Bryan Little

Is there easy fix for Panthers’ continued woes?

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The Florida Panthers should be a lot better than this.

After a nearly miraculous second half surge to close out the 2017-18 NHL season that brought them to within a single point of a playoff spot, the Panthers went out over the summer and added another top-line scorer in Mike Hoffman to a team that already had a pretty good, and extremely affordable, core of high-end forwards in place.

Those forwards are good. Really good.

Aleksander Barkov, still only 23 years old, is one of the game’s best all-around players, and even though his peers around the league view him as underrated, he should be considered a star in the eyes of everyone.

It is not just him that excels at the top of the lineup.

Between Barkov, Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov, the Panthers currently have four of the NHL’s top-45 point producers, including two of the top-20 (Barkov and Huberdeau), with all of them signed to contracts that can definitely be described as “team friendly.”

All of them are signed through at least the end of next season, with none of them counting more than $5.9 million against the salary cap. Those are well below market contracts for what they produce.

That quartet also does not include Vincent Trocheck, a bonafide 25-30 goal, 60-point winger when healthy, and Frank Vatrano, who is already scored 23 goals this season. Add those two in and there is what should be the makings of a contending core in place that has also give the organization (and will continue to give them) plenty of salary cap flexibility to build around them.

Despite all of that, the result this season has been a significant step backwards as they play out the string in what will be yet another lost, forgotten season for a franchise that has known nothing but lost, forgotten seasons for almost its entire existence. The 2018-19 season, when it mercifully wraps up in south Florida, will be the 20th time in their 25 year history that the Panthers have missed the playoffs, and the 16th time over the past 18.

In a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs every year, that is a stunningly depressing run of futility that is made even more frustrating in the short-term because of how much high-end talent there actually is on the roster.

Things have seemingly hit rock bottom over the past week — and emphatically so — with a trio of ugly losses that has seen the team give up seven, seven, and six goals. It is a stretch of games that finally resulted in Trocheck reaching his breaking point on Tuesday night following the latest drubbing, this one at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

“Structurally we can’t give up — I feel like five of their six goals were let them have as much room or as much time as they wanted. Three of their goals were right down the slot or in front of our net,” fumed Trocheck. “It’s just laziness. Not doing your job. It’s just unacceptable to leave our goalies out to dry the last three games, to let up that many goals in three games is an absolute embarrassment.”

When asked what exactly was going wrong with the defensive breakdowns over these past few games, he continued.

“It’s just not paying attention to our system,” he said. “We’re getting away from our system. Somebody is trying to do somebody else’s job, you’re duplicating on guys, and whenever you duplicate obviously someone is going to be open and in the NHL they are going to find that open guy. They did, especially in the first, and that is what leads to goals against. Then it seems like we get down two goals like we did the past couple of games and we let off the gas and we just kinda quit. It’s embarrassing. It’s extremely embarrassing. Every single guy in here should be embarrassed the past three games.”

Harsh words, but not entirely wrong words, either. The defensive structure and commitment to it has been bad, and when you add in sub-par goaltending on top of it you are going to have the type of problems the Panthers currently have.

So how do they fix it?

First, it is never a good sign for a coach when you’re on your way to a second straight non-playoff season behind the bench and one of your top players is talking about how the team “kinda quit” and that they can’t stick to the system. Especially when there is a three-time Stanley Cup winning, high-profile coach just sitting out there without a job right now that also happens to have a history of working with the team’s current general manager and having success.

Second, as laughable as it might be to say about a franchise with the recent track record the Panthers have, there is something to be said for patience when it comes to some of the players on the roster. Specifically the players at the top of the roster.

For years the Winnipeg Jets continued to commit to the same core of players that produced the same mediocre results in the standings year after year. It would almost be a constant running joke every season about how inactive the Jets were from a roster standpoint and never did anything to change things. But they knew the players at the top (player like Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, etc.) were not the problem. They were good, and they stuck with them and waited for the right complementary pieces from within (and a franchise player at the top of the draft in Patrik Laine) to come along and make it so they were no longer being wasted.

Could they have accelerated the timeframe to becoming a contender by maybe being more aggressive in some areas (like finding a new goalie)? Absolutely they could have. But the point is they didn’t sacrifice the players that weren’t a problem in the name of “changing culture” or “changing the mood in the room” or whatever it is bad teams do when they trade their few good players for pennies on the dollar.

They stuck with them, eventually added the right pieces around them, and are now being rewarded with a Stanley Cup contender that is led by those same core players.

In other words, unless somebody absolutely blows their doors off with a trade offer there is literally zero reason to even consider moving the likes of Barkov, Huberdeau, or Trocheck.

Instead, the focus needs to continue to be adding around them because this should still be a core they can win with.

Given how cheaply some of them are signed, combined with the fact they shed some big money in future years by trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two expiring contracts, the Panthers have put themselves in a position to be major players in free agency and ownership seems to have a willingness to spend to the cap this summer. As it stands right now, the Panthers are projected to have around $17 million in salary cap space to play with which could make them the favorites to land pretty much any free agent they wanted.

Speculation for months has centered around the Columbus duo of forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Panarin obviously does nothing to fix the team’s defensive shortcomings, but it also wouldn’t hurt to add another top scorer to the lineup. Bobrovsky is an even trickier situation because even though they need an upgrade in net, they already have two big-money goalies on the roster and for as good as he has been throughout his career you can not ignore the fact signing any soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to the type of contract he would demand on the open market is going to carry some significant risk.

One thing is for certain, though, and that is things have to be shored up defensively.

Maybe that starts behind the bench.

Maybe it has to be a focus on defenders in free agency.

Maybe it is a goalie, whether it is Bobrovsky or somebody else, because for as good as Roberto Luongo has been throughout his career he is starting to finally lose the battle with father time.

Maybe it has to be a combination of all three.

With Barkov, Huberdeau, and a healthy Trocheck the Panthers have some of the most important — and hardest to acquire — pieces in place when it comes to building a contender. With them in place it should not take a full-scale rebuild or total teardown to get to where they want to be.

It is possible to get there quickly if the right pieces are added around them.

A perpetually mediocre team like the Jets was finally able to do it around their core of players.

With money to spend and salary cap space at their disposal this summer, we are about to find out if this current Panthers’ front office is able to do it as well.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Jets visit Ducks on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With 10 games left to play in their season, Winnipeg leads Nashville in the Central and is in line for just the second division title in franchise history. The only time the franchise won their division was when they were the Atlanta Thrashers and won the Southeast Division in 2006-07.

Despite leading the division, Winnipeg has been a mediocre 12-11-2 over the last 25 games, with a minus-3 goal differential during that span.

More recently, however, the Jets have won three straight games, all by one goal, and look more like the team that reached the Western Conference Final last season. After defeating playoff contenders Boston and Calgary, Winnipeg snuck by Los Angeles on Monday 3-2. Kevin Hayes and Kyle Connor both scored, but the Jets blew their two-goal lead before Tyler Myers scored the eventual game-winner late in the second period.

Anaheim is in 14th place in the West and is all but assured to miss the playoffs, which will snap a streak of six straight seasons. That was tied for the second longest active streak in the league with Minnesota, who is still very much alive in the playoff hunt.

Despite their place in the standings, the Ducks have won back-to-back games and six of their last nine games overall. Five of those six wins have come against teams in the playoff hunt.

The Ducks are 9-9-0 since firing Randy Carlyle and replacing him with GM Bob Murray.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Winnipeg Jets at Anaheim Ducks
WHERE: Honda Center
WHEN: Wednesday, March 20, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAMING: You can watch the Jets-Ducks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Patrik LaineMark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler
Kyle Connor – Kevin Hayes – Nikolaj Ehlers
Brandon TanevAdam LowryBryan Little
Mathieu PerreaultAndrew CoppJack Roslovic

Joe MorrowJacob Trouba
Dmitry Kulikov – Tyler Myers
Ben ChiarotSami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

DUCKS
Nick RitchieRyan GetzlafDaniel Sprong
Corey PerryAdam HenriqueTroy Terry
Rickard RakellDevin ShoreJakob Silfverberg
Max JonesDerek GrantCarter Rowney

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Jacob Larsson – Cam Fowler
Jaycob Megna – Korbinian Holzer

Starting goalie: John Gibson

Alex Faust (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Jets taking off at right time

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The expectations were for the Jets coming into this season. Even though they’re not at the top of the Western Conference standings like most people expected, it doesn’t mean that this campaign will be a failure. What happens during the regular season doesn’t really matter to Winnipeg. They’ll be judged on their performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In 2018, a trip to the Western Conference Final was more or less a success. This year, that won’t be the case. Anything short of the Stanley Cup will be a disappointing end to a promising season.

The Jets are deep at every position, which means they can survive injuries come playoff time. Dustin Byfuglien, who is sidelined by an ankle injury right now, has played in just 37 games this season, but they’ve found a way to make it work without him. Of course, getting him back before the start of the postseason would be huge for their chances of going all the way.

“Our back end is deep,” head coach Paul Maurice said, per the Winnipeg Sun. “We have two really, really important defensemen out of our lineup — one of them for half the season in Dustin Byfuglien — and when everyone is healthy I’m gonna have 10 NHL defensemen that can play and three more in the minors that have played for us at some point this year.”

Nathan Beaulieu, who the club acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline, has played an important role while Joe Morrow and Byfuglien have been sidelined.

They’re just as deep at every forward position. Down the middle, they have: Mark Scheifele, Kevin Hayes and Adam Lowry. At left wing, they can rely on Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Brandon Tanev, and Matthieu Perreault. On the right side, It’s Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little (he can also play center) and Jack Roslovic. There’s not many teams that can say they have that much depth (the Tampa Bay Lightning might be the only ones).

The Jets are just getting over a stretch in which they lost three of four games, but they’ve bounced back by winning three in a row over Boston, Calgary and Los Angeles. After tonight’s game against the Ducks, they’ll play four consecutive games against teams currently in a playoff spot (the Golden Knights, Predators, Stars and Islanders) and they’ll also take on a Canadiens team that is just one point out of a position in the postseason.

Winnipeg will finish the season with a four-game road trip that will take them to Chicago, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona.

All that means is that the Jets will have to continue playing this well down the stretch so that they can ride into the playoffs with some positive momentum. This final stretch of games won’t be easy, so going out and finding teams to challenge them shouldn’t be too difficult.

“There’s no panic in our game,” Hayes said. “We keep playing four lines and everyone contributes. It just shows the quality of our team.

“When you think about the Jets, it’s a high-scoring team but these last couple of games we’re playing good defense and squeezing out wins. That’s what it takes at this time of year when you need important points.”

Alex Faust (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

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.

Laine’s cold streak isn’t only warning sign for Jets

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Search Patrik Laine‘s name and you’ll see a lot of pessimism lately, and that makes sense.

After all, the Finnish winger is ice-cold, to the point that you can slice and dice his numbers in a wide variety of unflattering ways, at least if you make sure to skate past the whole “18 goals in November” thing.

The takes really hit a boiling point after possibly Laine’s lowest point as an NHL player. While the Winnipeg Jets managed a 4-3 shootout win against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, Laine only logged 10:55 of ice time, and again — that’s in a game that included a full five-minute overtime of 3-on-3 action. (That “free hockey” accounted for 52 seconds of Laine’s ice time.)

That ice time marks the second-lowest of Laine’s career, but his worst was a game cut short by injuries, so this was the harshest “coach’s decision” the sniper’s faced yet.

The Winnipeg Sun’s Ted Wyman wonders if that tough game was a “wakeup call,” one that might even merit a healthy scratch, and he’s far from the only person cringing at Laine’s numbers.

No doubt about it, the Jets need to make sure that Laine is focused and confident with the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs not much more than two months away.

Is it possible, though, that Laine’s struggles distract from some issues for the Jets? Winnipeg isn’t necessarily in a crisis, but there are some things to consider.

While that trio is dominant, Laine isn’t exactly riding with high-end scorers. During the last month or so, he’s mostly been skating with Bryan Little (a decent but unspectacular center) and Jack Roslovic (an intriguing but unfinished talent). It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if the Jets would be wise to move Little or Roslovic off that combination in favor of Mathieu Perreault, a long-underrated play driver who has played at center in the past.

Either way, it’s clear that injured winger Nikolaj Ehlers is missed, whether Ehlers would line up with Wheeler and Scheifele (allowing Connor to boost Laine), or if Ehlers could join up with Laine.

  • The Jets aren’t lighting opponents up possession-wise.

Perhaps Winnipeg is coasting through the season while saving that “extra gear” for the postseason, but they’re not necessarily dominant by certain measures.

Before that Bruins game, Money Puck tweeted that the Jets have been looking like an “average team” at times in 2018-19, and that they were stronger according to the same expected goals metrics last season. Looking at Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg is middle-of-the-pack by a variety of standards, including Corsi and Fenwick. They can’t explain it away by “shot quality” alone, as they’re middling in high-danger scoring chances, too.

Again, this isn’t to say that the Jets are a “paper tiger.” There’s plenty of talent on hand, and this team’s also dealt with substantial injuries to the likes of Ehlers and Dustin Byfuglien.

That said …

  • They might indeed want to spend at the trade deadline.

On Monday, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun postulated that there might be something of an arms race between the Jets and the Nashville Predators during the deadline (sub required).

Winnipeg was happy with the addition of Paul Stastny last season, and there have been murmurs about Derick Brassard, but this could be a time for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to gamble a bit.

For one thing, this team may very well need a bigger boost than you’d think, at least considering some of the struggles depicted in their underlying numbers.

Really, though, this might be the Jets’ best chance. Both Laine and Connor are due significant raises with their rookie contracts set to expire after this season, and Jacob Trouba needs a new deal as an RFA, too. Much like the Maple Leafs, things could really start to get tight for the Jets once they pay some of their brilliant young players — and they might lose some key ones in the process.

Cap Friendly projects the Jets’ deadline cap space at about $26.45 million. They should spend as much of it as ownership will allow.

***

Again, this situation is far from “doom and gloom,” as the Jets are set to be a competitive team for some time. Maybe some of their sneaky (possession stats) and headline-grabbing (Laine slump) issues could actually inspire this patient franchise to go bold, and possibly win big in the process?

Ultimately, Winnipeg’s challenges – and ambitions – could really spice things up during the trade deadline. Again.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Jets on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning lead the NHL with 76 points, the Western Conference has a tighter race at the top, especially in the Central Division, where Winnipeg currently owns the top spot and has four games in hand on the second-place Nashville Predators.

The Jets are currently on pace for 109 points and 52 wins. Last season, the team set franchise records in both wins (52) and points (114), but they still didn’t win the division (Nashville did w/ NHL-best 117 pts).

All-Stars Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are top two on the team in points at 61 and 59, respectively. Kyle Connor is next with 38. Wheeler, tied for ninth in the NHL in points, is second in the league in assists (52) and although his streak of 20-goal seasons may end at five given he has only nine goals, he’s on pace for 104 points, which would be a career high and break Marian Hossa’s franchise record of 100.

In addition to the All-Star break, both teams are coming off their bye weeks, each having last played on Saturday, Jan. 19.

One of the bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference, the Flyers sit 14 points back of a playoff spot and are on track to continue their trend of missing the postseason the year after making it. From 1995-2012, the Flyers made the playoffs 16 times in a 17-season span. Since then, Philly has made just three postseasons in the last six years and each in alternating years.

Wayne Simmonds, a popular name in trade talks ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline, has played in all 48 games this season and put up 15 goals but just 23 points. He’s on track for his sixth straight season with 24-plus goals but only 39 points, which would be his fewest in a full season since 2011.

The Flyers are 7-8-2 since interim coach Scott Gordon took over for Dave Hakstol. The coaching change was one of several moves in what has been a tumultuous season for the team that has also included letting go of GM Ron Hextall and replacing him with Chuck Fletcher.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Monday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Patrik LaineBryan LittleJack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppMason Appleton

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers
Joe Morrow – Sami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

FLYERS
James van RiemsdykClaude GirouxTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonNolan Patrick – Wayne Simmonds
Phil Varone – Mikhail Vorobyev – Michael Raffl

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereAndrew MacDonald
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.