NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
In their game on Monday night, MacKenzie Weegar put the Panthers ahead 1-0 just over three minutes into the first period. The Flyers then scored four straight goals to win 4-1. James van Riemsdyk had a goal and assist in the win.
Philadelphia currently sits in the second Wild Card spot in the East and are three points behind the Islanders, who sit in third place in the Metro. Florida sits two points behind Toronto for third place in the Atlantic, while the Panthers have a game in hand on the Maple Leafs. They are three points behind the Flyers for the second Wild Card in the East.
After a quick trip to Florida, the Flyers have a home-and-home against the Blue Jackets, who currently sit just one point above Philadelphia in the Metropolitan Division. This is the second of a three-game road trip for the Flyers. The Flyers have earned points in five of their last six on the road (3-1-2), but are coming off a loss in Brooklyn against the Islanders.
Playing with eight defensemen at New Jersey on Tuesday, the Panthers fourth line consisted of center Noel Acciari and two defensemen, Mark Pysyk and Mike Matheson. The makeshift line combined for nine points in the win, as all three players put up three-point nights (1G-2A each). Matheson, who is in the second year of an eight-year contract, played forward for the first time this season after being a healthy scratch in Florida’s previous game (4-1 loss at Philadelphia on Monday).
John Forslund will call the action from BB&T Center alongside Pierre McGuire. Paul Burmeister hosts studio coverage alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Mike Johnson.
Thursday night’s coverage of Capitals-Avalanche will be the second half of an NHL doubleheader on NBCSN, immediately following originally-scheduled coverage of Flyers-Panthers, which begins at 7 p.m. ET. Pre-game coverage at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.
WATCH LIVE: Jets battle Panthers in Finland on NBCSN
NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday afternoon’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers at 2 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
The Jets are looking to rebound after blowing a 2-0 lead in the third period last Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Losers of two out of their past three, the Jets are looking to climb the Central Division standings with a win in the first of a back-to-back in Finland as part of the NHL’s Global Series.
Meanwhile, the Panthers need to start winning. With just two wins in their first nine games of the season, the Panthers sit dead last in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.
James Reimer gets the nod in net for the Panthers. Reimer has struggled in the absence of Roberto Luongo, posting just a single win in five game starts. His .878 save percentage leaves a lot to be desired and he’s in tough against the high-powered Jets offense.
Reimer will face off against Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck’s season hasn’t started in the same vein as it did when he won 44 games last year. He’s 4-4-1 with a pedestrian .907 save percentage in nine starts.
If you want a sign of a GM/front office with power, observe moments when a marginal player gets a somewhat bafflingly long contract extension.
On one hand, congrats to Colton Sceviour, who surely works hard for the three-year extension he signed today; it’s reportedly worth $1.2 million per year, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. He’s getting rewarded for being a diligent penalty killer, and this should help him limit the risk of becoming a “journeyman” player.
Since Sceviour joined the #FlaPanthers in 2016-17, he’s logged the second-most shorthanded ice time among all Panthers forwards (272:39). Florida has had the fifth-best PK unit (83.1 pecent) in the NHL since the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
Still, it’s a little confounding that the Florida Panthers would be so compelled to lock up yet another piece of a roster that’s not exactly setting the world on fire.
#FlaPanthers fans: “wow Adam Mascherin is having a great year. Can we sign him please?”@FlaPanthers: “Did you say Colton Sceviour?” Fans: “no, we said Mas—“ Panthers: “3-year extension” Fans: “I mean that’s good too but—“ Panthers: “for Colton Sceviour”
At least those teams were trying to perpetuate past successes, though.
The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, and even with bargain contracts for fantastic players in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck, it’s tough to say if they’re much closer today. They’ve only made it to the playoffs twice in the last six seasons, and only four times since that John Vanbiesbrouck-fueled run.
You’d think this team would be light on commitments as something of a message to players to “earn” their deals, but instead there are a ton of players locked up to lengthy deals.
Again, in the case of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck, that’s a very good thing. Barkov and Huberdeau are absolute steals at $5.9 million per year, with Huberdeau covered until 2022-23, while Barkov’s locked up until 2021-22.
Still, it’s a little unsettling how “locked in” this team is, what with Florida almost certain to miss the playoffs once again.
Forwards signed through at least 2019-20:
Huberdeau ($5.9M through 2022-23), Barkov ($5.9M, 2021-22), Trocheck ($4.75M through 2021-22), Nick Bjugstad ($4.1M through 2020-21), Evgeni Dadonov ($4M through 2019-20), and Sceviour ($1.2M through 2020-21).
Again, the Panthers’ roster construction looks a lot like that of a team in the middle of a championship window, where they’ve had to take on some risky contracts to reward successes. Only, the successes have been minimal in Florida. It’s tough not to think back to GM Dale Tallon commenting on being fully in control again, and then to observe what looks like a risk-heavy roster.
To be fair, there are some real bargains on this team, and they’ve shown flashes of brilliance even during a couple of dire years. They’ve also dealt with injuries to both Luongo and Reimer. While Bobby Lou might simply be in that phase of his career, you’d hope Reimer will enjoy better luck in the future. Oddly enough for a team with such lengthy, pricey investments in goalies, they might want to ponder another option, especially if Luongo is charting a course toward the LTIR in the future.
Beyond that, the Panthers need to get the most out of an expensive defense. That starts with Ekblad, who signed a mammoth deal that won’t be easy to live up to. Still, if he can make strides during his career, it will be much easier to stomach, especially since Florida is saving with other marquee guys at forward.
All things considered, Tallon & Co. can salvage this, likely by finding decent bargains around those pricey core players, and also by making sure that they’re making the most out of coaching and development.
So it’s not all bad, yet it’s a bit head-scratching to realize just how many players have long-term security on a team that’s seemingly stuck in puck purgatory, year after year.
Back in 2013-14 the Colorado Avalanche came out of nowhere to win 52 games and, somewhat shockingly, make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It came just one year after they finished with the second-worst record in the league and with a first-year coach (Patrick Roy) behind the bench. As exciting as they were at times there was still a lot of evidence to suggest their success was a one-year mirage driven by incredible goaltending and some insane shooting luck, all of which was almost certain to regress the next season.
That, of course, was exactly what happened and over the next three years as the team steadily regressed before completely bottoming out again this past season with a 48-point season that was the worst single season (excluding the lockout season) performance of any team in the league since the introduction of the three-point game in 2005-06.
(Yes, they were even worse than the Buffalo Sabres teams that were tanking in an effort to get Connor McDavid.)
For as bleak as things looked in the standings, the one glimmer of hope the Avalanche always had was that they did have some young individual talent on the roster that could have (perhaps even should have) been the foundation of a really good team.
At the top of that list has always been Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 and one of the driving forces behind Colorado’s surprising one-year turnaround in 2013-14.
But like the rest of the Avalanche players around him, MacKinnon also saw his performance regress in recent years. He still produced like a solid top-six forward, but wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard the way you like, or even expect, a No. 1 pick and franchise cornerstone to light up the scoreboard.
That is starting to change this season.
Entering play on Thursday MacKinnon, who is still only 22 years old, is the fifth-leading scorer in the NHL and is on pace to to shatter pretty much all of his previous career highs.
He is also playing like a one-man human highlight reel on many nights, literally doing it all on his own at times.
Just half way through the season he is only five points away from matching his point total from the entire 2016-17 season.
There have been a couple of changes for him this season when it comes to his results.
The big one — and this is probably oversimplifying it a bit — the puck is actually going in the net for him.
After scoring 24 goals in his rookie season, MacKinnon came back the past three seasons and had one of the worst shooting percentages of any top-player in the league. Of the 145 forwards that recorded at least 400 shots on goal between 2014-15 and 2016-17, MacKinnon’s 7.4 shooting percentage during that stretch was better than only six players — Dustin Brown, Trevor Lewis, Jason Pominville, Carl Soderberg, Colton Sceviour and Patrick Sharp. Not really the group of players you would expect a player of his ability to be lumped in with in any context.
In 2016-17 alone his 6.4 mark was the fourth-worst among 135 forwards that recorded at least 150 shots on goal.
Because he still averaged more than three shots on goal per game during that stretch he was still able to, at times, put up some respectable goal-scoring numbers. Whatever the cause of that decline, whether it was just an unfortunate run of bad luck over several seasons, a change to his game or shot locations, or a combination of all of those factors, it put a significant dent in his production. So far this season that has changed in a big way as his shooting percentage has climbed back up over 10 percent and he has already topped his goal total from all of last season.
But it’s not just MacKinnon’s goal-scoring that has taken a step forward this season. His playmaking has also improved, and it’s not just in terms of the total number of assists.
So far this season 24 of MacKinnon’s 31 assists have been the primary assist on an Avalanche goal, which is more than 77 percent of his total assists. A year ago he only had 26 primary assists all season (out of 37 assists … 70 percent) and he only had 15 (out of 31 total assists … 48 percent) in 2015-16.
Combine all of that with a 51.8 Corsi percentage (second on the team) and you have a player that is driving the Colorado offense in every way possible. He’s pushing the pace, he’s scoring goals, and he’s the primary playmaker. He is doing everything you want a franchise player to do. Along with Mikko Rantenen and Gabriel Landeskog — two players he has seen significant time with this season, and especially lately — and rookie center Alexander Kerfoot and the Avalanche once again have an intriguing group of forwards they not only should be able to build around, but also have them in contention for a playoff spot this season.
Considering where the Avalanche were a season ago, along with the fact they did not really make many changes to the roster during the offseason, then traded Matt Duchene during the season, it is a pretty significant turnaround.
As of Thursday the Avalanche have won more games than they have lost this season and are three points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with two games in hand. Between the Dallas Stars, Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Avalanche there are five teams fighting for the two Wild Card spots in the west that are all currently on pace for between 90 and 93 points.
Whether or not the Avalanche have enough to get there remains to be seen, especially given their continued problems when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. But they are still right in the thick of that playoff race and MacKinnon’s emergence as one of the top offensive players in the league and the franchise cornerstone they expected him to be when they made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 is a big reason why.
If you’re not too familiar with the Panthers it might seem like a pretty significant investment (and to be fair, even if you are familiar with the Panthers it is a significant investment) but since the start of the 2016-17 season no player on the team has played more even-strength minutes than the 23-year-old Matheson.
He is clearly a player that the organization trusts and one that it sees as a long-term building block.
Now that he is locked in through the end of the 2025-26 season, let’s take a look at the long-term salary cap outlook for the Panthers.
Six of those players are age 25 or under. The only three that are not are Yandle, Reimer, and Luongo.
Together that group of nine players accounts for $47.3 million in salary cap space.
Most of them look like solid investments
While the Panthers have a significant chunk of their roster locked in for at least the next three or four years they don’t really have many deals that look like they will be a problem in the future.
The only two players on the team that carry a salary cap hit of more than $6 million per season are Ekblad ($7.5 million) and Yandle ($6.3 million).
They are also the only two players on the roster that crack the top-75 salary cap hits in the NHL.
Assuming Ekblad bounces back from what seemed to be a bit of a regression a season ago his contract could look like a steal. In the future. A young, top-pairing, all-situations defender that can play at the level Ekblad showed in his first two years in the league not only doesn’t come cheap, they usually end up costing more than what his $7.5 million cap hit is.
Yandle’s deal carries a bit of a risk simply because of his age. He is already 31 years old and signed for five more years after this one.
Up front Nick Bjugstad ($4.1 million per year through 2020-21) needs to stay healthy to get his career back on track, but Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck will only cost the Panthers $16.7 million per season for the next four years. All of them are legitimate 25-goal, 50-60 point players when healthy.
No more core players are in line for a new deal anytime soon
Because the Panthers were so aggressive in getting their young players signed, and because they have so many young players on their roster, they have a ton of cost certainty over the next few years. The only players that will be unrestricted free agents after this season are Radim Vrbata and Colton Sceviour, while the only restricted free agents are Jared McCann, Connor Brickley, Alex Petrovic and MacKenzie Weegar.