Anton Stralman

Panthers up to challenge of finding way back to playoffs

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The Florida Panthers were a popular sleeper team pick when we surveyed a number of NHL players at the Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. Adding Joel Quenneville, Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, and getting a full season from a healthy Vincent Trocheck would certainly raise expectations heading into the 2019-20 NHL season. 

Having made the Stanley Cup Playoffs just once in the last seven seasons would up the urgency to turn things around. Owner Vinnie Viola didn’t invest to build a loser, and the expected aggressive off-season from the Panthers’ showed they’re ready to win now. So while some may label them a sleeper team, Jonathan Huberdeau isn’t expecting to surprise anyone.

“I don’t think we are a surprise team anymore,” Huberdeau told NBC Sports. “Obviously, we know our lineup. Our lineup has changed, but not drastically, so we know we are a good team and I am going to follow my teammate Aaron [Ekblad] and say we are the team to beat.”

“Maybe in the past people overlooked us, but right now, I would say we go into this year as the team to beat,” Ekblad told The Athletic in August. Installing Quenneville behind the bench was a good first move to reaching that goal. With a successful history coaching in the league, the expectations to win and play the right way won’t just be coming from outside the dressing room, the head coach will demand that as well.

“He brings a lot,” Huberdeau said. “Winning culture, he has won, he has made the playoffs, he is a guy that lets his players play. We saw Chicago, their system, it looked like they were having a lot of fun, so that is what we want, to have a lot of fun and win some games.”

The Panthers are off to a 1-1-0 start following a home-and-home split with the Lightning. Bobrovsky is known to be a slow starter and the offense outside of Mike Hoffman, who has four of the team’s six goals, is still getting going. The schedule the rest of October isn’t exactly a friendly one with games against the Predators, Avalanche (two), Flames, Hurricanes, among others, coming up.

There are no more excuses, however. The job of building a winning roster is not complete, but positive steps have been made. The Panthers know it’s time to meet expectations

“Right now I think we know we have to make the playoffs and we are going to make the playoffs,” said Huberdeau.

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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.

In Q They Trust: With Quenneville, Panthers eyeing playoffs

SUNRISE, Fla. — It was April 8, the first Monday after the NHL regular season. As 16 teams were getting ready for the playoffs, the Florida Panthers – as usual – were getting ready to begin an offseason. And as workers were smashing the team’s home ice to get the arena floor ready for summer, players were gathered in a big conference room.

They were listening to Joel Quenneville speak as Florida’s coach for the first time.

His message could not have been clearer: Going forward, things must be different.

”I want every one of you guys to remember where you’re at right now and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said. ”Next year, we want to be coming off the ice right now with our skates on and preparing for our first-round opponent.”

Playoffs or bust.

It is a most interesting marriage – a team that hardly ever goes to the playoffs, and a coach who hardly ever misses them. Quenneville has won three Stanley Cups as a coach, his 890 wins are second-most in NHL history and he’s inheriting a Florida core that has seen its potential touted for years but still has yet to contend for a title.

”He’s energetic, easy to talk to and he means business,” Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said. ”He came in, is setting a precedent early and he’s getting the guys’ attention – which is great.”

Quenneville’s hiring in Florida reunited him with Panthers general manager Dale Tallon. Together, they put together the bulk of a team that would win three Stanley Cups in Chicago. Tallon wasn’t around for those hoistings after being let go by the Blackhawks, though Quenneville insists he should be considered a massive part of those titles.

In Florida, they’re looking to rekindle that magic and they have one of the NHL’s best top lines to lead the way in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.

”It’s a special line,” Quenneville said. ”They do a lot of things well together. They know where each other are around the ice. Their patience and play-recognition is high-end. They had such a strong year together and did some good things on the power play as well. So it works.”

Quenneville’s hiring was just one of many big moves by the Panthers in the offseason – with the biggest player splash being the signing of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who’ll replace the now-retired Roberto Luongo as Florida’s No. 1 netminder.

Tallon said he thinks Bobrovsky is the best goalie in the game.

”We’re happy to have him,” Quenneville said.

Here’s what to know about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers:

WHO’S HERE

Coach Joel Quenneville, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Anton Stralman, F Noel Acciari, F Brett Connolly.

WHO’S NOT

G Roberto Luongo (retired), G James Reimer (traded to Carolina), coach Bob Boughner (fired after two seasons).

KEY PLAYERS

The hope for change hinges mainly on Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal and will carry the load in net. Florida’s top six scorers last season – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Keith Yandle and Frank Vatrano – all set career-highs for points, and it still wasn’t enough for a postseason berth. The Panthers will need their offense, and perhaps even more.

OUTLOOK

The first 20 games might tell the story. Over the last 19 years, the Panthers have averaged only 17 standings points in the first 20 games – meaning they almost always fall back in the chase for playoff positioning early, and hardly ever recover. This year, 13 of Florida’s first 20 games are against teams that are coming off trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Survive those, and the Panthers could be off and running.

PREDICTION

The Panthers went out and got who they consider the best coach in Quenneville, who they consider the best goalie in Bobrovsky, added more scoring and figure that they shored up a defense that was too porous too often last season. No more excuses. Not only will Florida get to the postseason for just the third time in the last 19 seasons, the Panthers will actually win a series for the first time since 1996.

Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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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: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

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.

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.

Setting realistic expectations for Rangers, Devils, Panthers after big summer

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The New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, and Florida Panthers were not only three of the busiest teams in the NHL this summer, they also made some of the biggest and most notable roster transactions.

Blockbuster moves in the summer mean big expectations for the season. Sometimes those expectations can be a little too much based on offseason moves and preseason hype.

So what should fans of those three teams be realistically expecting this season after what appears to be a successful summer?

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Florida Panthers

Key additions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, Joel Quenneville
How high should expectations be?
Wild card or bust.

The Panthers are not yet on the same level as the the top-three teams in the Atlantic (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto) but there is no reason the playoffs should not be a minimum expectation this season.

They have high-level players at forward and fixed their single biggest flaw from a year ago with the addition of Bobrovsky. How bad was the Panthers’ goaltending last year? Despite allowing the seventh fewest shots per game, they still managed to allow the fourth most goals thanks to the second-worst save percentage (.891) in the league. Even a .900 save percentage would have trimmed 20 goals off of their total, while a league average (.905) mark would have trimmed off more than 30. Bobrovsky has finished just one of the past seven seasons with a mark lower than .910. Even though Bobrovsky won’t play every game, getting that level of play from him over 50-55 games could make a massive difference. Combine that with a Hall of Fame coach and the returning core they have up front and anything less than a playoff appearance should be considered a significant disappointment.

New Jersey Devils

Key additions: P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Hughes
How high should expectations be: Lower than they probably are

There is a lot to like about what the Devils did this offseason. They added a potential superstar in Hughes, a superstar defender in Subban, they have a healthy Taylor Hall returning to the lineup, and they added two other intriguing forwards in Gusev and Simmonds. And they did not have to give up anything of significance to do any of it. If nothing else the Devils are going to be a LOT more exciting to watch than they have been in recent seasons and they should obviously be better.

There are just a few problems here. For one, the Devils still have a massive question mark in goal and if things go poorly none of their additions are really going to matter all that much. Goaltending will make or break this team, and the current options are not promising.

The other issue is that the new additions are not without their questions. Subban and Simmonds are both on the wrong side of 30 and have shown some signs of slowing down (especially Simmonds). Gusev is extremely intriguing and full of potential, but is still an unknown that could go either way. There are reasons to be optimistic and if everything goes perfectly well this team could be a factor in the playoff race. But the more “what ifs” you add in to a team the more likely it is that something goes wrong.

New York Rangers

Key additions: Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox
How high should expectations be: Compete for a playoff spot

Thanks to a little draft lottery luck and some major spending the Rangers’ rebuild accelerated in a big way this summer thanks to the additions of Panarin and Kakko. That is a ton of impact talent entering the organization in a short period of time.

Normally spending big money on the UFA market is a fools paradise, but there are always exceptions, and players like Panarin tend to qualify as that sort of exception. He is still in his prime, doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his career, and is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He is a game-changer. But even with him, Trouba, and young players like Kakko and Fox it may not be quite enough to make up the sizable gap between them and the Eastern Conference playoff teams.

Are the Rangers are a sure-fire playoff team yet? Probably not, because they still have some questions with their depth and defense. But they should be able to stay in the discussion fairly deep into the season. Why should you like the Rangers’ playoff chances more than their arch-rivals in New Jersey? They have what could be (and should be) far better goaltending and seemingly fewer questions with their new offseason additions.

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.