put up a strong showing, building off his freshman season with 23 goals and 52 points in 40 games. His play helped Denver become National Collegiate Hockey Conference champs, and Borgstrom was named the conference’s player of the year, forward of the year and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, handed to college’s top player. His season was topped off by four games with the Panthers and included his first NHL goal. Now, Borgstrom will challenge for a roster spot in Florida come training camp. For the 21-year-old, there’s a good chance he’s in the Show this year.

Owen Tippett, RW/LW, 19, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – 2017 first-round pick 

Taken 10th overall in last year’s NHL Draft, Tippett scored the same 75 points this past season in the OHL as he did in his draft year, only he did it this season in nine fewer games. Tippett began the year with the Panthers, playing in seven games and scoring his first NHL goal as he got his first taste of pro hockey. When the Steelheads were bounced from the first round of the OHL playoffs, Tippett got a second helping, this time with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, where he notched a goal and added an assist. Tippett will compete for a spot, and if he can make it, could provide that coveted secondary scoring. He’ll likely have to beat out Borgstrom, so that should be an interesting camp battle to keep an eye on.

Aleksi Heponiemi, C, 19, Karpat (Liiga) – 2017 second-round pick

Heponiemi peppered the Western Hockey League with 90 assists last season with the Swift Current Broncos, the most in the league, and finished third in league scoring with 118 points as he helped the Broncos to the league title and an appearance at the Memorial Cup. Too good for the Canadian junior hockey ranks — he had 204 points in 129 games over two years in Saskatchewan — Heponiemi will take his talents back home to Finland this season to play with Karpat in the Finnish Elite League. It will be a step up in competition for the speedster, who will get to play against men. His deal in Finland is for two years.


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

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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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.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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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.