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Panthers must resist making same old mistakes

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If we’ve learned anything from the last decade-plus of hockey in the salary cap era, it’s that even the most well-run NHL teams sometimes need to make the not-quite-ideal decision to fire a coach during the season.

Such gambles can pay off, whether we’re talking about short-term gains or the sort of stylistic changes that powered, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Look at Joel Quenneville; as frustrating as it must have been for him to get fired mid-stream, he was also an in-season replacement for the Chicago Blackhawks. That ended up being a pretty good call.

So, sure, sometimes such decisions are unavoidable, as messy as they are.

It gets tougher to argue for wholesale changes when you keep doing it over and over again, and that thought bubbles to the surface as there are at least faint murmurs about Bob Boughner and the Florida Panthers.

The Athletic’s George Richards reports that Boughner’s job wasn’t saved (sub required) when the Panthers eked out a 4-3 overtime win on Monday.

Out of context, it’s reasonable to at least wonder. The Panthers came into 2018-19 as a dark horse candidate after nearly roaring into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, suckering more than a few people (raises hand) into thinking that they could be a dangerous team.

Instead, they continue to be a day late and a dollar short, finding themselves with a mediocre 9-9-4 record, tying them for second-to-last in the East with 22 standings points.

What’s maddening is that so much is going right for the Panthers, at least when you consider the fact that they’re without sorely underrated center Vincent Trocheck for the distant future.

It stings that the Panthers are so mediocre despite Mike Hoffman being red-hot, Aleksander Barkov being Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov solidifying himself as a great winger, Keith Yandle piling up points, and Jonathan Huberdeau actually staying healthy. If you were to give the NHL the “NBA Jam” treatment* and just boil things down to a team’s best players, then the Panthers could go toe-to-toe with anyone, more or less.

So, what gives? What’s coming down the road, and what should the Panthers do? Let’s explore.

* – Or “Open Ice” treatment, if you want to be a Midway stickler.

Trouble in net

For a budget team like the Panthers, investing $4.533 million in Roberto Luongo, $3.4M in James Reimer, and another $1.3M in Michael Hutchinson would be tough to stomach even if it was working out.

Troublingly, things very much have not been working out, and the future looks a little glum. After all, Luongo’s hated contract runs through 2021-22(!) and Reimer’s won’t expire until after 2020-21 season.

It’s tempting to give Luongo a pass because a) he’s been great for so long, not to mention often-unappreciated and b) injuries have really disrupted him lately. Still, when he’s been on the ice, he hasn’t been great, with just a .902 save percentage over nine fragmented appearances.

As a goalie who was once (mostly justifiably) a fancy stats darling, Reimer has been a big disappointment lately. Instead of flourishing with Luongo out, Reimer’s been lousy, suffering an .895 save percentage this season. Hutchinson’s been even worse.

Could some of those struggles boil down to coaching?

Possibly, but this isn’t a Randy Carlyle-type situation where a team is just bleeding chances at an alarming level. The Panthers are averaging 31.2 shots allowed per game, tying them for 12th in the NHL with the low-tempo, more-troubled Kings. That’s easier to stomach when you realize Florida is firing 35.6 SOG per game, second only to the volume-crazed Hurricanes. On paper, you’d think the Panthers could make that work.

Granted, certain numbers smile upon Boughner less than others. While the Panthers score well (to extremely well) in even-strength possession stats like Fenwick For Percentage, Natural Stat Trick’s numbers put them in the bottom-third when it comes to their balance between creating and limiting high-danger scoring chances.

However you weigh Boughner’s share of the blame, it’s not really as if the Panthers are a disaster.

They would need to be

And let’s be honest, it’s about time that this franchise picks a course and sticks with it for a while.

As Richards notes, Bougher is the fifth Panthers head coach since the team came under new ownership in 2013-14. They’ve had a bad run of pulling the plug early lately. Bougher’s merely in his second season with Florida. The Panthers also:

  • Fired Kevin Dineen 16 games in 2013-14.
  • Handled Gerard Gallant’s in-season firing as sloppily as possible in 2016-17, allowing for the notorious photo of the bewildered coaching getting into a cab after being canned. That was an awful look then, and it only gets worse as Gallant racks up achievements with the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Tom Rowe barely got a look in replacing Gallant, and things flip-flopped again when Dale Tallon took over for the analytics-minded, briefly-lived regime (thank goodness).

That timeline doesn’t even cover how wayward this franchise has been before new ownership took over, as it seemed like there was an unending stream of new cooks in the kitchen, whether the team continuously shed coaches, GMs, or both.

Such a scatterbrained (lack of) gameplan at least partially explains why the Panthers have only made the playoffs three times since 1997-98, and haven’t won a single playoff series since that stunning run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

Yes, it’s best not to simply double down because of sunk costs, but the Panthers would risk making the same mistake over and over again if they gave Bougher such a short run as head coach.

Big tests

That said, the Panthers are about to play the third game of what looks like a crucial eight-game homestand. Here are the remaining six games:

Wed, Nov. 28 vs. Anaheim
Fri, Nov. 30 vs. Buffalo
Sat, Dec. 1 vs. Tampa Bay
Tue, Dec. 4 vs. Boston
Thu, Dec. 6 vs. Colorado
Sat, Dec. 8 vs. Rangers

Not exactly an easy haul, right? Simply put, playoff teams fight through tough stretches, especially when it comes down to gaining crucial points during long runs of home games. So far, the Panthers have been up-and-down, yet they’ve managed to get three of four points (1-0-1).

It’s tough for Florida to see Montreal play well above expectations so far, and for the Sabres to make the leap they dreamed about. With the Lightning and Maple Leafs delivering as expected and the Bruins hanging in there through injuries, it doesn’t look like it will be an easy path for the Panthers.

Whether they can scratch and claw their way into a playoff berth or must suffer through another disappointing season, the bottom line is that Florida needs to start churning out better results. Boughner has to know that, even if it would be pretty harsh if it cost him his job.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.