Aleksander Barkov

Previewing the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Much better … and they’re paying a premium to do so, what with Sergei Bobrovsky‘s risky seven-year, $70 million contract.

The changes in net didn’t stop there, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer being traded away. Joel Quenneville is the other big-name addition as head coach, while the Panthers also paid a pretty penny for Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman.

If nothing else, the Panthers proved that they’re willing to spend money.

Strengths: The Panthers entered 2018-19 with optimism for a simple reason: they have some great, young forwards. Aleksander Barkov is the headliner, but Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and (if healthy) Vincent Trocheck are all excellent players, most of them signed on bargain deals.

On paper, there’s a pretty big drop-off from the top six to the two lower forward lines, even if Connolly ends up being a boost for Florida’s depth. One thing that can swing the depth battle a bit would be promising prospects graduating. Can Henrik Borgstrom take that next step? Might Owen Tippett leap to become a full-time NHL winger? Aleksi Heponiemi was already sent down to the AHL, but there are others who might win training camp battles, and they might just move the needle in playoff bubbles for the Cats.

Weaknesses: Florida’s defense is expensive, but not necessarily worth the money. That was an uncomfortable undercurrent to their goaltending struggles last season: how much of this came down to putting netminders in a position to fail? Stralman had some great highs during his underrated career, yet his play dropped off badly recently, so he might be yet another Panthers blueliner who fails to justify his price tag.

This is an area where Florida hopes that the combination of Bobrovsky’s often-elite goaltending mixes with Quenneville’s system to keep the puck out of the net, while that offense hogs the puck. There are situations where that juggling act might fail, and there are also doubts about Florida’s backup options if Bob struggles and/or gets injured.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Quenneville hopes to prove that he still has it, and the Panthers must be feeling impatient after years of disappointments, particularly after spending big bucks to get better. Coach Q isn’t bulletproof, but he’s pretty safe with this being his first season. Let’s call it a 2 on the seat scale.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Bobrovsky, Hoffman, and Trocheck.

After some drama and a final season of peaks and valleys in Columbus, Bob got his wish. He’s out from under Torts, and he got paid. Excuse me, he got paid. Now it’s time to prove that he’s still a Vezina-level goalie, even as he turns 31 on Sept. 20.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is chasing his big payday, as the sniper enters a contract year where his next deal can really climb or fall depending upon how he performs in 2019-20.

Trocheck has been a gem for the Panthers, yet it’s unclear how well he might perform not that far removed from a ghastly injury last season. It’s impressive that he was able to return in 2018-19, but can he find that pre-injury game that was so all-around brilliant?

Playoffs or Lottery: They’re closer to the playoffs than the lottery.

It’s not out of line to paint a picture of a huge jump, with health, Bobrovsky’s goaltending, strong top scorers, and Quenneville coalescing into a new-look contender. There are plenty of ways things can go wrong, too, including Bob having another so-so season like he did in 2018-19.

More than anything else, the Panthers might just face long odds to climb into the Atlantic’s top three, as they’re less of a sure thing than the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. That doesn’t mean Florida can’t dislodge one or more of that seemingly mighty group, but it’s easier to picture them battling for a wild-card spot.

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

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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.”

PHT Power Rankings: Which NHL teams are ready to bounce back?

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After looking at individual players ready to bounce back (or regress) ahead of the 2019-20 NHL season, it is time to shift our focus to the teams that are on the verge of doing the same.

This week’s PHT Power Rankings takes a look at the 15 teams that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago and which ones are most likely to make a return trip to the postseason in 2020. It is pretty much a given that at least two or three of these teams is going to qualify this season, it is just a matter of which ones did enough.

To the rankings!

1. Florida Panthers. They have one of the best all-around players and salary cap bargains in the league in Aleksander Barkov, a good core of players around him, and just added a No. 1 goalie that is one of the best in the league to fill their biggest need. Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky‘s contract turns into a salary cap disaster in three years, but he can still make a huge impact in the short-term.

2. New Jersey Devils. It would require a pretty dramatic one-year turnaround, but with the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Jack Hughes, Wayne Simmonds, and the return of a healthy Taylor Hall it is not an impossible thought. The wild card will be a possibility if they can get something that resembles decent goaltending.

3. Chicago Blackhawks. There is reason to be concerned with their forward depth and their defense (the latter is a huge question mark), but they still have a couple of superstars and at least have the potential to have an outstanding goalie duo with Corey Crawford (assuming he is healthy) and Robin Lehner. This is still a team that believes it can win right now.

4. New York Rangers. After a huge offseason that featured some big scores (Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Fox) and some good luck (moving to No. 2 in the draft lottery to select Kaapo Kaako) expectations are going to be high in New York. (Maybe too high?) They are not yet a championship contender, but they will be a lot better.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. They made a lot of moves but I’m not sure if they are really any better than they were at the start of the offseason. That said, the game-changer here could be if Carter Hart is as good as advertised.

[Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

6. Arizona Coyotes. They were crushed by injuries all season and still nearly made the playoffs. Better injury luck and the additions of Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg might be enough to give them that extra push to sneak in.

7. Montreal Canadiens. Maybe this is little low for a 96-point team that was just two points back of a playoff spot, but I also think they played a little over their heads. What if Max Domi and Tomas Tatar aren’t as good as they were this past season?  What did they do to add to the roster in any meaningful way? If anything, they only subtracted from it by dealing Andrew Shaw (19 goals, 47 points in only 63 games) back to Chicago.

8. Minnesota Wild. Paul Fenton may have only been there for one season but the damage he left behind could linger for a few years. There is a path back to the playoffs this season, but a lot needs to go right.

9. Buffalo Sabres. They actually had a really solid offseason, but they are so far behind the top-three teams in the division (and probably Florida now, too) that the playoffs still seem like a real long shot.

10. Edmonton Oilers. I would say Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl going off and having monster seasons might be enough to carry them to a playoff spot, but it is hard to imagine the duo being better than it was a year ago when they both finished in the top-four in the league in scoring … and the team missed the playoffs by 11 points.

11. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and some of the other young players here will make the Canucks worth watching but there is not yet enough around them to make them a playoff team.

12. Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson is great, but is he great enough to make up for the rest of the roster around him? Not sure any goalie in the NHL is quite that great.

13. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman has his work cut out for him here. Other than bringing back Valtteri Filppula and the addition of a couple of rookies this is the same team that has been lurking around the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the past few years.

14. Los Angeles Kings. Maybe Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty are better this season (they should be), but even if they are that will not be enough to make up for the rest of the roster. Just start the rebuild already.

15. Ottawa Senators. In terms of actual salary being paid this season it is by far the cheapest roster in the NHL with almost no long-term commitments. Winning is not the priority right now, and winning is not in their immediate future.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL teams under pressure to win this season
Bounce-back candidates
Top regression candidates
Breakout candidates 

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.

Flyers could use breakout season from Nolan Patrick

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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 Philadelphia Flyers.

The success or failure of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers will largely depend on the performance of starting goalie Carter Hart.

If he is good, the Flyers will probably be good. If he is not, there is a pretty good chance it will be more of the same from a year ago.

But for as important as Hart’s development is, the Flyers have another talented, highly touted young player on this roster that could help move them closer to a playoff sport with a big season. That player is 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Thanks to some lottery luck the Flyers were able to rocket up the draft board and land Patrick, adding a potential impact player to the organization at a time when it probably was not expected. Two years into his career and he has shown some flashes of the potential that made him such a promising draft prospect, especially during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he was one of the Flyers’ best players in their Round 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that series he was always looking like he had a chance to do something spectacular on any given shift. It may not have resulted in big numbers, but you could easily see the talent.

He seemed to be a prime breakout candidate heading into 2018-19 based on that showing and progression throughout his rookie year. It did not quite happen as he pretty much duplicated his mostly solid but unspectacular rookie performance while also seeing a concerning dip in his possession and shot attempt numbers.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

A top draft pick not immediately becoming an All-Star level player isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Not everyone is going to step right into the NHL and be Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Those players are rare, and there is usually a pretty steep learning curve for players trying to break into the league at 18, 19, or 20. There are a lot of really accomplished forwards in the league today that were high first-round draft picks and whose first two years were comparable to Patrick’s at a similar age, including Aleksander Barkov, Phil Kessel, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Josh Bailey and even Patrick’s own teammate, Sean Couturier.

Most of those players (specifically Barkov and Kessel, also top-five picks) started to take significant steps in year three.

That has to be what the Flyers are looking for from Patrick this season.

He does not need to be an All-Star right now, but there should at least be some kind of sign in his production and performance that he can start to trend in that direction.

If it does not happen in year three, it will probably be time to start wondering just what type of player he is capable of becoming.

The Flyers still have a couple of All-Stars at the top of their lineup in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier, they still have some really good secondary players, and they might finally have the goalie they have been trying to find for decades. There are question marks and holes that still need to be filled for sure, but there is the basic framework of a potentially good team here at some key positions at the top of the roster. Patrick emerging as a top-line player would help them get a lot closer to actually being a good team once again.

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.