Anton Stralman

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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.

Will Bobrovsky put the Panthers over the top?

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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. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Florida Panthers…

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

1. What Sergei Bobrovsky will the Panthers get? 

Three years ago, Bob won the Vezina on the heels of a ridiculous season where he posted 41 wins, a .931 save percentage and seven shutouts.

He followed that up with 37 wins, a .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 2017-18 and then and identical 37-win record last year with a league-leading nine shutouts and a .913 save percentage.

Nine shutouts are nothing to scoff at, but two straight years of a falling save percentage and a rising goals-against average might be.

Consider this: Bobrovsky’s 5v5 save percentage dropped from .939 during his latest Vezina season to .918 last year. The numbers of goals he saved above average went from 27 in 2016-17 to 34 in 2017-18 to just 0.2 last season. That’s a massive drop.

Don’t get me wrong, signing Bob was a huge get for the Panthers. At 31, the best years of Bobrovsky in his massive $70 million deal are likely coming over the next few seasons. The Panthers will do well with even league-average goaltending at this point. Bobrovsky supplied that last season, even if just.

And a rejuvenated Bob could be a dangerous one for opponents. He’s out of the craziness in Columbus now and perhaps with a much clearer head.

2. Can the team figure out their defensive woes?

The Panthers scored with the best of them last season, putting up the ninth most goals-per-game thanks to a very good collection of primary and secondary goal scorers.

None of that has changed heading into this season, and it’s likely only been improved with the addition of Brett Connolly.

Couple that with the league’s second-best power play and 10th best penalty kill and all the right pieces are there for a playoff team.

Well, other than a commitment to team defense.

You see, as much as the Panthers scored and did well on special teams, they couldn’t find the same success when defending. So when you couple their ninth-best goals-for per game (3.22) with their fourth-worst goals-against per game (3.33), a quick calculation shows you’re going to lose more often than you win.

The hope is that the addition of Anton Stralman will help that cause, as will a new system put forth by Joel Quenneville and the Panthers new-look coaching staff.

3. It’s built, but will they come? 

We’ve all seen it.

Rows upon rows of empty seats at BB&T Center that even a clever bit of camera work can’t fix.

The Panthers had the second-worst attendance in the NHL last season, averaging roughly 13,500 fans per game. On most occasions, that number looked optimistic at best. Consider, too, that the arena is the sixth-largest in the world for hockey events, sporting a capacity of 19,250 on game days.

It’s hard to fault even the most diehard fans after years upon years of losing. The Panthers have made the postseason just twice in the past 18 years.

But that appears to be changing this season. The team is vastly improved and they have a solid farm system to keep the good times rolling once they start, well, rolling.

Will they come?

In a market saturated with big-name sports teams, the Panthers need to win to standout. A decade ago, Tampa Bay was in the bottom third in attendance. Ten years later and having a juggernaut for a team, they’ve been in the top 10 since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

They say if you build it, they will come. We’re about to find out.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s Florida Panthers Day at PHT

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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. 

2018-19
36-32-14, 86 points (5th in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Sergei Bobrovsky
Noel Acciari
Anton Stralman
Brett Connolly
Joel Quenneville – coach

OUT:
Roberto Luongo – retired
James Reimer
Troy Brouwer
Jamie McGinn
Derek MacKenzie
Riley Sheahan

RE-SIGNED:
MacKenzie Weegar
Jayce Hawryluk
Sam Montembeault
MacKenzie Weegar

2018-19 Season Summary

If you’re a Florida Panthers fan, do you even care about last season at this point?

You’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten already.

Florida’s offseason began with the hiring of Joel Quenneville, one of the NHL’s most successful and respect coaches of all-time, and it only kept gaining speed.

The Panthers added Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari up front and Anton Stralman on the backend. And then they signed perhaps the biggest piece that’s been missing, a stud No. 1 goaltender.

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

We can debate back and forth about the merit of a seven-year, $70 million deal all day. What you can’t argue is the fact that the Panthers have taken a massive step toward competing with the big boys in the Atlantic Division.

It makes yet another season of playoff-less hockey a little easier to stomach after how aggressive Dale Tallon has been. It’s had pretty much become a given that the Panthers wouldn’t make the playoffs over the past two decades. They’ve reached the postseason just twice in the past 18 years, an undesirable trend in a market that struggles to put butts in seats.

It’s tough to get anything done with inconsistent goaltending and lackluster team defense, two lowlights of Florida’s fifth-place showing the Atlantic last season.

Even with the ninth-best goals-per-game as a team, the Panthers couldn’t outscore their problems from the blue line backward. They collectively allowed the 28th most goals out of the league’s 31 teams.

Stralman coming in should help that, as should the system Quenneville installs along with Bob’s goaltending.

Up front, the Panthers really just need more of the same from guys like Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Huberdeau. All three hit the 30-goal plateau.

There’s also plenty of secondary scoring off the sticks of Evgenii Dadonov, Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano. All three could conceivably reach the same mark. Trocheck had 31 the year before but was limited to 55 games because of injury last season. Dadonov was two shy with 28 and Vatrano had 24. Brett Connolly, too — and if healthy — showed he can reach at least 20 after playing 81 games last season. He hadn’t played more than 71 in any of his previous seven seasons prior.

And Connolly, a Stanley Cup winner with the Washington Capitals two seasons ago, adds playoff experience, along with Stralman (two Stanley Cup Final appearances) and Acciari (one Cup Final appearance.)

The days of perennial losing in Florida might just be over.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Shattenkirk joins Lightning on one-year deal

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Four days after the New York Rangers bought out the final two years of his contract, Kevin Shattenkirk has found a new team.

Shattenkirk’s new home is a familiar one for former Rangers with the 30-year-old defenseman signing a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Lightning on Monday. He now joins Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, and J.T. Miller as ex-Blueshirts who wound up in Tampa — a.k.a. Rangers South — in the last few years.

In 73 games last season Shattenkirk scored twice and recorded 28 points while battling through the aftermath of knee surgery and nights in the press box as a healthy scratch.

“It’s definitely not a success story,” Shattenkirk said on a Monday conference call. “A lot of these things, they have to be learning experiences.”

The Lightning nearly had Shattenkirk two years ago at the NHL Trade Deadline, but the then-St. Louis Blues defenseman vetoed a deal because he wanted to test the free agent market and not sign an extension before July 1. He was then dealt to Washington before signing a four-year, $26.6 million deal with the Rangers that summer.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Due to Shattenkirk’s buyout, the Rangers will have $1.433 million on their cap until the end of the 2022-23 NHL season and owe him a $2 million signing bonus next July 1. Per Cap Friendly, the Lightning are a little over $9 million from the cap ceiling with only restricted free agents Adam Erne and Brayden Point left to re-sign. That number could rise some once general manager Julien BriseBois figures out their goalie situation with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue and summer acquisitions Curtis McElhinney and Mike Condon. There’s also a move or two for BriseBois to make on the the blue line as it’s now a bit crowded after bringing back Braydon Coburn and Jan Rutta, as well as signing Luke Schenn, who could very well be AHL-bound.

It’s a good signing for both sides. The Lightning take a low-risk gamble on Shattenkirk hoping he can find his offensive form while not feeling the pressure of having to be one of the big contributors on the blue line. For Shattenkirk, he gets a season on a loaded team to find his game again in hopes of being able to cash in next summer in free agency.

“I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now,” said Shattenkirk. “I want to show I’m back to my old self and prove that I can be a player in this league again.”

MORE: Shattenkirk’s New York homecoming ends with buyout

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