Henrik Borgstrom

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.

Quenneville sees Panthers roster with right ‘ingredients to win’

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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.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“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.”

The young talent is certainly there with Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad, plus the still-developing Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, among others in the pipeline. Building around that group this summer in free agency could go a long way to realizing the playoff vision the franchise has for next season.

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.

“I meant that, and I believe it,” he said.

————

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.

Panthers were wise not to blow things up at trade deadline

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Let’s face it. Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon has earned the criticisms he’s absorbed over the years.

The blunders surrounding moves like shedding both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith are well-documented, and the critiques are very much justified.

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.

Instead, the Panthers did very little, beyond the seemingly inevitable Derick Brassard trade.

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.

Those forwards (plus some useful defensemen in Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Michael Matheson) couldn’t outchance and outscore Florida’s problems, particularly in net, but what if you added, say, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to an already-impressive mix?

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.

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.

Trading Huberdeau could go very, very wrong for Panthers

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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.

GM Dale Tallon probably cringes at any mention of sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith out of town, but Panthers management sorely needs to think of those blunders if there’s any validity to rumors about Jonathan Huberdeau being shopped around.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli added Huberdeau to his trade bait list on Monday, citing the Panthers’ pursuit of pending Columbus free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. While Elliotte Friedman reported in 31 Thoughts on Wednesday that there are mixed messages about whether Florida would actually consider moving Huberdeau, the Panthers winger addressed said rumors to The Athletic’s George Richards on Tuesday (sub required), so they’ve at least registered to the forward.

“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.

Check out this comparison of the two over multiple easons via Bill Comeau’s eye-catching SKATR charts, which use data from Corsica:

via Bill Comeau/Corsica

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.

This situation is especially dangerous if, say, Tallon is looking far too much at (gulp) plus/minus … which might have been a problem with Marchessault and Smith, too. Yikes.

What about Bob?

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.

In summary: Don’t move Hubey

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.

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.

PHT’s 2018-19 predictions: NHL Awards, first coach fired, overrated teams

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Pre-season predictions are fun to track once things get under way because it’s interesting to see how they start to look as more and more games are played. It’s a good way to see what people are thinking heading into the season, and it’s especially a fun time to check back on them during different points of the year.

Below are our picks for the NHL awards which will handed out in June, plus some various topics like overrated and underrated teams, first coach fired, how many goals William Karlsson will score and more. Please be sure to forget these when they turn out to be 100 percent wrong at the end of the season. But do please come back and praise those individuals for their predictive ways if any of these end up being correct.

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Laine (Leahy), McDavid (O’Brien), Ovechkin (Gretz), MacKinnon (Alfieri), Kucherov (Billeck)
ART ROSS: McDavid (all)
ROCKET RICHARD: Ovechkin (Leahy, Gretz), Laine (O’Brien, Alfieri, Billeck)
VEZINA: Rask (Leahy), Gibson (O’Brien, Gretz), Vasilevskiy (Alfieri, Billeck)
NORRIS: Jones (Leahy), Karlsson (O’Brien, Gretz), Subban (Alfieri, Billeck)
CALDER: Mittelstadt (Leahy, Gretz), Dahlin (O’Brien, Alfieri), Pettersson (Billeck)
SELKE: Bergeron (all)

OVERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Blues. Every year it’s the same thing: They play well, Vladimir Tarasenko lights it up, and then something happens where they crap out in the playoffs. Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron will help, but Jake Allen needs to rebound.

O’BRIEN: Kings. Considering the age of their core, the Kings could easily crash and burn this season. That’s especially true if Jonathan Quick proves his critics right by regressing.

GRETZ: Kings. They will do what they always do. They will post great possession numbers, they will not give up many goals, but they are still so lacking in talent and creativity offensively that they just will not be able to keep up with the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference. Ilya Kovalchuk will help, but the 35-year-old version of him is not enough to fix everything wrong with this team offensively.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

ALFIERI: Ducks. Ryan Kesler’s going to miss a lot of time due to injury and Corey Perry isn’t the player he once was. How much longer can the Ducks continue to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference? Sure, there’s some new blood on the roster, but Ryan Getzlaf can’t just keep shouldering the load for them. The Ducks will get into the playoffs, but they won’t do much damage.

BILLECK: Maple Leafs. Sure, they got Tavares. But did they improve on defense? Nope. The Maple Leafs are getting close, but they need a better backend to be Stanley Cup competitive.

UNDERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Panthers. Roberto Luongo still has some juice left and a young core has been growing together as prospects Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom could play big factors this season. Bob Boughner did a great job in year one. With more familiarity with his system and core players taking the next step, it’s a fine recipe for a big jump.

O’BRIEN: Oilers. It’s deeply unsettling to leave McDavid’s Oilers out of the playoffs, yet Edmonton missed last season even though the unparalleled megastar scored 108 points. That seems kind of impossible, doesn’t it? I expect a significant rebound, but not enough lessons were learned to get in the West’s eight.

GRETZ: Flyers. I don’t know if Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek will be exactly as good as they were a year ago, but they are still front-line players and the young talent on this team is really, really good. Once again they are a goalie away from being a serious contender.

ALFIERI: Golden Knights. Somehow, people are still doubting the Vegas Golden Knights. I don’t know if they’re an underrated team because they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but I feel like people aren’t giving them the respect they deserve. They also made some solid acquisitions over the summer.

BILLECK: Sabres. Great summer of moves, including bringing in Jeff Skinner. Carter Hutton should provide better goaltending and Ramus Dahlin. 

OVERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Ryan Johansen. What’s $8 million supposed to get you these days? Probably a little more offense than he’s provided for the Predators. He’s hit the 20- and 30-goal marks before and there’s plenty of talent in Nashville that he can get there again.

O’BRIEN: Jonathan Toews. Is Toews still overrated? Yeah, let’s go with Toews.

GRETZ: Marc-Andre Fleury. He had an amazing year, he had the best playoff run of his career, he is still a pretty good goalie, but he is not going to repeat what he did last year and throughout the playoffs.

ALFIERI: Paul Stastny. I liked the Stastny pick up for Vegas, but you can’t help but feel like his stock has picked up a lot of steam over the last few months. He’s still an extremely useful player but will he be able to contribute much more than 50 points? I don’t know about that. His $6.5 million price tag isn’t cheap.

BILLECK: William Karlsson. From 18 points to 78. From nine goals to 43. I’ll glady eat this if Wild Bill does it again, but until he does, I’m skeptical.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Mikko Rantanen. Playing with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, it’s easy to overlook the talents of the 21-year-old Finn. He played a huge role in the MGM line’s success last season and heading into the final year of his entry-level contract, he could set himself up for a rich deal next summer.

O’BRIEN: William Karlsson. I’m starting to think that Karlsson is the bizarro version of Stars-era Loui Eriksson. Karlsson was deemed overrated so often – and harshly – last season thanks to his abrupt production and 23.4 shooting percentage. Now he enters 2018-19 as a perfectly skilled player making a perfectly fair $5.25M, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Vegas regrets going the “prove it” route with “Wild Bill.” (Note: I may be swayed by hair flips, though.)

GRETZ: Dougie Hamilton. He led all defenders in the league in goal-scoring last season, is a 50-point player from the blue line, posts dominant possession numbers, and is signed long-term at below market salary cap number. He might be a top-10 defensemen in the NHL right now and is a tremendous value, and the Hurricanes got him — and a pretty good forward in Micheal Ferland — without giving up a ton

ALFIERI: Blake Wheeler. Sure, Wheeler got paid, but it feels like people still don’t consider him as one of the top players in the league. Only eight players scored more points than he did last season and nobody had more assists. He’s an underrated playmaker.

BILLECK: Blake Wheeler. Glossed over for the Hart despite a 91-point season. One of the best power forwards in the game and filled in admirably at center when Mark Scheifele went down for 16 games. 

FIRST COACH FIRED

LEAHY: Todd McLellan. This is how it’s trending in Edmonton, right? Connor McDavid is there having to do it all himself and general manager Peter Chiarelli had a quiet summer. That’s not going to inspire much confidence that the Oilers can rebound this season, and before the ax falls on him, Chiarelli will make a move behind the bench early.

O’BRIEN: Todd McLellan. Normally I’d say Guy Boucher would be the fall guy, but I doubt Ottawa has the scratch to fork over more money for an in-season hire. So let’s go with McLellan, who’s probably lucky he avoided the axe after 2017-18.

GRETZ: Todd McLellan. When you have the best player in the league and miss the playoffs twice in three years you do not get a very long leash. I don’t think Edmonton addressed its shortcomings enough in the offseason so not sure the winning will return just yet.

ALFIERI: Jeff Blashill. I know the Red Wings don’t typically make coaching moves during the season, but I expect it to be a very difficult year for Detroit.

BILLECK: Guy Boucher. It’s Ottawa and Boucher is in a no-win situation. 

BIGGEST FREE AGENT BUST

LEAHY: Jay Beagle. Good for Beagle getting that money, but that’s a long, pricey contract for a bottom-sixer*. (*Also applies to Antoine Roussel.)

O’BRIEN: Leo Komarov. John Ta-just kidding. Komarov edges Jack Johnson and Antoine Roussel by a hair, because that signing kicks Islanders fans while they’re down.

GRETZ: Carter Hutton. He had a great year for the Blues in part-time duty but the rest of his career performance at the NHL level is just okay. Don’t see him as a solution to the Sabres’ problems in goal.

ALFIERI: James Neal. He got off to a great start with Vegas last year, but he ended up with 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games. Even though those are far from bad numbers, I’m not sure they warranted a five-year, $28.75 million deal.

BILLECK: James Neal. Nearly $6 million a year for a guy who can’t reach 50 points anymore. 

BLUE JACKETS KEEP OR TRADE PANARIN?

LEAHY: Keep. The Blue Jackets could be contenders coming out of the East, but the futures of Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are going to be huge sub-plots this season. If they’re a playoff team come February, how could not look to add to their roster and try and make a roster and hope for the best in free agency?

O’BRIEN: Trade. Trade him close to the deadline after they a) gauge where their team is and b) have a better shot at landing NHL-ready assets in return.

GRETZ: Keep. The Blue Jackets will keep him because they will be too competitive to trade him. Have to see where the team goes with him.

ALFIERI: Keep. They’ll be in a playoff race and they’ll need him to make sure they get in. I think he ends up walking in unrestricted free-agency.

BILLECK: Keep until the deadline and sign if the opportunity arises.

Erik Karlsson RE-SIGNS WITH SHARKS OR BECOMES UFA?

LEAHY: Re-signs. Doug Wilson is not going to let this big fish get away, and when Karlsson sees the talent that surrounds him in San Jose, he’ll want to stay. Maybe he’ll even grow out his beard after hanging out with Brent Burns and Joe Thornton  (OK, maybe not Jumbo now) for a while?

O’BRIEN: Re-signs… after the trade deadline.

GRETZ: Re-signs. Karlsson will sign with the Sharks before he reaches UFA. The Sharks can make it work under the cap and he can be the focal point of their defense and organization going forward.

ALFIERI: Re-signs. No way he’s leaving San Jose. He’ll be back on an eight-year deal.

BILLECK: Re-signs with a max contract.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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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.