Brett Connolly

Panthers up to challenge of finding way back to playoffs

2 Comments

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.

————

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.

Five second-year players that will have breakout seasons

Getty

Not every NHL rookie enters the league with a bang. Not everyone can put up 100-point seasons in their first year like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. Some guys need that first year to get used to the pace of play at the NHL level. But a lot guys get a lot more comfortable in year two. So, we’re trying to pick out which players will be a lot more productive in their sophomore seasons.

You won’t find Elias Pettersson, Brady Tkachuk, Rasmus Dahlin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Andrei Svechnikov on this list. Those players will surely take steps forward this year, but they did enough damage last season that they’re not flying under the radar this year. We’re looking for guys who didn’t do much in the regular season that could have an offensive outburst this year. We’ll look at second-year players who picked up fewer than 25 points last season.

Here we go:

Michael Rasmussen, Detroit Red Wings: Rasmussen picked up a pair of goals against the St. Louis Blues in Thursday’s Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Calumet, Mich. The No. 9 overall pick in 2017 has a good combination of size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and skill. He had eight goals and 18 points in 62 games with Detroit last season. The Red Wings are in the middle of a rebuild, which means they could give their youngsters a lot of opportunity in 2019-20.

Jordan Greenway, Minnesota Wild: Greenway scored 12 goals and recorded 12 assists in his first full season with the Wild last year. The 22-year-old power forward could be a difference maker for an aging Minnesota team. Last year wasn’t just his first full season in the NHL, it was also his first full year in professional hockey. Here’s his goal from Thursday night’s game against the Stars. He dishes out a hit and goes to the net:

Henrik Borgstrom, Florida Panthers: Borgstrom managed to get into 50 games with the Panthers last season. The 22-year-old scored eight goals and 18 points in the NHL while adding 22 points in 24 AHL contests with Springfield. The Panthers have a new head coach in Joel Quenneville and new players like Sergei Bobrovsky and Brett Connolly. They should be able to make the leap into the playoffs this year and Borgstrom could be a big factor.

Sam Steel, Anaheim Ducks: Steel is currently sidelined by a lower-body injury, but it’s not believed to be serious. The 21-year-old will get an opportunity to play down the middle this season and he could play with veterans like Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg. He had six goals and 11 points in 22 games with the Ducks last season and he added 41 points in 53 AHL contests.

“There’s a big opportunity for Sammy Steel to step right in and play,” teammate Adam Henrique told The Athletic. “He looks awesome. Looks great. You could see it last year. I think he had an awesome summer. Really prepared himself to take that next step. Has looked great early in camp. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to get better. And that’s going to push our team a long way.”

Luke Kunin, Minnesota Wild: Ryan Donato was slated to start the season as the second-line center for the Wild, but they’ve now moved Kunin into that spot. He could play between Mats Zuccarello and Zach Parise, which could be great for his offensive output. The 21-year-old had six goals and 17 points in 49 games with the Wild last season. He also added 20 points in 28 AHL contests. He has a golden opportunity to make a difference this year.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Washington Capitals

(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: The Capitals have shown a solid knack for spotting value to supplement their longstanding, impressive core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others. Sometimes that means waving goodbye to some of those diamonds in the rough, and this offseason served as an example, as they showed discipline in not overpaying Brett Connolly.

The Capitals have done well to zig and zag with salary cap realities, and in some cases, might have saved money and gotten the better end of the deal (if Radko Gudas and Matt Niskanen perform at the same broad level as last season, Gudas would possibly be the better asset). Richard Panik could be the next bargain pickup like Connolly, though the two bring different benefits to the table.

Still, losing Andre Burakovsky puts the overall balance at “worse.” A lesser GM would have suffered greater losses, though.

Strengths: The Capitals showed in that 2018 Stanley Cup run that, when things boil down to best-on-best, they can come out on top. It didn’t work out quite as well this past year, but with Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov down the middle, some nice wingers beyond Ovechkin, and some solid defense led by John Carlson, the Caps check a lot of boxes.

Braden Holtby has also been one of the most dependable goalies in the NHL, and with contract year motivation, it wouldn’t be shocking if he chased another Vezina.

More often than not, the Capitals have boasted a dangerous power play to boot.

Weaknesses: The Capitals find ways to outscore opponents, but it’s worth noting that they haven’t been elite by certain underlying measures for quite some time. In fact, in 2018-19, the Capitals were under 50 percent by Corsi, Fenwick, expected goals, and so on.

Again, the Capitals have been able to overcome those five-on-five numbers, whether they’ve done so by superior skill or winning quality chance battles. With core players getting older, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals might fail that tightrope walk. Sometimes such declines are subtle; other times, the drop-off can be severe.

[MORE: Three Questions | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It had to sting to see Barry Trotz win a Jack Adams Award during his first season with the Islanders, particularly since Trotz’s team advanced to Round 2, while the Capitals fell in Round 1. Things could heat up in a big way for Todd Reirden if the disappointments start to stack up, but for now, it feels a little early to worry. Let’s put Reirden around a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Holtby, Backstrom, and Gudas.

Three interesting players, three contract years.

Holtby could easily set himself up for a contract that ranges from Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5 million AAV) to Carey Price ($10.5M AAV), but that might hinge on his production in 2019-20. Some of this might depend on how badly he wants to stay in Washington; could he be convinced to take a bit of a discount to try to keep the band together?

Backstrom’s been in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow for some time, and is a big bargain at a $6.7M cap hit. This is his chance to get recognition, and get paid closer to what he’s actually worth.

Gudas has been one of those rare physical, hard-hitting defensemen who actually tends to stand out well from a “fancy stats” standpoint. That said, he didn’t always earn the trust to get much of a prominent role with Philly. Could Gudas prove that he’s a top-four guy, and maybe keep penalties under control? While Backstrom and Holtby are almost certain to get big raises, things could go either way for Gudas.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Capitals have won the Metro for four seasons in a row, and regularly took the Southeast crown when it still existed. They’re rarely fighting for a playoff spot late in years, and sometimes don’t even really need to worry much about seeding.

Maybe they’ll sink a little bit, but this team has what you need to comfortably secure a playoff 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.

Capitals Cup window remains open, though unknowns lie ahead

ARLINGTON, Va. — When the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, they did so after their championship window was supposed to be closed.

Unlike when a roster shake-up and infusion of youth actually augmented the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and John Carlson, the Capitals now face a more immediate challenge. With contracts for Backstrom and Holtby up after this season and Ovechkin after next year, it’s unclear how long this era of success will last.

”With the age of our team, every year is a sense of urgency in my mind,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”It took us a while to get to the point where we did win a championship, and I don’t know how long our window is here. We’re getting a little older, but we also have some good young guys coming up, so I think we can continue to compete at a high level.”

The Capitals still have a potential 50-goal scorer in Ovechkin , a perennial 70-point playmaker in Backstrom, an elite defenseman in Carlson and a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender in Holtby. And with the talent around them, including forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny, Washington is a threat to win the Cup again.

”We have a high expectation here,” second-year head coach Todd Reirden said. ”We expect to be extremely competitive. We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points. That’s the culture that we’ve established, and now we need to continue to build it.”

Ovechkin is 34, Backstrom 31 and Holtby 30. The same salary cap and aging questions that faced the champion Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins will soon confront the Capitals. MacLellan seems to know when to make free agency moves (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in 2014), when to let key players go (Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams in 2017) and when to dole out big contract extensions (Kuznetsov and Oshie in 2017 and Carlson and Wilson in 2018).

The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning and defending conference champion Boston Bruins remain formidable challengers in the East . Just in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins and New York Islanders aren’t going away and the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers all got better.

But the Capitals are still an established power to be reckoned with.

WHO’S HERE

Free agent signings Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were brought in to revamp the bottom six forward spots. Rugged defenseman Radko Gudas, acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, is the Orpik replacement on defense because of the size and muscle he brings.

”Some of the players we added were not by accident,” Reirden said. ”That’s what you can look to see: some guys that aren’t necessarily all that fun to play against.”

WHO’S NOT

Niskanen was a salary-cap casualty sent to Philadelphia for Gudas, and forward Brett Connolly left in free agency to sign a $14 million, four-year deal with Florida. Reirden will coach a team without Orpik for the first time in his decade in the NHL after the 38-year-old retired and moved into Washington’s player development department.

”His strength as a person and as a leader will translate well into the role he’s in,” MacLellan said. ”Most of the young guys in our organization already know him. There’s a comfort there with him. He’s just fresh out of the gate, so he’s up to date on all our coaches, all of the guys in our room, so it’s a great fit for the organization.”

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the season after being suspended by the league for inappropriate conduct stemming from a positive cocaine test at the world championships and a meeting with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

KEY PLAYERS

This team is still led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, and also features Kuznetsov and backstopped by Holtby. The play6er to watch is Wilson, who is coming off a career year of 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games.

Wilson, 25, wants to be more consistent, and the sky’s the limit if he stays out of suspension trouble and plays close to 80 games.

”The offense obviously is everyone’s big thing over the years,” Wilson said. ”That’s got to continue to be there. If you’re playing (big) minutes and you’re playing on the first line you have to be able to chip in, and that’s what I plan to do.”

OUTLOOK

For the first time fans should get to see what Reirden hockey truly looks like. He took over for Barry Trotz after the Cup celebration and a short summer that didn’t give him much time to overhaul systems. The Capitals could look like a different team.

”You can expect us to be more aggressive in different areas of the ice,” Reirden said. ”You can expect us to play that type of style of game where our speed and skating is a really important factor for us.”

PREDICTION

Washington should win the Metropolitan Division for a fifth consecutive season and with better injury fortune make it out of the first round. In what could be Holtby’s final playoff run, his play in goal will go a long way to determining how far the Capitals go.

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.