Aaron Ekblad

PHT Morning Skate: Kakko needs bigger role; What will Leafs do without Tavares?

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.

• What should Devils fans make of the decision to add assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald to the coaching staff? (All About the Jersey)

• We’ll find out what the Leafs are really made of while John Tavares is out of the lineup. (Toronto Star)

• The Rangers need to give Kaapo Kakko a bigger role. (New York Post)

• Is the Panthers’ best pairing made up of Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar? (The Rat Trick)

• How have Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang performed for the Pens this year? (Pensburgh)

Jimmy Vesey admitted that his start with Buffalo has been good and bad. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Mile High Hockey got a chance to speak to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about outdoor games, TV blackouts and more. (Mile High Hockey)

Jonathan Toews hopes he’s climbing out of his early-season slump. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Personal trainer Adam Francilia does a lot of work with NHL goalies including the two in Winnipeg. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• Since the Wild look so bad, the Hockey Wilderness blog decided to look ahead to the 2020 NHL Draft. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Are the Edmonton Oilers for real? (TSN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Panthers’ Barkov still feels sting of disappointing season

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — For Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov agony and anguish were constant companions this summer.

Despite outstanding individual numbers, reflecting on his season wasn’t fun for Barkov – and watching hockey on TV just made him feel worse.

The Panthers fell short of the playoffs for the third straight season, and it cost coach Bob Boughner his job. Additional fallout included the retirement of goalie Roberto Luongo.

And while their replacements are well respected – coach Joel Quenneville, who won three Stanley Cup titles with the Chicago Blackhawks; and Segei Bobrovsky, one of the top goalies in the 2019 free-agent market – Barkov hasn’t forgotten why they were needed in the first place.

”You never want anyone to leave your team, get fired or traded,” Barkov said during Florida’s Media Day event on Thursday at the BB&T Center. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and ask what you could’ve done better for that not to happen.”

Barkov was asked if he watched the Columbus Blue Jackets in the playoffs last season with the idea that their goalie, Bobrovsky, would sign with the Panthers.

”There were a lot of rumors, but I wasn’t thinking he would be our goalie,” Barkov said. ”I was just watching hockey and enjoying that but also (angry) that we were not in the playoffs.”

Barkov, who turned 24 earlier this month, did his part. He led the Panthers with 96 points, earned his first NHL All-Star Game berth and received the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, award. The award is given to the player who combines excellence on the ice with outstanding sportsmanship.

In addition, Barkov, who played all 82 games in his first season as Panthers captain, reached career highs in goals (35) and assists (61). He finished fifth for the Selke Trophy (for best defensive forward) and 16th for the Hart (MVP).

Barkov has earned the respect of his long-time teammates such as defenseman Aaron Ekblad as well as those who have just joined the team this year, a list that includes Bobrovsky.

”I don’t think ‘Barky’ will ever go out and scream at guys,” Ekblad said when asked about Barkov as a captain. ”But he’s the best on-ice leader I’ve been around, and he’s a great off-ice leader as well because the more you see him work, the more you want to work yourself.”

The sweat Barkov puts into his job, the attention to detail and that desire to do just that little bit extra – all those attributes have caught Bobrovsky’s attention.

”It’s a big deal when your captain is also your hardest-working guy,” Bobrovsky said. ”He’s a great two-way player.”

Which teams should take a chance on Andrei Markov?

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After being away from the NHL for two seasons, Andrei Markov is ready to return to North America. He made that clear during an interview with the Montreal Gazette last month. The Russian blue liner left for the AK Bars Kazan of the KHL two seasons ago and he’s hoping an NHL team will take a chance on him now.

His preference would be to play out the final year of his career with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, the Montreal Canadiens, but that doesn’t appear to be likely at this point.

The 40-year-old needs to play just 10 more games to reach the 1,000 mark for his career. That’s an important milestone for him.

“It’s something you want to be there,” Markov said of reaching that plateau. “It’s important, you know. But most important probably is to try to play one more year in the NHL, to prove that I can still play in that level.”

But can Markov keep up with the current pace of play in the NHL?

After multiple knee surgeries, it became clear that he wasn’t ever going to be the fastest player on the ice anymore. But his hockey smarts were always his biggest asset. There weren’t too many players that thought the game better than Markov when he was at his best. Whether or not the body can still perform at a high level remains to be seen.

Markov was negotiating his own contract the last time he and the Habs failed to come to terms on an agreement (two summers ago), but he’s since hired Allan Walsh to be his agent.

“He’s certainly looking to play on a team where there’s a role for him,” Walsh told TSN 690 radio in Montreal last week. “We believe that he can really help any team’s power play, that he can contribute meaningful five-on-five minutes, that he can serve as a veteran presence in the room, and he’s always been known as a bit of a quiet guy but he’s also been known as a quiet leader. He’s always been in amazing physical shape in his entire career and he’s in great shape right now.”

Walsh went on to say that his new client isn’t looking to sign a PTO and he’s looking to play for a team that’s ready to win right away.

Keeping all that in mind, which teams would be the best fits for Markov? Let’s look at some options.

• San Jose Sharks: We know that the Sharks are top-heavy on their defense with players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but they also have Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brenden Dillon. The issue with San Jose last year was that they didn’t have enough depth to fill out their blue line every night. During the postseason, there were many nights when Joakim Ryan was playing less than 10 minutes per game (sometimes less than five minutes). Ryan is no longer there, but they now have Tim Heed, Dalton Prout and Radim Simek on the fold. Markov on an affordable contract could be an intriguing fit in San Jose.

• Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers’ defense is a little more crowded than San Jose’s right now, but there’s an obvious connection between their team and Markov’s camp. Of course, Markov played for assistant coach Michel Therrien for many years in Montreal and he also played part of a season for Alain Vigneault a long time ago. Again, the Flyers have young depth on the blue line, they added Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but maybe they can find a way to make it work.

Florida Panthers: Markov has spent a good chunk of the summer training in Florida, so he’s familiar with the area. The Panthers made it clear that they want to start winning with a little more regularity. That’s why they signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year deal this off-season. They also added Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman this summer. Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson, Keith Yandle and Stralman will make up the top four, but Mark Pysyk, MacKenzie Weegar, Ian McCoshen and Joshua Brown will battle for the five, six and seven spots on defense. There’s room for Markov if they believe he can play.

Nashville Predators: Like the Sharks, the Preds are also top-heavy on defense. Even after trading P.K. Subban away, they still have Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. Youngster Dante Fabbro is also expected to play a big role in Nashville this season, so the top four is full. Beyond that, there are some question marks. Also, the Preds also owned the worst power play in the NHL last season. Could Markov help them improve in that area?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Ekblad, Yandle, Stralman are biggest X-factors for Panthers

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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. 

We know this much about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers: They have the potential to be a really good offensive team, while new starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a potential game-changer in net.

The latter fills the biggest position of need and is a high-profile player with an extensive track record of success. What he does on the ice will play a significant role in what the team does in the standings and whether or not it will be able to get back to the playoffs.

Even though Bobrovsky might be the single most important player on the ice, the team in front of him can still help him out and make the transition to a new team easier by improving its overall defensive play and lessening the workload he will have to face every night.

That must start with the duo of Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under PressureThree Questions]

Both players are signed long-term and will count nearly $14 million against the cap for the next four years (Ekblad is signed for two additional years after that) and are the most prominent defensemen on the team. They play the most minutes, they are great in the offensive zone, and they are among the most productive players in the league at their position.

All of that is great and valuable.

What has not been great is their inability to actually stop teams defensively, and that is something that is going to have to change for the Panthers to find success.

For all of their production offensively, Ekblad and Yandle have consistently sat among the bottom-third of NHL defenders over the past three years when it comes to preventing shot attempts and scoring chances at even-strength, while the Panthers have consistently been outshot and outchanced when they are on the ice. That is true whether they are paired together (something that has happened frequently over the past three years) and when they are split apart.

The problem for the Panthers is Ekblad and Yandle provide a very important skill that is a necessity for a winning team — offensive firepower from the blue line.

But for as good as they are in that area that skillset starts to get negated if they are giving up just as much, if not more, at the other end of the ice. You don’t want them to give up too much of their strength because, well, that is their strength and a big part of why they are valuable. But if the Panthers can’t get some sort of improvement out of them defensively that is going to be a big hurdle to overcome in their quest to return to the playoffs.

That is going to be the big challenge for new coach Joel Quenneville as he has to decide whether to keep them together as a pairing, how to distribute their minutes, and how to retain their offensive value while also not giving up even more on the defensive side.

The intriguing option here is where new defender Anton Stralman might be able to fit in.

Stralman, when healthy, has been one of the steadiest and most reliable defensive players in the league throughout his career. He was an outstanding complement to Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay for years, and even though he’s older and coming off an injury-shortened season (obviously two potential red flags) there seems to at least be the potential for him to help solidify a team that needs a massive upgrade defensively.

If he can provide the steadying presence, and maybe give Ekblad or Yandle a reliable partner that can make a world of difference for the Panthers.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Pressure is on Tallon for Panthers to win after big offseason

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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. 

Even with their lack of recent success there has still been a lot to like about this Florida Panthers team.

Aleksander Barkov is one of the best all-around players in the world and just now entering his prime years. He is a star and a cornerstone player that you should be able to build a championship contending team around.

Along with him, the Panthers just finished the 2018-19 season as a top-10 offensive team and have a pretty promising core of forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov. When combined with Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle on defense, there is a foundation here they should be able to compete with. What’s even better is that a lot of those core players (specifically Barkov and Huberdeau) are signed long-term to team-friendly contracts under the salary cap.

The key was going to be for general manager Dale Tallon and the front office to put the right people around them to allow that to happen. That was the mission for this offseason.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

The only question that matters for the Panthers — and Tallon specifically — is if he acquired the right people.

Among the new additions to the organization…

  • The hiring of Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winning and future Hall of Fame coach that has a history of success with Tallon.
  • One of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason in starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on a massive seven-year, $70 million contract. In the short-term it could be a huge addition and maybe even help put the Panthers back in the playoffs. Given Bobrovsky’s age, inevitable decline, and size of the contract it could also become a long-term headache.
  • The additional free agent signings of defender Anton Stralman (three years, $16.5 million) and forward Brett Connolly (four years, $14 million)

Those are some big contracts, all of them carrying varying degrees of long-term risk. It will probably become very apparent very early in the process if they are going to make a positive impact on getting the Panthers to where they want to be. That means Tallon’s long-term future with the team could be riding on the success or failure of those signings.

Tallon has been in a position of power with the Panthers since 2010 and during that time the team has seen its roster get overhauled, is now on its seventh different head coach, and has just two playoff appearances (and only five playoff victories) to show for that time. Given the talent the Panthers have at the top of the lineup, the high-profile coach they just hired, and the money they handed out this offseason (not to mention the eight-year contract defenseman Mike Matheson just signed a year ago) the expectation has to be for the Panthers to win, and to win right now.

The longer the team goes without winning, the more likely it is more changes get made and the Panthers are running out of people to change before they get to Tallon. You can’t trade every player, and it makes little sense to trade a Barkov or Huberdeau because the rest of the team isn’t good enough.

Quenneville is going to get some kind of an extended leash to start because of his resume and the fact he literally just arrived.

That leaves the person responsible for the final say over what the team looks like.

In the end the Bobrovsky contract will probably be what makes or breaks Tallon’s tenure in Florida.

If the Panthers get the Vezina-caliber goalie he was in Columbus it might be enough to propel them back to the playoffs this season and beyond.

If they do not get that goalie it is probably going to be more of the same for the Panthers on the ice, leaving the team with a pricey goalie on the wrong side of 30. That simply will not be good enough.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.