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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

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Conn Smythe Watch: Korpisalo, Aho leading entering First Round

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With the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round and Round-Robin phase of the NHL’s 2019-20 season restart in the books, we have our 16-team playoff field officially set.

Because of the unusual circumstances around the postseason this year, we also have a head start on the race for the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Let’s take a quick look at how that race is already starting to unfold.

We will update this on a weekly basis throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A couple of surprising goalies find themselves near the top of the list after they helped their teams pull off a couple of upsets, while some of the games brightest young stars are beginning to make names for themselves.

There are also a couple of seasoned veterans showing they can still help carry their teams.

The Early Favorites

1. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets. He got benched in one game, did not start another, and is STILL at the top of the list. That is how good he was in his other starts to help shut down the Maple Leafs. He posted a .956 save percentage in the series and recorded two shutouts, including the series-clinching Game 5 win. Goaltending was always going to make or break the Blue Jackets’ season, and their duo has been better than anyone could have possibly anticipated. It has continued in the playoffs.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Just a completely dominant showing by Aho in the qualifying round against the Rangers. He finished with eight points in the three games and is the cornerstone piece of the Hurricanes organization. Another deep run by the Hurricanes could take him from “underrated star” to “superstar” status.

3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. Kuemper has proven to be a steal for the Coyotes since they acquired him two years ago, and he was the biggest reason they were able to get through the Predators in the qualifying round. They are going to need an even bigger effort from him to get through Colorado.

4. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. What a qualifying round series he had for the Canucks. He is a key part of their young core — perhaps the most important part given his position and minutes — and was the best player on the team against Minnesota. He played massive minutes, helped the Canucks dominate possession when he was on the ice, and was the team’s leading point-producer against the Wild.

5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. The recipe for Montreal having success in the playoffs always revolved around Price channeling the 2014-15 version of himself. He was great against Pittsburgh and a huge part of the Canadiens’ upset win. The only reason he is not higher is because the Montreal team in front of him did such a great job shutting down the Penguins and rendering their offense useless throughout Games 3 and 4 of the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

6. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. In some ways the series against Edmonton was a vintage Toews performance. He schooled some players defensively, scored big goals, and played a huge role in the Blackhawks winning. His offensive game has really rebounded the past two years and it was great against the Oilers.

7. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. The second rookie to make our list, Kubalik started the Edmonton series with a five-point game, then finished it by scoring the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win. He has been an outstanding addition to the top of the Blackhawks lineup and a much-needed impact player.

8. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. It was always assumed that a goalie was going to significantly impact the Jets-Flames series. That is exactly what happened. It just was not the goalie everyone expected. It was Talbot, and not Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, that ended up dominating the series as the Flames’ starter posted a .945 save percentage in the four games.

9. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers had no answer for Svechnikov and Aho in their qualifying round series, and they are going to be a thorn in the side of the league for the foreseeable future.

10. Scott Laughton, Philadelphia Flyers. Probably the biggest surprise name on the list so far, and the only player that played in the Round-Robin phase. Laughton was the surprise star for the Flyers as they rolled through the round-robin to claim the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. If they get this type of depth scoring they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

Honorable mentions: Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blue Jackets), Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Sean Monathan (Flames), Mark Stone (Golden Knights), Anthony Beauvillier (Islanders)

More:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.