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Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL

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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.

Hockey nerds, would you like a fun activity? C’mon, the season is far away, you know you want one …

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Ask yourself a question: what are the best contracts in the NHL, under two parameters:

1. The contract must have some term on it. It was a great run, Erik Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, and Max Pacioretty. (Pours one out for John Tavares‘ ridiculous, recently expired deal.)

2. It can’t be a rookie contract, because that’s cheating.

Waits …

Waits some more …

Pencils up, you can stop scouring Cap Friendly now.

For my money – it’s not my money, I can barely afford to run a team in DFS – the best contract in the NHL is probably that of Nathan MacKinnon. He was a (deserving) Hart finalist for the low-low price of a $6.3 million cap hit. If that wasn’t enough, MacKinnon is somehow just 22, and his dirt-cheap cap hit runs for five more seasons.

(Joe Sakic just took a second to stop smirking about the Matt Duchene trade to smirk about MacKinnon’s contract.)

One can debate this topic from dawn until dusk – heck, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall‘s deal is in the discussion, too, though not for much longer – but I’d argue that the Florida Panthers rank among the teams who boast the most great contracts.

Specifically, this franchise is doing a wonderful job of signing fantastic forwards to equally fantastic deals. They’re paralleling what the Nashville Predators are doing with their defensemen: sign guys, usually with proactive extensions, to fairly long-term deals before they’ve fully blossomed.

The result: a slew of contracts that give a budget-conscious team a real chance to compete.

(Yes, it’s more than a little bit amusing that the Panthers biffed the expansion draft by giving away Reilly Smith [a nice $5M value even then] and Jonathan Marchessault [who signed a team-friendly deal in the middle of his first Vegas season, also for $5M per year], yet Florida still boasts so many great deals. There are advantages, you see, to being bad for a long time, not to mention operating in a state that gives sports teams certain tax advantages.)

Take a look at the great deals, and ones that at least qualify as good.

Aleksander Barkov – Panthers fans might have been screaming “Barkov” during that MacKinnon/Hall/etc. discussion, and with good reason. You could make a strong argument that the rising Selke-caliber forward’s deal is the biggest steal at $5.9M through 2021-22.

Like MacKinnon, Barkov is just 22, as he was selected one spot after the speedy Avs center. It turns out Florida was quite smart in doing so, despite the mild surprise.

Barkov set a ton of career-highs (27 goals, 51 assists, 78 points) despite seeing his usage flip-flop from beginning about 60-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone before to beginning close to 60-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2017-18.

He’s a legitimate, tide-turning top-line center, and Barkov’s making a relative pittance. He’s also not alone in being a bargain, even if he’s the best value of this bunch.

Jonathan Huberdeau‘s cap hit matches Barkov’s $5.9M, although Huberdeau’s deal runs through 2022-23. In this way, Huberdeau-Barkov parallel Johnny GaudreauSean Monahan as players with similar deals, with both being great values, even if one shines brighter than the other.

We’ll probably move Huberdeau up the bargain rankings more if he can stay healthy, as he did in playing all 82 games in 2017-18. So far, he’s shown the ability to drive puck possession in his own right, seeing a similar increase in defensive work last season. He matched Barkov’s 27 goals, and while he didn’t score as many points, 69 is still a new career-high.

Vincent Trocheck – For a while there, Trocheck was Florida’s other best-kept secret, behind Barkov.

It’s going to be tough for the underrated center to slip under the radar if he matches or exceeds last season’s 31 goals and 75 points, though. Trocheck’s possession stats slipped after some masterful years, yet those could very well go up if Huberdeau stays by his side, as was the case late in last season.

Trocheck is another fantastic steal at just $4.75M through 2021-22.

Evgenii Dadonov – It might seem weird for a 29-year-old to break through, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider how fantastic Dadonov was during his first season after a KHL sojourn.

Other GMs might not feel like it makes sense – or is fair – that a guy who just scored 28 goals and 65 points is making just $4M per year for two more seasons, but it fits into the pretty picture Florida is painting.

Nick Bjugstad – You could knock Dadonov, and also Bjugstad, for enjoying their best days when they landed on Aleksander Barkov’s line. It’s certainly a factor to consider, as Barkov clearly makes his linemates better.

Should the Panthers really care, though? Like Dadonov, Bjugstad suddenly seems like a bargain if he can stick on one of those top lines, maybe more so than trying to carry a line by himself. Bjugstad’s season totals weren’t amazing (19 goals, 49 points), but consider that he scored 10 goals and 27 points in just 35 games following the All-Star break.

Cooking with fire once he landed with Barkov suddenly makes his $4.1M for three more seasons look like quite the boon.

Mike Hoffman? – It’s too early to tell how Hoffman will fit in with the Panthers, as discussed in greater detail here.

Still, a guy who’s scored 20+ goals for four straight seasons and at least 56 for three consecutive years is probably at least a solid value at $5.188M per year (through 2019-20). Chances are, if Hoffman hits the Barkov lottery –  or clicks with Trocheck – then he’ll look like a steal, too.

***

So, to review, here are the good-to-great forward deals:

Barkov: $5.9M, four more seasons
Huberdeau: $5.9M, five more seasons
Hoffman: $5.188M, two more seasons
Trocheck: $4.75M, four more seasons
Bjugstad: $4.1M, three more seasons
Dadonov: $4M, two more seasons

This gives the Panthers quite the window to compete, and maybe thrive at a level many aren’t expecting. That’s especially true if these steals coincide nicely with rookie contracts for Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, and if the veterans on this team can hang on for a few more seasons.

Panthers management received well-earned ribbing for mismanaging the transition back to GM Dale Tallon, and Tallon’s stumbled a time or two.

Even so, between “The Computer Boys” locking up some good contracts, and Tallon helping with a Dadonov here and Hoffman trade there, the Panthers are in an awfully interesting position.

Now they just need to actually put it all together, and preferably for a full season, instead of a few months.

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.

Kings hope to get over 1st-round playoff hump with Kovalchuk

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.

The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings – he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.

Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.

”I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.

With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.

”I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. ”We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”

Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:

KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.

SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.

Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.

COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.

Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.

THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.

AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Blue Jackets aim for playoffs with future of stars in doubt

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — So what’s going on with ”Bob” and ”Bread”?

That question dominated the off-season discussion around the Columbus Blue Jackets, overshadowing everything else surrounding a team coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

A legitimate inquiry for sure, considering Bob and Bread – otherwise known as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin – are major pieces of a team that should be a solid playoff contender again this season.

The two Russians are playing out the final year of their contracts, and Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s primary goal this summer was to lock up both superstars with multiyear deals. Neither of the deals got done.

Panarin has said he isn’t sure he wants to commit to Columbus for the long haul. Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to get together on numbers.

”They’re our best players, no question about it,” veteran forward Cam Atkinson said. ”We’re going to treat it as business as usual. I’m not going to look at them any differently, because at the end of the day it’s their decision. There’s only so many times in your career where you’re in the driver’s seat.”

WINDOW IS OPEN

If Panarin and Bobrovsky play to their capabilities, and some other Blue Jackets who battled injuries or otherwise struggled last year can bounce back, the team should be playoff contenders again. Columbus was eliminated in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the past two years.

”I think we’ve crossed the bridge as a team hoping to win,” said coach John Tortorella, who signed a two-year contract extension before camp opened.

”I think we crossed that bridge, I think we know we can win,” he said. ”The players’ mindset, I think they know they can win. I think we showed that the past couple years. We’ve stumbled in the playoffs, and that’s what we have to take note of here.”

Panarin set a franchise record with 27 goals and 55 assists (82 points) in 81 games. The second-highest scorer among forwards was rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had 20 goals and 28 assists (48 points).

The Blue Jackets grabbed the first wildcard in the rugged Metropolitan Division despite subpar years from usually reliable forwards Atkinson (46 points), Alexander Wennberg (37 points), Boone Jenner (32 points) and Nick Foligno (33 points). Injuries definitely played a part.

THS STATE OF ZACH

Defenseman Zach Werenski is getting healthy again after playing much of last season with a bum shoulder. He started hitting last week and is hoping to be ready to go by the Oct. 4 opener in Detroit.

Werenski suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the 12th game last season. The rest of the way he wore a cumbersome brace that wrapped around his chest and arm to keep his shoulder from separating. His movement was restricted, which affected his defensive skills, but he still managed to finish with 16 goals.

”It’s awful hard for a defenseman to play all those games that he played and put up the numbers he put up and do some of the things he did with that shoulder the way it was,” Tortorella said. ”He’s one that we’re certainly going to watch very closely.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Blue Jackets added some help at center by signing center Riley Nash, the 29-year-old former Boston Bruin who put up career numbers last year. Nash had 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in 76 games, besting his previous high by 16 points.

The team also signed 22-year-old forward Anthony Duclair, who had 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games with the Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes last season,

The Blue Jackets bid farewell to longtime players Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh) and Matt Calvert (Colorado), as well as to Ian Cole (Colorado), a defenseman who played valuable minutes down the stretch after being acquired at the trade deadline last season.

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Question for Bruins (again): How long can Chara keep going?

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BOSTON (AP) — How much longer can Zdeno Chara keep this up?

The Boston Bruins defenseman – and leader in ice time – will turn 42 this season, and sooner or later the window will close on his opportunity to skate around the ice again with the Stanley Cup. For his teammates, that means focusing on this season as their best and possibly last chance to win with him.

”The older you get, it’s just about winning,” said David Krejci, one of five holdovers from the franchise’s last title, in 2011. ”We know that we’re not going to be playing in the league for 10 more years, but we have maybe three, four, five years left, who knows, but this is it. We worked really, really hard this summer to get the job done this year.”

Chara was already an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star when he signed with Boston a dozen years ago, and the Bruins built a contender around him that went to the Stanley Cup finals twice in three years. (They lost to Chicago in 2013.)

Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand and David Krejci are the only other players remaining from the 2011 champs. Bergeron is 33, Rask and Krejci will turn 32 during the playoffs, and Marchand will turn 31. (Steven Kampfer was traded away in 2012 and rejoined the Bruins this summer; he just turned 30.)

Charlie McAvoy, the 20-year-old defenseman paired with Chara for most of his career, has seen players come and go and values the stability brought by the core.

”As long as we have those veteran guys the culture will always be the same, I really believe that,” he said. ”I really think it could be another special year. You bring back all these guys, the veterans, it could be an awesome year and I’m really excited to get it going.”

Here are some other things to look for from the Bruins this season:

SOPHOMORES

Helping to take some of the pressure off the aging core is a group with about one year of experience, led by McAvoy. Also among the sophomores are Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk, and Sean Kuraly.

”None of us are forecasting a setback, I call tell you that,” McAvoy said. ”Something about the experience of having a full season, playing a few playoff series now, seeing that element. I can use all those things to allow me to come in and play great hockey from the start. That’s my goal.”

Those five combined to score 151 points (48 goals, 103 assists) last season.

MORE NEW BLOOD

Joining the youth movement are players in their first full season like Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork. Brandon Carlo has two years behind him but is still just 21.

”You need those young guys,” Krejci said. ”And our young guys are fast, they’re good, they’re smart, they make plays. They deserved to make the team last year and I’m looking forward to what they’ll bring again this year, one year under their belts.”

IN NET

Rask returns for his 12th season but he has a new backup.

Jaroslav Halak signed a two-year contract to come to Boston from the Islanders, where he started 49 games last season and had a 3.19 goals-against average. He replaces Anton Khudobin, who had been the backup for two years and started last season 7-0-2 filling in while Rask had a concussion.

The fast start led fans to call for him to replace Rask, when he won just three of his first 13 games. But the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner did not lose a game in regulation from Nov. 26 until Feb. 10, finishing with a 34-14-15 record and a GAA of 2.36.

LONG TRIPS

The Bruins played two exhibition games in China against the Calgary Flames, with Cassidy and half the squad heading over to Shenzhen and Beijing for a week while the rest of the team stayed back in Boston. The split squad wasn’t ideal, but the Bruins started the 2010-11 regular season with two games in Prague and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Cassidy said that would be a nice precedent to follow.

”Well if it’s a repeat of ’11, yes,” he said. ”I’d love that to happen, trust me.”

AP freelancer Matt Kalman contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.