Will Bobrovsky put the Panthers over the top?

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Florida Panthers…

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

1. What Sergei Bobrovsky will the Panthers get? 

Three years ago, Bob won the Vezina on the heels of a ridiculous season where he posted 41 wins, a .931 save percentage and seven shutouts.

He followed that up with 37 wins, a .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 2017-18 and then and identical 37-win record last year with a league-leading nine shutouts and a .913 save percentage.

Nine shutouts are nothing to scoff at, but two straight years of a falling save percentage and a rising goals-against average might be.

Consider this: Bobrovsky’s 5v5 save percentage dropped from .939 during his latest Vezina season to .918 last year. The numbers of goals he saved above average went from 27 in 2016-17 to 34 in 2017-18 to just 0.2 last season. That’s a massive drop.

Don’t get me wrong, signing Bob was a huge get for the Panthers. At 31, the best years of Bobrovsky in his massive $70 million deal are likely coming over the next few seasons. The Panthers will do well with even league-average goaltending at this point. Bobrovsky supplied that last season, even if just.

And a rejuvenated Bob could be a dangerous one for opponents. He’s out of the craziness in Columbus now and perhaps with a much clearer head.

2. Can the team figure out their defensive woes?

The Panthers scored with the best of them last season, putting up the ninth most goals-per-game thanks to a very good collection of primary and secondary goal scorers.

None of that has changed heading into this season, and it’s likely only been improved with the addition of Brett Connolly.

Couple that with the league’s second-best power play and 10th best penalty kill and all the right pieces are there for a playoff team.

Well, other than a commitment to team defense.

You see, as much as the Panthers scored and did well on special teams, they couldn’t find the same success when defending. So when you couple their ninth-best goals-for per game (3.22) with their fourth-worst goals-against per game (3.33), a quick calculation shows you’re going to lose more often than you win.

The hope is that the addition of Anton Stralman will help that cause, as will a new system put forth by Joel Quenneville and the Panthers new-look coaching staff.

3. It’s built, but will they come? 

We’ve all seen it.

Rows upon rows of empty seats at BB&T Center that even a clever bit of camera work can’t fix.

The Panthers had the second-worst attendance in the NHL last season, averaging roughly 13,500 fans per game. On most occasions, that number looked optimistic at best. Consider, too, that the arena is the sixth-largest in the world for hockey events, sporting a capacity of 19,250 on game days.

It’s hard to fault even the most diehard fans after years upon years of losing. The Panthers have made the postseason just twice in the past 18 years.

But that appears to be changing this season. The team is vastly improved and they have a solid farm system to keep the good times rolling once they start, well, rolling.

Will they come?

In a market saturated with big-name sports teams, the Panthers need to win to standout. A decade ago, Tampa Bay was in the bottom third in attendance. Ten years later and having a juggernaut for a team, they’ve been in the top 10 since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

They say if you build it, they will come. We’re about to find out.

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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

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

caufield surgery
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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

matty beniers
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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.