Panthers are in good hands, but face big challenges in taking next step

Panthers are in good hands, but face bigs challenges in taking next step
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Get ready for a sentence I couldn’t imagine writing (unironically) not all that long ago. The Florida Panthers appear to be in … good hands?

For years, the Panthers blundered through some real mistakes. To be fair, Panthers GM Dale Tallon deserves the occasional bit of credit. Back in 2013, picking Aleksander Barkov ahead of Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones was mildly shocking. Today, it looks brilliant.

Unfortunately, Tallon made error after error around Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and a select few other positive standouts. Even when the Panthers found a gem out of the blue, they’d sometimes just sour on them for reasons. (Trading Jonathan Marchessault to get rid of Reilly Smith, possibly to keep Alex Petrovic, remains a profound head-scratcher.)

If you recall, Tallon’s response to regaining power over the short-lived Panthers “computer boys” prompted the veteran exec to utter “Thank God.” It’s early in the Bill Zito era, but after a single season, Panthers fans should be uttering that reaction.

Very positive early results

As a rule, I don’t love buying out players. While I’m sure the Panthers were champing at the bit to get rid of Keith Yandle, the savings from buying him out seem mediocre.

Even then, those quibbles melt away pretty quickly. If buying out Yandle simplified the Panthers’ expansion draft protection plan, then understood. If that was necessary to hand out potentially shrewd extensions to Anthony Duclair and Gustav Forsling? Then even better.

In a way, Duclair’s redemption arc almost matches that of the Panthers as a whole. A player and a team on a dramatic upswing:

But both contracts could serve up serious value for the Panthers.

Truly, retaining Duclair and Forsling feeds into a larger feeling around the Panthers.

This is a team that added a bunch of new players, most of whom were not particularly highly regarded. Credit Zito, Joel Quenneville, others, or a combination of factors, but the Panthers integrated new talent with aplomb.

Duclair and Sam Bennett probably stand as the most dramatic examples. In particular, it was astounding how seamlessly Bennett fit with Florida despite an in-season trade.

For a deeper look at how the Panthers mixed the right ingredients together with the right system, check out this from Jack Han.

While the Panthers fell to the Lightning in six games, there were times when it seemed like they were capable of something rare: making Tampa Bay a bit uncomfortable. Squint your eyes a bit, maybe picture a more stable goaltending situation, and you could imagine an even better Panthers team going forward.

3 Big obstacles as the Panthers hope to continue their climb

… There’s also some concern that the Panthers might struggle with an encore. Consider three key reasons why.

1. Ghosts of contracts past

As clever as Zito is, it’s tough to imagine the Panthers wiggling out of Sergei Bobrovsky‘s disastrous contract. At age 32, Bob carries that $10M cap hit through 2025-26 (five more seasons).

Such a contract is already taking up 12.3-percent of Florida’s space, and that’s assuming they’d ponder hitting the salary cap ceiling. It’s also a contract that can make other moves tougher. Would the Panthers be as willing to let Chris Driedger go if they weren’t stuck with Bobrovsky?

Adam Gretz broke down Yandle’s buyout details on Thursday:

2021-22: $2.34 million salary cap hit ($4 million salary cap savings)
2022-23: $5.3 million salary cap hit ($1.05 million salary cap savings)
2023-24: $1.24 million salary cap hit (-$1.24 million savings)
2024-25: $1.24 million salary cap hit (-$1.24 million savings)

Between Yandle, Roberto Luongo, and Scott Darling, the Panthers carry about $4.5M in dead money for at least 2021-22. If Bobrovsky’s a drag, that’s another $10M poorly spent.

For a team that has to be cost-conscious, that stings.

… And the Panthers would be wise to make any upcoming commitments either cap-friendly, or short-term.

2. Scary contract negotiations in the future?

When you’ve signed one of the best bargain contracts in the league, you gain quite the luxury. But then there’s the hangover-like feeling when the party’s over.

Aleksander Barkov, 25, carries a $5.9M cap hit for 2021-22, then he could become a UFA. It’s been a glorious six seasons, but payday’s approaching for the reigning Selke winner.

If I were the Panthers, I’d seek clarity regarding Barkov’s next contract. Frankly, I’d probably also want to extend Carter Verhaeghe (25, $1M for one more season, would be an RFA) sooner rather than later. If Verhaeghe sticks with Barkov and Duclair for another season, he could put up the sort of numbers that would make him far richer than his current steal-of-a-deal.

Two years down the line, there are other big potential stumbling blocks.

Like Barkov, 28-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau carries a mere $5.9M cap hit. He’ll need a new contract after 2022-23 (two seasons). Considering Huberdeau’s age, that might be complicated.

While the conversations were mostly limited to analytics circles, MacKenzie Weegar emerged with some dark horse Norris chatter in 2020-21. At 27, he’s a bargain at $3.25M (even if you’re not ready to ponder him as a borderline star) through 2022-23. Obviously, the Panthers wouldn’t mind if mainstream hockey people take longer to realize what they have in Weegar.

Promising goalie Spencer Knight, 20, will burn through his rookie contract after two more seasons, as well.

Now, the Panthers have some money coming off the books that should mitigate some challenges. Anton Stralman‘s just not who he once was, so it should be a relief to see that $5.5M evaporate after next season.

Overall, it might be crucial for the Panthers to remain sneaky-good (or better) in 2021-22. Doing so would maintain and potentially grow their fanbase. It may also be pivotal in convincing ownership to invest in keeping people like Barkov, Huberdeau, Weegar, and Knight in the fold.

(It might also be needed in bribing someone to take Bobrovsky off their hands … though that would be an easier sell down the road.)

3. A potentially deadly division

Look, it’s too early to truly know that the Atlantic Division will be brutal in 2021-22. That seems like the educated guess, however.

Consider what the Panthers could face:

  • Naturally, there’s the defending champions. This offseason could strike the Lightning hard, yet they have the core elements to contend again.
  • Despite some playoff heartache, the Bruins have a chance to be very, very good again. It’s not totally clear if Taylor Hall will be back, but Boston has room to remain among the elite.
  • Can the Maple Leafs get over the hump in the playoffs? Unclear. You’d be negligent to assume that they won’t be in the playoff mix, though.
  • Don’t count the Canadiens out after their Cinderella run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Even beyond that run, they’ve consistently been a competent-to-great team five-on-five. If Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield make them more dynamic, then look out.
  • The Senators, Red Wings, and Sabres are lesser concerns, no doubt. Every now and then, a rebuilding team makes a quicker leap than expected. Perhaps Ottawa could start to put things together?

Looking at the Atlantic Division, the Panthers might find themselves mainly eyeballing wild-card races.

Really, there would be no shame in that. The top five (Panthers included) looks pretty daunting a day before Seattle Kraken expansion draft protection lists are due.

For years, it often felt like the Panthers beat themselves. With some newfound hope, they seem a lot more competent, at least today. Unfortunately, taking the next step from competent to true contender won’t be easy.

Do you think they can pull it off?

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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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.