Is there easy fix for Panthers’ continued woes?

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The Florida Panthers should be a lot better than this.

After a nearly miraculous second half surge to close out the 2017-18 NHL season that brought them to within a single point of a playoff spot, the Panthers went out over the summer and added another top-line scorer in Mike Hoffman to a team that already had a pretty good, and extremely affordable, core of high-end forwards in place.

Those forwards are good. Really good.

Aleksander Barkov, still only 23 years old, is one of the game’s best all-around players, and even though his peers around the league view him as underrated, he should be considered a star in the eyes of everyone.

It is not just him that excels at the top of the lineup.

Between Barkov, Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov, the Panthers currently have four of the NHL’s top-45 point producers, including two of the top-20 (Barkov and Huberdeau), with all of them signed to contracts that can definitely be described as “team friendly.”

All of them are signed through at least the end of next season, with none of them counting more than $5.9 million against the salary cap. Those are well below market contracts for what they produce.

That quartet also does not include Vincent Trocheck, a bonafide 25-30 goal, 60-point winger when healthy, and Frank Vatrano, who is already scored 23 goals this season. Add those two in and there is what should be the makings of a contending core in place that has also give the organization (and will continue to give them) plenty of salary cap flexibility to build around them.

Despite all of that, the result this season has been a significant step backwards as they play out the string in what will be yet another lost, forgotten season for a franchise that has known nothing but lost, forgotten seasons for almost its entire existence. The 2018-19 season, when it mercifully wraps up in south Florida, will be the 20th time in their 25 year history that the Panthers have missed the playoffs, and the 16th time over the past 18.

In a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs every year, that is a stunningly depressing run of futility that is made even more frustrating in the short-term because of how much high-end talent there actually is on the roster.

Things have seemingly hit rock bottom over the past week — and emphatically so — with a trio of ugly losses that has seen the team give up seven, seven, and six goals. It is a stretch of games that finally resulted in Trocheck reaching his breaking point on Tuesday night following the latest drubbing, this one at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

“Structurally we can’t give up — I feel like five of their six goals were let them have as much room or as much time as they wanted. Three of their goals were right down the slot or in front of our net,” fumed Trocheck. “It’s just laziness. Not doing your job. It’s just unacceptable to leave our goalies out to dry the last three games, to let up that many goals in three games is an absolute embarrassment.”

When asked what exactly was going wrong with the defensive breakdowns over these past few games, he continued.

“It’s just not paying attention to our system,” he said. “We’re getting away from our system. Somebody is trying to do somebody else’s job, you’re duplicating on guys, and whenever you duplicate obviously someone is going to be open and in the NHL they are going to find that open guy. They did, especially in the first, and that is what leads to goals against. Then it seems like we get down two goals like we did the past couple of games and we let off the gas and we just kinda quit. It’s embarrassing. It’s extremely embarrassing. Every single guy in here should be embarrassed the past three games.”

Harsh words, but not entirely wrong words, either. The defensive structure and commitment to it has been bad, and when you add in sub-par goaltending on top of it you are going to have the type of problems the Panthers currently have.

So how do they fix it?

First, it is never a good sign for a coach when you’re on your way to a second straight non-playoff season behind the bench and one of your top players is talking about how the team “kinda quit” and that they can’t stick to the system. Especially when there is a three-time Stanley Cup winning, high-profile coach just sitting out there without a job right now that also happens to have a history of working with the team’s current general manager and having success.

Second, as laughable as it might be to say about a franchise with the recent track record the Panthers have, there is something to be said for patience when it comes to some of the players on the roster. Specifically the players at the top of the roster.

For years the Winnipeg Jets continued to commit to the same core of players that produced the same mediocre results in the standings year after year. It would almost be a constant running joke every season about how inactive the Jets were from a roster standpoint and never did anything to change things. But they knew the players at the top (player like Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, etc.) were not the problem. They were good, and they stuck with them and waited for the right complementary pieces from within (and a franchise player at the top of the draft in Patrik Laine) to come along and make it so they were no longer being wasted.

Could they have accelerated the timeframe to becoming a contender by maybe being more aggressive in some areas (like finding a new goalie)? Absolutely they could have. But the point is they didn’t sacrifice the players that weren’t a problem in the name of “changing culture” or “changing the mood in the room” or whatever it is bad teams do when they trade their few good players for pennies on the dollar.

They stuck with them, eventually added the right pieces around them, and are now being rewarded with a Stanley Cup contender that is led by those same core players.

In other words, unless somebody absolutely blows their doors off with a trade offer there is literally zero reason to even consider moving the likes of Barkov, Huberdeau, or Trocheck.

Instead, the focus needs to continue to be adding around them because this should still be a core they can win with.

Given how cheaply some of them are signed, combined with the fact they shed some big money in future years by trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two expiring contracts, the Panthers have put themselves in a position to be major players in free agency and ownership seems to have a willingness to spend to the cap this summer. As it stands right now, the Panthers are projected to have around $17 million in salary cap space to play with which could make them the favorites to land pretty much any free agent they wanted.

Speculation for months has centered around the Columbus duo of forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Panarin obviously does nothing to fix the team’s defensive shortcomings, but it also wouldn’t hurt to add another top scorer to the lineup. Bobrovsky is an even trickier situation because even though they need an upgrade in net, they already have two big-money goalies on the roster and for as good as he has been throughout his career you can not ignore the fact signing any soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to the type of contract he would demand on the open market is going to carry some significant risk.

One thing is for certain, though, and that is things have to be shored up defensively.

Maybe that starts behind the bench.

Maybe it has to be a focus on defenders in free agency.

Maybe it is a goalie, whether it is Bobrovsky or somebody else, because for as good as Roberto Luongo has been throughout his career he is starting to finally lose the battle with father time.

Maybe it has to be a combination of all three.

With Barkov, Huberdeau, and a healthy Trocheck the Panthers have some of the most important — and hardest to acquire — pieces in place when it comes to building a contender. With them in place it should not take a full-scale rebuild or total teardown to get to where they want to be.

It is possible to get there quickly if the right pieces are added around them.

A perpetually mediocre team like the Jets was finally able to do it around their core of players.

With money to spend and salary cap space at their disposal this summer, we are about to find out if this current Panthers’ front office is able to do it as well.

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.

Bruins hoping to win Stanley Cup, join Boston’s title parade

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BOSTON (AP) — It’s been more than three months since the last championship parade in Boston, and the city is getting antsy.

Sure, the Red Sox won the World Series last October. And the New England Patriots earned their sixth Super Bowl victory in February.

But since then: Nothing.

And Boston’s sports fans are counting on the Bruins to end the interminable title drought.

”It definitely lights a fire under you to see the other teams in the city bring home their championships,” defenseman Brandon Carlo said as the team prepared to face the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. ”We want to be a part of it.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Boston was a sad sack of a sports city, with the Patriots the joke of the NFL and the Red Sox mired in a dynasty of disappointment that would stretch to 86 years. The Celtics won far more than their share, but they endured the longest championship drought in franchise history from 1986-2008.

The Bruins went from Bobby Orr’s two championships in the early 1970s until Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron brought the Cup home in 2011.

If that doesn’t seem like a long time ago, try telling that to the newly spoiled Boston fans who have grown up with the Belichick-and-Brady Patriots and a Red Sox franchise that has won as many championships in the past 15 seasons as it did in the previous 100.

”It feels like there’s been a little bit of a gap in there,” said Carlo, a Coloradan who is 22 years-old, and has only been in the city for three years. ”The way things have gone for Boston, we’re looking to be like the other teams.”

And now they have their chance.

The Bruins are at their strongest heading into the Cup final, with a seven-game winning streak that includes a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Goalie Tuukka Rask has allowed more than two goals just twice in the past 13 games, and he won the last two playoff clinchers with a shutout. Brad Marchand is the leading scorer remaining in the playoffs.

And, with the Celtics done, the Patriots in the offseason and the Red Sox still recovering from their early season championship hangover, the Bruins have the city’s attention.

”We want to be considered the best game in town. Why wouldn’t we?” coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”We have some serious competition.”

Cassidy said he has developed a relationship with the other coaches in town, and he reached out to the Patriots for advice on how to handle the long layoff between series. The Celtics practice facility is next door to the Bruins’; on the morning of an NBA playoff game, Cassidy wore a Celtics shirt to his media availability.

When he took the podium for Wednesday’s news conference, Cassidy looked at the unusually large crowd and said, ”Red Sox off today?” (They’re on the road.)

The Bruins have also noticed the difference when they’re out and run into fans around town.

”You do see how the city rallies around you,” Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk said. ”I grew up in Edmonton, and we only have one sports team. To come in here, and there’s four sports teams and they’re usually pretty good, in the playoffs or in the hunt or winning.

”It’s very lucky to be playing here,” DeBrusk said. ”Ever since I’ve gotten here I fall in love with the city. To see the teams win around here, and how the people supported it, it’s very special.”

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

Davidson takes reins of Rangers’ rare rebuilding project

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NEW YORK (AP) — Behind the microphone for the last New York Rangers championship in 1994, John Davidson is now front and center to try to parade the Stanley Cup down Broadway again.

Davidson recalled 1994 as one of the best times of his life, and after moving from broadcasting to the front office with St. Louis and Columbus has returned home to oversee the Rangers’ rebuilding process. The proud, big-spending Original Six franchise is in the midst of a rare youth movement, attempting step back to make the leap from annual playoff team to perennial title contender.

General manager Jeff Gorton began that at the 2018 trade deadline and will remain in control of day-to-day operations. Davidson is now his boss as team president and wants to be the soul of the organization by charting the right course to return New York to prominence, which for now means keeping it going in this direction.

”There’s a lot of work to be done here,” Davidson said Wednesday when he was introduced as the 11th team president in franchise history. ”There’s no shortcuts. It’s nothing but hard work, and it takes patience and resolve, and I really want to make sure that I use the word ‘patience’ and I use the word ‘resolve,’ because we’re going to be in a battle here to get this club to be better. But you have to be patient when you go through a build like this.”

Patience generally isn’t part of the fabric of New York sports or the Rangers’ MO. But Davidson said he is on the same page with owner James Dolan, president-turned-adviser Glen Sather, Gorton, and coach David Quinn on doing this right.

It helps that Davidson knows the Rangers inside out from parts of eight seasons as a goaltender and two decades as a broadcaster. This is a different challenge than the ones he undertook with the Blues and Blue Jackets, which seemed daunting at those times.

In some ways it’s easier because Gorton already took the first few steps and Quinn established a standard for players as a good starting point.

”I like that the entire organization stated that they were going to rebuild,” Davidson said. ”There’s no secrets to it. There’s no, ‘Well, we’re going to do this, but don’t tell anybody.’ This is something that has been very transparent and that’s a good way to go. There’s a game plan in place. The foundation is being built.”

Based on his success in building the foundation in St. Louis that has now become the basis for a Stanley Cup finalist, and ushering in an era of success in Columbus, Davidson looks like the perfect person to run the Rangers’ ship. Dolan said Davidson’s ”knowledge of the game, experience and passion for the Rangers made him the ideal choice.”

Davidson isn’t as ”green” as he was when he took over the Blues in 2006, and the lessons he learned from his first two front-office jobs should only help guide Gorton.

”I think it’s going to be a huge benefit,” Gorton said. ”He’s gone through it in two organizations. He’s done everything in hockey. His experiences, just his even-keel way about him, it’s going to be a great asset for us as we go through this process, there’s no question about that.”

The Rangers missed the playoffs the past two seasons and likely will again in 2019-20. But with the No. 2 draft pick and one of two potential stars – Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko – on the way and youth, and competitive balance so prominent in the NHL, Davidson isn’t acting like this is a long-range rebuild.

”It can be done because of the youth that plays in this league now,” Davidson said. ”Obviously the sooner you win the better and that’s the goal, but you have to do it the right way to get there.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, a key piece of that 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup team, believes Davidson has accumulated the right credentials in his previous two jobs to deliver another championship to New York.

”He’s made the transition each step along the way,” Leetch said. ”He’s admitted that each one wasn’t seamless: You had to learn, you had to ask others for help. And each one he’s made that transition and risen to the top at each level. To expect anything different would be wrong. I just think all those things together, and then the strong feelings that he has for New York City and the Rangers organization, just makes him the perfect fit at the right time.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins scrimmage a ‘unique’ opportunity; It’s different this time for Blues

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The 2019 Stanley Cup Final is also a battle between Jim and Pam from “The Office.” (NBC Boston)

• Team scrimmage a unique opportunity for the Boston Bruins. (Bruins Daily)

• A look at Patrick Roy’s candidacy for head coach of the Ottawa Senators. (TSN)

• Holland starting to clean house in Edmonton. (Sportsnet)

• Long-suffering Blues fans feel it’s different this time around. (ESPN)

• Blues heroics have wiped away decades of disappointment. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Why the status of Zdeno Chara doesn’t mean what it used to. (WEEI)

• Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy likens the Blues to Boston’s twin. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Berube’s Blues built on toughness. (TSN)

Alex Ovechkin will get a much-needed break, once the World Hockey Championships are over, that is. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Petr Budaj is heading to college… as a coach. (ABC Fox Montana)

• Adam Fox was worth the two picks the New York Rangers Rangers sent the Carolina Hurricanes. (EP Rinkside)

• Rangers offseason looking bright (NHL.com)

• Did what Washington accomplished last season have any bearing on the Bruins, Blues path to the Cup Final? (NovaCaps)

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

Magical playoff ride ends in more disappointment for Sharks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Magical comebacks, dramatic wins and the most talented roster in San Jose Sharks history weren’t enough to deliver the franchise its first Stanley Cup title.

A team depleted by several key injuries ended its season with a 5-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, turning the drama of Game 7 wins in the first two rounds into footnotes on a season that was ultimately a disappointment.

”We didn’t make it easy for ourselves the whole playoffs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. ”We always battled back. We got through a lot as a team. A lot of guys just battled. Just to get this far a lot of things have to go right. We battled together but came up short. It’s crushing to come this far and not get the job done.”

The goal for the Sharks was clear ever since they acquired two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa just before the start of the season. Coach Peter DeBoer told his team the ingredients were in place for that elusive first championship in San Jose. It appeared like that could be the case after the Sharks rallied from three goals down in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round to beat Vegas in overtime and followed that up with another Game 7 win against Colorado in round two.

But with Karlsson unable to play the final four periods of the postseason because of a groin injury that slowed him since January, and captain Joe Pavelski and two-way center Tomas Hertl also out after taking high hits, the Sharks didn’t have enough to handle the Blues.

This season ended like so many others for the Sharks, who have won more games than any other team and the second-most playoff series the past 15 seasons but still are seeking a first championship.

”They all hurt,” said center Logan Couture, who tied a franchise record with 14 goals in the playoffs. ”It doesn’t matter what the roster is. When you get this far in the playoffs or you make the playoffs it hurts. You get in the playoffs you believe you can win.”

Here are some other takeaways from the season:

JUMBO JOE: One motivating factor for the Sharks this postseason was delivering a title for beloved leader Joe Thornton. The greatest player in franchise history turns 40 in July and has not decided whether he wants to come back for another season. Thornton dealt with injuries early in the season, then had a strong stretch as a third-line center late before struggling a bit the final two rounds outside of a two-goal performance in Game 3 at St. Louis.

”He’s the face, he’s the heartbeat of the organization,” DeBoer said. ”I think like all the players in that room, as coaches we’re disappointed for not helping him get there. Because he gives you everything he’s got and should be there.”

CAPTAIN PAVELSKI: No player personified the Sharks’ grueling journey this spring more than Pavelski. His postseason started with a puck that deflected off his face for a goal. The injuries only got worse when his helmet violently crashed to the ice, leading to a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas. That led to the epic comeback with four goals on one disputed major penalty that will go down as the greatest moment in franchise history until the team wins a Cup. Pavelski made a triumphant return in Game 7 of the second round but got hurt again in Game 5 against the Blues. Pavelski turns 35 and heads into an uncertain summer of free agency following a 38-goal season.

KARLSSON’S FUTURE: It was a somewhat disappointing first season in San Jose for Karlsson and now the question is whether it will be his only one. He took about two months to find his groove and then played at an elite level for about six weeks. He hurt his groin in January and was never the same. He missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games and was never completely healed in the playoffs. He heads into free agency in July and his decision will impact what the Sharks will be able to do with Pavelski and other key pieces.

STEPPING UP: The biggest positive for San Jose this season was the emergence of Hertl and Timo Meier as building blocks for the future. The 25-year-old Hertl was the top-scoring forward for the Sharks with 74 points and showed the capability of manning a top line as a center. The 22-year-old Meier had 30 goals and looks like a long-time fixture as a top-six forward.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league during the regular season in his first year of a $34.5 million, six-year contract. He had a career-low .896 save percentage in the regular season and was pulled early in two of his first four postseason starts. He rebounded and was a key part of the first-round win over Vegas but finished the playoffs with an .898 save percentage.

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