Examining the Panthers’ great start and if they can maintain it

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No team goes through more change on a consistent basis than the Florida Panthers.

Every two years or so there is a shift in direction, a management change, a coaching change, and countless changes to the roster all in an effort to bring the team to some sort of relevance. While the names and faces keep changing, the mediocre results keep staying the same.

Maybe that is starting to change this season.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Friday night, the Panthers are very quietly off to one of the best starts in the league with a 6-0-2 record through their first eight games. That start is a major change from previous years where they consistently stumbled out of the gate and put themselves in a deep hole that even a late season surge could not dig them out of.

What is driving this quick start, and how much should we believe in their early results? Let’s dig in.

Barkov and Huberdeau get some help

When it comes to the Panthers you always have to start with the duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

Both are among the league’s most productive and best offensive players, and they are both off to great starts this season once again. But two players are never enough to carry a team and there has to be a strong supporting cast around them. That is where the Panthers keep shuffling the roster, and this past offseason was no different as they acquired Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Radko Gudas, Markus Nutivaara, and Alexander Wennberg.

So far, they are getting very promising returns on some of those investments.

Hornqvist in particular has been white hot as he has been his usual cage-rattling self in front of the net and on the power play, already scoring three goals with the man advantage (and five goals overall) to help improve a power play that was already a top-10 unit a year ago.

[Related: Roundtable discussing early season surprises, disappointments]

Verhaeghe and Duclair are the really interesting ones because they got them for so cheap when their former teams did not give them qualifying offers as free agents.

Tampa Bay’s decision to let Verhaeghe go was strictly salary cap related.

Ottawa’s decision with Duclair is a little harder to figure out, other than to say it was a bad (and needless) decision.

The Panthers have been the ones to benefit. They signed both players for a combined salary cap hit of just $2.7 million (and Verhaeghe’s contract runs through next season) with both players getting off to fantastic starts. Verhaeghe has already scored six goals and nine points in eight games while bringing a strong defensive and possession driving presence to the forward group. Duclair does not yet have a goal, but he has looked great with six assists (all at even-strength) and already more than 20 shots on goal. It is only a matter of time until some start finding the back of the net.

What are the concerns?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room that is Sergei Bobrovsky.

After signing a massive seven-year, $70 million contract in free agency his debut season with the Panther was the worst full season performance of his NHL career, and created some doubt as to what his long-term outlook with the team is going to look like.

It is still early, but his first four starts this season are not doing much to inspire confidence that he is going to get back on track. He has recorded a save percentage higher than .890 in just one of those starts, and has already allowed 15 goals in his four starts. Chris Driedger has badly outplayed him so far, and while that is a promising development for the Panthers you have to assume that Driedger’s current .940 save percentage is going to regress at some point. When that happens they are going to need a lot more from Bobrovsky.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

The other big concern is the fact that they have relied almost entirely on one-goal games, with most of them requiring overtime or a shootout. Of their first eight games, seven of them have been decided by just a single goal while five of them have gone beyond regulation. Winning a lot of one-goal games is not always the sign of a tough, gritty team that just figure out how to win. Sometimes it is the result of a lucky team, because eventually some of those plays that go your way in a one-goal game or going to bounce in the other direction. That is especially true when so many games get to 3-on-3 or a shootout.

They also have not yet hit the meaty part of their schedule yet, having only played Columbus, Nashville, Detroit, and Chicago. Only one of those teams (Columbus) finished the 2019-20 season in the top half of the league standings (and they were 14th). Obviously you can only play who the schedule says you play, and there is something to be said for beating the teams you are supposed to beat. Even if you are just sneaking by. With their next two games against Detroit there is an even greater chance to keep piling up points.

But then things get dramatically tougher over the next few weeks. After their upcoming two-game series with Detroit, 10 of their following 14 games are against Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Carolina. That is when we might really start to find out if this Panthers team is for real.

What to watch for

The two main things to watch for in determining what this team can do are whether or not Bobrovsky can bounce back, and what happens when the schedule starts getting tougher.

After starting recent seasons terribly and trying to play catch up the rest of the way, nobody in Florida is going to be disappointed with a 6-0-2 start, no matter what the wins look like or which teams they came against. Those points count, and they already banked a lot of them in the standings. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, and that is only a good thing. But with three Stanley Cup contenders at the top of the division (Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina) and total wild cards in Columbus and Nashville competing with Florida for that fourth playoff spot there is still a lot of work ahead.


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.

Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

“Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

“When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

“We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

“It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

“Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

“Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

“I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

“You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

“He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

“It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

“I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

“Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

“I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.