Evgenii Dadonov

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 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.

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

What Devils can expect from Gusev

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There is a very strong argument to be made that Nikita Gusev has been the best hockey player in the world that was not already playing in the NHL.

Now that he is officially a member of the New Jersey Devils we will finally get a chance to see what he is capable of in North America.

Anytime a player makes the jump from a European league to the NHL there is always some uncertainty as to what they will be able to do, and that always carries some risk when teams are investing millions of dollars in them. Sometimes the gamble works, and sometimes it does not.

If you are a Devils fan and looking for reasons for optimism that Gusev will be one of the success stories, it is that the players that are most similar to him in terms of age and production in the KHL have mostly succeeded in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The table below is a quick breakdown of some similar players.

It looks at what each forward did in their two previous seasons in the KHL (sorted by points per game) and what they then produced after signing in the NHL. As you can see, the players most similar to Gusev have, for the most part, been extremely productive.

Radulov and Kovalchuk are, admittedly, not completely perfect comparisons here because they both had NHL experience before they went to the KHL (Kovalchuk was an NHL superstar) and there was at least some sense as to what they were capable of.

But Gusev’s production is right in line (or better) than what Artemi Panarin, Evgenii Dadonov, Radulov, and Kovalchuk did before making their jumps back to the NHL. All of them are currently top-line forwards.

Kovalchuk’s return to Los Angeles this season is viewed as a disappointment, but he is also significantly older than the others in that group and still managed to score at a 20-goal pace on a miserable Kings team that lacked any offensive creativity around him. The only comparable player that did not have any success in the NHL was Vadim Shipachyov, and the circumstances around his failure in Vegas are still a mystery as that relationship seemed destined for a divorce before it even had a chance to begin. We still don’t know what he could have been capable of with a real shot.

The only other players that really flopped in making the jump (Sergei Plotnikov, Valeri Nichushkin) were not even close to the same level of production in the KHL.

There are still no guarantees, but given his age and what he did recently in Russia there is at least reason to believe he can be closer to a Panarin, Dadonov, or Radulov than a Plotnikov or Nichushkin.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him for two years
One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Early look at 2020 NHL free agent class

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The 2019 NHL free agent class has mostly been picked over and is now down to the bargain bin of reclamation projects (and, for some reason, Jake Gardiner).

So let’s start taking a look to the summer of 2020 and the list of names that could be available next summer.

There is a pretty extensive list of big names entering their contract year, including the captain of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a recent NHL MVP, and two core players for the Washington Capitals.

Will all of them end up hitting the free agent market? Of course not, they never do because teams do not let their core players get away. But some of them will hit the open market, and it is never too early to start looking at the potential options.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take an early look at the list of potential 2020 free agents.

To the rankings!

1. Nicklas Backstrom Still one of the best all-around centers in the NHL. He is entering the final year of a 10-year, $67 million contract that proved to be an absolute steal for the Capitals given how much Backstrom has contributed over the past decade. The only potential flaws with Backstrom as a free agent: He will turn 33 years old in his first year of a new contract, so you will definitely not be getting the best hockey of his career, and, quite honestly, the Capitals are probably going to keep him.

2. Taylor Hall The 2017-18 NHL MVP is one of the best wingers in the league and contract talks between him and the Devils seem to be slow. If the team does not take a big step forward this season it might be all the incentive he needs to hit the open market. He lost most of this past season to injury, but he is still an impact, top-tier player and a big comeback year will only boost his value even more.

3. Jared Spurgeon This may seem a little high considering some of the other names potentially available next offseason, and especially on defense, but do you know what? Jared Spurgeon is really, really, really good. He may not put up the biggest offensive numbers among defenders in this class, but he is a darn good player that logs a lot of tough minutes, doesn’t get sheltered, and still manages to help his team finish on the plus side when it comes to goals, shots, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is a top-pairing defender and a great all-around player and the Wild seem to understand that. If we are to believe the words of general manager Paul Fenton this summer, they intend to re-sign him. Odds he actually hits the open market: Low.

4. Alex Pietrangelo Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, but you can be sure there is going to be a Stanley Cup tax attached to his next contract. Meaning, when you are the captain of a recent Stanley Cup winner your value immediately skyrockets even more. Given how important he is to the Blues (he is their best defender and one of their top players) they will probably be the team paying it.

5. Roman Josi Josi’s contract has been an unbelievable steal for the Predators for the past six years, counting just $4 million against the salary cap since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time he has had four top-10 finishes in Norris Trophy voting and been one of the most productive defenders in the league, scoring at least 12 goals every season and currently sitting in fourth in total points and sixth in goals among defenders.

6. Braden Holtby Along with Backstrom, the Capitals also have to deal with a contract for their starting goalie. That is two significant core players whose contracts are expiring at the same time, and that is going to present a lot of challenges. If the Capitals have to choose to let one go, Holtby might be the smart choice. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract in Florida is probably the measuring stick for what Holtby can — and will — get, and that just may not be the best use of cap space for the Capitals.
Holtby can still be dominant, but he has shown signs of slowing down over the past two years.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

7. Torey Krug Krug doesn’t look the part of a top-pairing defender and he doesn’t play the toughest minutes in Boston, but there is still a ton of value in an offensive, puck-moving defender that can help drive possession and offense. The problem for the Bruins in keeping him is going to be that they have a lot of contracts to juggle over the next year, including one major contract this summer with their best defender, Charlie McAvoy.

8. Tyson Barrie It is going to be interesting to see what happens to his production in Toronto. He has always been an outstanding and productive defender, and now he gets to feed the puck to a deep, talented group of forwards. Given Toronto’s salary cap situation, as well as the fact one of their other top-defenders, Jake Muzzin (more on him in a second) is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, they are going to have to let someone go.

9. Jake Muzzin — One of the most underrated defenders of his era because he was always overshadowed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. Muzzin is an outstanding defensive player but can also move the puck and chip in some offense.

10. Evgenii Dadonov Since returning to the NHL Dadonov has been one of the most productive forwards in the league. He will be 31 at the start of the next deal so you have to be prepared for some decline.

11. Justin Faulk Faulk has been the subject of trade rumors for years now, and he may finally be nearing the end of his time with the Hurricanes one way or another. He is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table offensively and given how tight Carolina’s salary cap situation is starting to get as its young players get better and more expensive, it may not be possible to keep him.

12. Mikael Granlund His debut with the Predators after the trade probably did not go as planned for him or the team, but that’s a ridiculously small sample size and shouldn’t — and doesn’t — outweigh what he has done over the past few years. He is a top-line scorer and should still have a few years of top-line play ahead of him.

13. T.J. Brodie Everything about Brodie’s resume looks great, but there is one big concern that is a bit of a red flag — He is a different (and not as good) player when he is not on the ice next to Mark Giordano. They will not be going as a package deal.

14. Chris Kreider Given the Rangers’ rebuild and what is a reasonable future expectation for Kreider, the Rangers would be wise to consider trading him right now. As long as he does not lose his speed he should still be a good player for a few more years, but there is no guarantee he maintains his current level of play.

15. Mike Hoffman He is a bit of a one dimensional player, but the one dimension is a useful one. He can score. A lot. He is coming off of a huge season in Florida and another big season could price him out of the Panthers’ cap situation, especially if they want to also keep Dadonov.

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.