Panthers were wise not to blow things up at trade deadline

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Let’s face it. Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon has earned the criticisms he’s absorbed over the years.

The blunders surrounding moves like shedding both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith are well-documented, and the critiques are very much justified.

With the Panthers primed to miss the playoffs for the third straight year (and continue their drought of playoff series wins that stretches back to 1995-96), there was some concern that the Panthers might get antsy and blow things up a bit. Rumors circulated that the Panthers might have had some interest in trading Mike Hoffman, or even more troublingly, Jonathan Huberdeau.

Instead, the Panthers did very little, beyond the seemingly inevitable Derick Brassard trade.

Well, sometimes the best move you can make is no move at all.

Many people were excited about the Panthers’ chances this season after their strong finish to 2017-18, particularly when you consider Florida’s best forwards. Florida could win many best-versus-best battles with a stockpile of Aleksander Barkov, (a healthy) Vincent Trocheck, Evgenii Dadonov, Huberdeau, and Hoffman.

Those forwards (plus some useful defensemen in Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Michael Matheson) couldn’t outchance and outscore Florida’s problems, particularly in net, but what if you added, say, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to an already-impressive mix?

After the trade deadline, Tallon made it clear that the Panthers want to go big in free agency.

“We’ll be very aggressive after the season,” Tallon said on Feb. 25, via the Panthers’ website. “We have lots of room now. We have lots of picks. We’ll turn this into a positive thing. We had some bunt singles, to scratch and claw to improve our organization on a daily basis, and then we’ll eventually hit the home run.”

Affording those sluggers

Indeed, the Panthers moving contracts to clear up space (such as Bjugstad’s $4.1M cap hit) opens up room for Florida to work with. Cap Friendly places their cap spending at a bit more than $61M for 14 players heading into 2019-20, and it’s conceivable that the Panthers could fill roster spots with potentially useful players on entry-level deals, including Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett.

So, there could be quite a bit of room for Panarin and Bobrovsky, but if Florida wanted them both and the combined price tag fell around $20M, it might require some tweaking — even if rookie contracts for Borgstrom and Tippett keep spending down a bit.

The Panthers’ buckets of draft picks might be just as useful for moving problems out, as those picks might actually be for drafting prospects. They’ve really piled them up lately, as Jameson Olive of the Panthers’ site notes:

Looking ahead to the draft, Florida now owns a total of nine picks in 2019 and eight in 2020, including two picks in the first round, two in the second, three in the third and four in the fourth.

Would a package of certain picks convince, say, the Senators to take on James Reimer ($3.4M cap hit through 2020-21) and get to the cap floor? Perhaps Tallon’s old buddies in Chicago would involve picks in a deal for Corey Crawford if a Bobrovsky contract didn’t happen?

There are a number of ways the Panthers can open up space for Panarin in a home-run swing, including the admittedly grim idea of Roberto Luongo‘s quite legitimate injury concerns ultimately landing him on LTIR.

But credit the Panthers with giving themselves a chance at a grand slam, rather than just a solo homer …

Calling their shot

Because, frankly, the Panthers have been through enough rebuilds and quasi-rebuilds at this point. The stage is set for 2019-20 potentially being the old Babe Ruth/Owen Nolan “calling their shot” moment.

With a congested market for forwards at the trade deadline, getting the maximum return for Mike Hoffman didn’t seem realistic. And, honestly? The Panthers wouldn’t be likely to top Hoffman’s considerable sniping skills at his $5.188M cap hit, which expires after 2019-20.

(Huberdeau’s incredibly valuable, too, and his bargain $5.9M is cost-controlled through 2022-23.)

Adding Panarin, or even a consolation prize like Matt Duchene, to an already robust group of forwards could make the Panthers downright scary.

The goaltending situation is trickier, but considering how injury-plagued and generally disappointing this season has been for the Luongo – Reimer tandem, it’s also easy to imagine the Panthers upgrading in that regard.

Going big after Bobrovsky would be awfully risky — although maybe Panarin + Bobrovsky would accept a mild discount as a package deal? Maybe they’d even be willing to go that much lower for the Panthers, who allow for certain tax breaks as a Florida team?

***

There are big stakes here, and the Panthers could really suffer if they swing and whiff.

Instead of this being an off season because of contract distractions or just plain-old goalie struggles, 2018-19 Bobrovsky could be, more or less, the Bobrovsky we might expect going forward.

It’s plausible that Panarin, Duchene, and other, more valuable forwards will decide to re-sign with Columbus after all, or want to join a more established team than Florida.

There are nightmare scenarios where Plans A-Y fall through, and the Panthers waste a ton of money on an ill-advised Plan Z.

Still, for a franchise that’s often felt aimless, the Panarin target seems like something to shoot for. There’s already considerable talent on hand in Florida, and there’s room to work with to really bring things to the next level. It was wiser not to take a few steps backward, even if it remains to be seen if they can land the big leap that awaits.

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.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.