NHL on NBCSN: Can Panthers get more out of Bennett, other trade deadline adds?

NHL on NBCSN: Can Panthers get more out of Bennett, other trade deadline adds?
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Thursday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. Lightning-Panthers coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s early in Bill Zito’s run as Florida Panthers GM, but so far, he’s unearthed some real hidden gems. You also have to think that Joel Quenneville’s played a significant role in breakthroughs for the likes of Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe.

Maybe those successes emboldened the Panthers to take on reclamation projects during the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline? Then again, perhaps the Panthers simply believe they can get more out of Nikita Gusev, Brandon Montour, and especially Sam Bennett.

Considering the prices the Panthers paid during the trade deadline — and significant injuries to Verhaeghe and Aaron Ekblad — it’s important that they get something from those new additions.

Let’s take a look at those three Panthers trade deadline additions. Before we do that, do note that they didn’t merely make additions. To open up space, the Panthers also traded away Vinnie Hinostroza and Brett Connolly (the latter as part of a package that also included an intriguing piece in Henrik Borgstrom).

Can Panthers, Quenneville get more out of Sam Bennett?

Let’s face it. After the Flames drafted Sam Bennett fourth overall in 2014 — ahead of the likes of William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Dylan Larkin — he’s rarely pulled himself up above average.

Granted, Bennett has some snarl to his game, can grow an absolutely bewildering mustache (sometimes with a bushy beard), and also displays an uncanny knack for being more effective in the playoffs. After being traded to the Panthers, Bennett definitely played up that angle.

“I’ve always been a guy that tends to get up for big games and elevate my game,” Bennett said. “I love the style of playoff hockey — it’s physical, it’s fast. I think that compliments my game. I’m looking forward to the playoffs, for sure.”

(Bennett’s scored 19 points in 30 playoff games [.633 points per game], versus 140 points in 402 regular season contests [.35 points per game]).

[LIGHTNING-PANTHERS PRE-GAME COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

For a Panthers team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1995-96, a player who (seemingly) can “turn it on” during the postseason sounds nice. But it’s fair to wonder how much you can take from 30 playoff games, especially since they’re spread over four postseasons (no more than 11 games in any single stretch).

Over the years, the Flames could’ve used that Playoff Sam Bennett more often. Maybe they wished they could’ve hypnotized him?

Despite needing more support, the Flames deployed Bennett in a reluctant role, and his ice time slid as time went on. During the past three seasons, he’s averaged 13:28 TOI per game or less.

Medium-sized gambles, at best

On one hand, Sam Bennett can turn a page. After all, the Panthers aren’t the team that drafted him fourth overall.

But they did spend a pretty penny to trade for Bennett. For a player whose impact is sometimes understated, Panthers fans might remark “We gave up a second-rounder for him?”

Considering the prices beyond the strangely squalid return for Taylor Hall, that’s probably not a totally fair way of looking at things. Even so, if you look at results the Panthers trade deadline, they did move around quite a bit to accommodate the combination of Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour.

Really, Montour and Nikita Gusev stand as the bolder trade deadline reclamation projects by the Panthers.

[Consider where Montour stood among NHL defensemen who were trade deadline targets]

Recalling that the Sabres gave up a first-rounder for Montour, it’s worth considering that he’s a defenseman teams talk themselves into. Bill Zito referred to Montour as “always a guy that we really liked.”

Should they, though?

No, the Panthers didn’t give up the world for Bennett and Montour, but these are also the type of players you’d prefer to “buy low.”

That’s the standout thing about Nikita Gusev. The Panthers scooped him up on the waiver wire, so it’s low-risk, aside from maybe moving someone out to make space?

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the Panthers in year one under Bill Zito, and Coach Q’s second rotation. At the moment, the Panthers’ 2021 NHL Trade Deadline moves feel more questionable, but we’ll find out if we see more big transformations (even if it might be a while before Bennett can play against teams like the Lightning).

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.

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    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

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    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
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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

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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.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.