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.
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.
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.
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.
As his new players watched from the back of the room, Joel Quenneville had a message to them during his introductory press conference as Florida Panthers head coach.
“I want everyone of you guys to remember where you’re at right now, and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said Monday. “Next year we want to be right now coming off the ice with our skates on and we’re preparing for our first-round opponent, and you’re going to know that when you’re on that ride it’s the ride of a lifetime and the memories are going to be ever-lasting.”
The Panthers, who have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in the last seven seasons, hope that is the reality a year from now. The move to open up the wallet and splash the cash for Quenneville — a reported five-year deal worth north of $30 million — is the first step in an aggressive off-season for the franchise.
“We need to win now,” said team president and CEO Matthew Caldwell.
“This is a great start. This is a good kick off to it, I think,” said Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, who added he was “giddy like I’ve never been before” after landing Quenneville. “We’re going to put our heads together and we’re going to come together with a great plan. We have a great core of young players and we’re going to take this to another level.”
Quenneville’s resume put him on a level where he would be sought after hard by NHL teams and would have his choice of where he coached next. So why the Panthers? He sees a parallel with his new team that he did in 2008 when Tallon promoted him to the Chicago Blackhawks’ head coaching job.
“I believe that this team is close to winning,” said Quenneville, who was fired in November by the Blackhawks. “I was fortunate to be the luckiest guy in the world when I walked into the Chicago situation there — a team ready, sitting on go to win. I feel the same thing here now.”
Quenneville has seen it from the outside, saying he believes the Panthers have the “ingredients to win” and that he wasn’t going to return behind a bench if didn’t believe the team was a Stanley Cup contender.
With the Panthers primed to miss the playoffs for the third straight year (and continue their drought of playoff series wins that stretches back to 1995-96), there was some concern that the Panthers might get antsy and blow things up a bit. Rumors circulated that the Panthers might have had some interest in trading Mike Hoffman, or even more troublingly, Jonathan Huberdeau.
Well, sometimes the best move you can make is no move at all.
Many people were excited about the Panthers’ chances this season after their strong finish to 2017-18, particularly when you consider Florida’s best forwards. Florida could win many best-versus-best battles with a stockpile of Aleksander Barkov, (a healthy) Vincent Trocheck, Evgenii Dadonov, Huberdeau, and Hoffman.
After the trade deadline, Tallon made it clear that the Panthers want to go big in free agency.
“We’ll be very aggressive after the season,” Tallon said on Feb. 25, via the Panthers’ website. “We have lots of room now. We have lots of picks. We’ll turn this into a positive thing. We had some bunt singles, to scratch and claw to improve our organization on a daily basis, and then we’ll eventually hit the home run.”
Affording those sluggers
Indeed, the Panthers moving contracts to clear up space (such as Bjugstad’s $4.1M cap hit) opens up room for Florida to work with. Cap Friendly places their cap spending at a bit more than $61M for 14 players heading into 2019-20, and it’s conceivable that the Panthers could fill roster spots with potentially useful players on entry-level deals, including Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett.
So, there could be quite a bit of room for Panarin and Bobrovsky, but if Florida wanted them both and the combined price tag fell around $20M, it might require some tweaking — even if rookie contracts for Borgstrom and Tippett keep spending down a bit.
The Panthers’ buckets of draft picks might be just as useful for moving problems out, as those picks might actually be for drafting prospects. They’ve really piled them up lately, as Jameson Olive of the Panthers’ site notes:
Looking ahead to the draft, Florida now owns a total of nine picks in 2019 and eight in 2020, including two picks in the first round, two in the second, three in the third and four in the fourth.
Would a package of certain picks convince, say, the Senators to take on James Reimer ($3.4M cap hit through 2020-21) and get to the cap floor? Perhaps Tallon’s old buddies in Chicago would involve picks in a deal for Corey Crawford if a Bobrovsky contract didn’t happen?
There are a number of ways the Panthers can open up space for Panarin in a home-run swing, including the admittedly grim idea of Roberto Luongo‘s quite legitimate injury concerns ultimately landing him on LTIR.
But credit the Panthers with giving themselves a chance at a grand slam, rather than just a solo homer …
Calling their shot
Because, frankly, the Panthers have been through enough rebuilds and quasi-rebuilds at this point. The stage is set for 2019-20 potentially being the old Babe Ruth/Owen Nolan “calling their shot” moment.
With a congested market for forwards at the trade deadline, getting the maximum return for Mike Hoffman didn’t seem realistic. And, honestly? The Panthers wouldn’t be likely to top Hoffman’s considerable sniping skills at his $5.188M cap hit, which expires after 2019-20.
(Huberdeau’s incredibly valuable, too, and his bargain $5.9M is cost-controlled through 2022-23.)
Adding Panarin, or even a consolation prize like Matt Duchene, to an already robust group of forwards could make the Panthers downright scary.
The goaltending situation is trickier, but considering how injury-plagued and generally disappointing this season has been for the Luongo – Reimer tandem, it’s also easy to imagine the Panthers upgrading in that regard.
Going big after Bobrovsky would be awfully risky — although maybe Panarin + Bobrovsky would accept a mild discount as a package deal? Maybe they’d even be willing to go that much lower for the Panthers, who allow for certain tax breaks as a Florida team?
There are big stakes here, and the Panthers could really suffer if they swing and whiff.
Instead of this being an off season because of contract distractions or just plain-old goalie struggles, 2018-19 Bobrovsky could be, more or less, the Bobrovsky we might expect going forward.
It’s plausible that Panarin, Duchene, and other, more valuable forwards will decide to re-sign with Columbus after all, or want to join a more established team than Florida.
There are nightmare scenarios where Plans A-Y fall through, and the Panthers waste a ton of money on an ill-advised Plan Z.
Still, for a franchise that’s often felt aimless, the Panarin target seems like something to shoot for. There’s already considerable talent on hand in Florida, and there’s room to work with to really bring things to the next level. It was wiser not to take a few steps backward, even if it remains to be seen if they can land the big leap that awaits.
History is already repeating itself in an unpleasant way for the Florida Panthers, as they look all but certain to miss the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 seasons. You almost have to try to fail enough not to win a playoff series since 1995-96.
The good news is that the Panthers have amassed a tantalizingly talented group, and they can supplement that core with the right mix of luck and skill. You know, as long as they don’t keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.
“It’s a rumor, we don’t know if it’s true,” Huberdeau said on Tuesday. “I’m just going to play here for now. We’re trying to make a push for the playoffs and I am going to do everything I can. We’ll see what happens.”
Let’s dig into Huberdeau’s underrated value, the many questions Florida faces during a pivotal crossroads moment for the franchise, and the other, wiser routes they should take.
Huberdeau is a crucial building block
If the Maple Leafs have shown us anything with William Nylander and Auston Matthews (and soon Mitch Marner), it’s that young, high-end players aren’t going to be cheap on second contracts much longer. With that in mind, teams that do have high-end players locked up on bargain contracts should guard them as jealously as a child with ice cream.
Huberdeau is just 25, and his bargain cap hit is $5.9 million. That’s the same as Aleksander Barkov‘s deal, but Huberdeau’s contract runs one extra year (through 2022-23) than Barkov’s does (2021-22). Considering Vincent Trocheck‘s deal ($4.75M cap hit through 2021-22), the Panthers boast one of the most enviable cores in hockey because they could very well afford more pieces.
Not only that, but Huberdeau’s having a fantastic season while suffering from fairly bad luck.
His shooting percentage of 9.4 percent is his lowest since 2014-15, and his on-ice shooting percentage is 6.9 percent, the second-worst mark of his career. Despite not getting bounces, Huberdeau’s had a great season, generating 13 goals and 52 points in 55 games.
Honestly, if every GM made rules like “don’t trade a player when they’re experiencing some of their worst shooting percentages of their careers,” then a boatload of the NHL’s dumbest trades would never happen.
Yes, Panarin is better than Huberdeau, but the gap isn’t as big as you might expect, and who knows how many million more Panarin will cost than Huberdeau’s $5.9M? Will it be $10M per year, or $11M? Maybe more?
Huberdeau compares fairly well to Panarin, a full-fledged star. The Panthers shouldn’t move Huberdeau to get Panarin; instead, they should explore every avenue to get both on their team.
Looking at Panarin from a wide variety of angles, it’s resounding just how clearly he’s worth the hype. To an extent, it makes sense that some might see moving Huberdeau as a the price of doing business.
It’s just that the Panthers would be far wiser to pay a different price, as Huberdeau’s a gem.
If the thinking is that the Panthers need to trade away Huberdeau to secure Panarin and Bob, the Panthers should do some soul-searching about Bobrovsky.
Don’t get me wrong. Goaltending has been the Panthers’ achilles heel, and while Bobrovsky’s .903 save percentage this season is troubling, Bob has a credible argument that he’s been the best goalie in the NHL since he joined the Blue Jackets.
Still, Bobrovsky is 30 and will turn 31 in September, and the Panthers already have almost $8M in cap space tied up in Roberto Luongo (39, $4.53M cap hit through 2021-22) and James Reimer (30, $3.4M through 2022-23). Yes, there are ways to alleviate some of the pressures; Luongo’s health might credibly land him on LTIR at some point in the semi-near future, and Reimer could be a buyout target.
This Panthers team might have a budget, though, and what if Bobrovsky trends closer to the backup-level goalie he’s been this season than the two-time Vezina-winner from the past?
Florida might be better off trying to find the next Robin Lehner, rather than risking Bobrovsky having a contract as scary as that of Carey Price or … well, their other two goalies.
Don’t force it
Moving Huberdeau to try to proactively lock down Panarin and Bobrovsky has some logic to it, but it would be a massive overpay.
Most obviously, the Panthers could just wait and see if Panarin and Bobrovsky would come to them via free agency, without costing them a single asset. If they’d sign extensions with Florida, wouldn’t they sign with them in July?
But the concerns about Bob bring up another possibility: maybe a Plan B would work better, overall?
The free agent market is reasonably robust with forwards. Maybe Mark Stone or Matt Duchene would want to soak up the sun and give Florida a boost? Overextending for Panarin and especially Bobrovsky could be a rough value proposition.
Move someone else
The Panthers also have plenty of other pieces to work with.
They could still get at least something for Derick Brassard and/or Riley Sheahan. Jamie McGinn’s $3.33M is about to come off the books, so that can help even if it just makes a splashy free agent more affordable.
(According to Cap Friendly, the Panthers currently have about $58.5M devoted to 13 players; if the cap goes to $83M, that would give them about $24.5M.)
Thanks to the Nick Bjugstad and Alex Petrovic trades, the Panthers have picks in every round again, including three fourth-rounders. Those picks might not be appealing to the Blue Jackets in a potential Panarin trade, but if the Senators decide to move Stone and/or Duchene, suddenly Florida could be in that mix.
If trading Huberdeau is as much about clearing money as anything else, then there are much better ways to ease financial tensions. Perhaps the Panthers could bribe someone to absorb the full cost of Reimer’s contract, even if costs a pick or two?
Status quo isn’t so bad
Trying to add a big player makes a lot of sense for Florida, but blowing up what they have by recklessly giving up Huberdeau in a sell-low situation isn’t the best way to get better.
And don’t forget, Florida could be on the verge of adding some other nice pieces.
Henrik Borgstrom isn’t setting the NHL on fire, but he’s just 21, and many believe the big forward has serious potential. Many scouts are also excited about Owen Tippett, who’s about to turn 20 on Feb. 16.
The prospect of those prospects making bigger jumps might prompt some to say “OK, then, trade Huberdeau; they can replace him.” Instead, it should inspire the Panthers to take a more zen-like approach.
If you’re going to move any fully formed forward, you’d be better off moving Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, as both are only under contract through 2020-21. Yet, even in those cases, they’re both cost-effective, quality players.
Tallon should instead envision Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck, Hoffman, Dadonov, Borgstrom, Tippett, and a free agent giving the Panthers a mix of high-end skill and unusual-for-2019 depth.
Really, the Panthers’ biggest question might be: is Bob Boughner the right guy as head coach? Publicly speaking, Tallon at least seems to think so.
Tallon, on @SiriusXMNHL, said the coaching staff has done a good job and he looks forward to many years with Boughner.
Overall, it makes sense that the Panthers want to add Panarin and Bobrovsky, or other big pieces. This team is getting impatient, and maybe doesn’t believe that it’s an option to sit idly by.
People make mistakes when they’re desperate, though, and the concept of a Huberdeau trade carries that stink. This doesn’t mean that there’s no scenario where it can work out for Florida … the odds are just higher that things would pay off if they did something else.
Decades of history argue that the Panthers won’t get this right, but they could very well build something special if they do. Good luck, Dale Tallon.