Lucas Wallmark

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups

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We now know who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer and who will have a long wait until next season.

With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Western Conference matchups]

(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens

Regular season recap

At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.

How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).

The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.

Between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins needed both goaltenders this season. Murray started the year, Jarry took over and was named an All-Star Game replacement, and it was Murray getting most of the work down the stretch.

It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.

Season series

Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.

Injured players who could return

Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.

An ankle injury kept Jonathan Drouin out for Montreal’s last six games and an upper-body injury sidelined Tomas Tatar for three matchups. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (spleen), who was in the AHL at the time of his injury, is not expected to play again this season. Victor Mete could be back after suffering a fractured foot in February.

Storylines to watch

This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…

Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?

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(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers

Regular season recap

It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.

New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.

The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.

Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.

Season series

Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.

Injured players who could return

Leg injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen had them out of the lineup for extended periods of time. Given the time between games potentially being played, the Hurricanes blue line could be bolstered with those two back on the ice. Brett Pesce, meanwhile, may not be back in time from shoulder surgery. His timeline was 4-6 months back in March.

Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.

He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.

Storylines to watch

Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?

[MORE: Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal]

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(7) Islanders vs. (10) Panthers

Regular season recap

Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.

Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.

While the offense will rely heavily on Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mike Hoffman, they also have received good depth production. Noel Acciari potted 20 goals, Brett Connolly hit for 19, and Frank Vatrano hit for 16. It remains to be seen how much they’ll miss Vincent Trocheck, who was dealt to Carolina in February, bringing back a package that included Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark.

If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.

That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.

Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.

J.G. Pageau was acquired at the trade deadline to assist an offense that needs firepower. The Islanders don’t generate a ton of even strength chances and only feature a pair of 20-goal scorers — Brock Nelson (25) and Anders Lee (19).

Season series

Islanders lead season series 3-0-0. Last meeting: Dec. 12; an Islanders 3-1 win.

Injured players who could return

After receiving 90 stitches following a frightening skate-to-the-eye injury in March, Johnny Boychuk should be back on the Islanders’ blue line. Casey Cizikas, who suffered a skate laceration, is also expected to be ready to go. An Achilles injury put defenseman Adam Pelech out of the lineup in January and it would be a stretch to see him back this summer.

Storylines to watch

The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.

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(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets

Regular season recap

The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.

Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.

Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.

The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.

Season series

Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.

Injured players who could return

Could Josh Anderson come back by late summer? He was given a 4-6 month recovery period and it’s been nearly three months since he underwent shoulder surgery. The extra time off bodes well for Cam Atkinson (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Seth Jones (ankle), and Alexandre Texier (back) among the Blue Jackets’ long list of walking wounded.

For the Leafs, Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration), Jake Muzzin (hand), and Andreas Johnsson (knee) should be good to go when play resumes.

Storylines to watch

On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.

On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.

What is the Panthers’ long-term outlook?

Florida Panthers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Florida Panthers

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Everything about this team in the immediate future is going to be built around the forward duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

They are two of the best and most productive players in the league, while Barkov has developed into one of the NHL’s most complete two-way centers. Barkov is signed for two more seasons after this one, while Huberdeau is locked in for another three. They have matching salary cap hits of $5.9 million per season.

Beyond them, the core gets a little cloudier because all of their long-term investments come with some pretty significant risks.

Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is signed for another six seasons at a salary cap hit of $10 million per season. They are going to need him to be significantly better than he has been so far if there is any chance of him playing out the remainder of that deal in Florida.

In front of him they have invested heavily in their defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, and Mike Matheson all signed for at least the next two seasons, while Ekblad, Yandle, and Matheson go for at least the next three years. Ekblad and Matheson are both signed for the next five. They have a ton of money invested in that quartet, but they haven’t really received a great return on that investment at this point.

Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, two of their best forwards, are unsigned beyond this season and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If they can not re-sign one — or both — that would be a significant amount of offense going out the door.

Long-Term Needs

Even though the Panthers have made a huge long-term financial investment in their defense and goaltending, they are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league right now.

Ekblad and Yandle are a solid duo at the top, and maybe even a little underrated. Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 overall pick definitely raises the expectations around him, but he has been an extremely productive player offensively and shown improvement in his all-around game. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s a good player.

But once you get beyond that top duo there are a lot of flaws and question marks with the defense as a whole, and not a lot of immediate help on the horizon to help fix it. That is one of the things that made the in-season trade of Vincent Trocheck so confusing. It was a deal that did not need to be made, and they did not even use it to address their biggest flaw.

They could also be looking at a depth issue at forward if they can not get Hoffman and Dadonov re-signed.

Long-Term Strengths

The biggest strength for the Panthers is probably the simple fact they not only have two elite players in Barkov and Huberdeau, but that they have them both signed for multiple seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $11 million per season. They are exceptional bargains against the cap, they are both elite players, and they are both in the middle of their prime years in the NHL. Having that sort of situation at the top of the lineup should be a massive advantage for a front office to work with. Those are the hardest players to find (the elite, game-changers on offense) and they tend to cost the most money. The Panthers not only already have them in place, they have them for far less than they should ordinarily cost. That is a gift and a bonus you do not want to waste.

It also might seem weird saying this given how much Bobrovsky struggled in his debut season with the team, but they do seem to have a lot of goaltending options in the short-and long-term.

Even if Bobrovsky’s contract turns into a problem in a few years, he should be better than he was this season and at least give them a few seasons of high level play. Chris Driedger has also been a pleasant surprise in net this season and could settle in as a nice back-up option, while they also have one of the top goaltending prospects in the league in Spencer Knight after using a top-15 pick on him in the draft a year ago.

They also have one of the NHL’s best coaches in Joel Quenneville.

More:

• Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers
• Panthers’ surprises and disappointments

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

Florida Panthers

Record: 35-26-8 (69 games), fourth in the Atlantic Division, out of playoffs
Leading Scorer: Jonathan Huberdeau 78 points (23 goals and 55 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

• Traded Ian McCoshen to the Chicago Blackhawks for Aleksi Saarela
• Acquired Chris Wilkie from the Ottawa Senators for Jack Rodewald
• Traded Kevin Roy to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Ryan Haggerty
• Acquired Mason Marchment from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Denis Malgin
• Traded Anthony Greco to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Danick Martel
• Sent a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Dallas Stars for Emil Djuse
• Traded Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen and Chase Priskie

Season Overview

The Panthers have the offensive firepower necessary to be one of the strong teams in the NHL. Having Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Brett Connolly, Noel Acciari and Frank Vatrano is a nice luxury. That’s a group of forwards that most teams would love to have. So, why haven’t the Panthers had much success over the last few seasons?

Coming into this season, many expected the Panthers to finish in a Wild Card spot and it’s easy to see why. They hired Joel Quenneville, we already talked about their offensive ability and they added free-agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for $10 million per season. Still, they found themselves outside of the playoff picture when the NHL went on pause.

There’s a few major issues right now.

First, their overall defense hasn’t been good enough. Only two Eastern Conference teams (Ottawa and Philadelphia) have given more goals than Florida (280). Offense has spiked over the last couple of seasons, but the truly elite teams are the ones that can shut the game down when they have an advantage. The Panthers clearly can’t do that yet.

Whether or not spending $70 million on a goalie works out remains to be seen. Bobrovsky’s first year in Florida didn’t go as well as anybody expected. At the pause, he had a 23-19-6 record with a 3.23 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage.

Some of that might be him adjusting to a new team and new city and some of it might be the show quality that his teammates are giving up in front of him. No matter what the reason is, he has to find his game in a hurry if the Panthers are going to compete for a playoff spot this year, next year and beyond.

Highlight of the Season

There was a stretch of games at the end of 2019 where it seemed like Huberdeau was unstoppable. He put together back-to-back four-point performances on Dec. 16 and 20, and he added another four-point night on Dec. 29 when he dominated the Montreal Canadiens. He accumulated 16 points during that six-game stretch.

Huberdeau probably had the quietest 90-plus point season ever last year, but he’s become a household name now.

MORE PANTHERS:
Panthers’ biggest surprises, disappointments

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Looking at the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Carolina Hurricanes

Record: 38-25-5 (68 games), Fourth place in Metropolitan Division; first Wild Card spot in Eastern Conference
Leading scorer: Sebastian Aho 66 points (38 goals, 28 assists)

In-season roster moves

  • Acquired defenseman Sami Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils for Janne Kuokkanen, Fredrik Claesson, and a conditional 2020 fourth-round draft pick.
  • Acquired defenseman Brady Skjei from the New York Rangers for a 2020 first-round draft pick.
  • Traded for Vincent Trocheck by sending Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen, and Chase Priskie to the Florida Panthers.
  • Veteran forward Justin Williams returned mid-season after using the first half of the season to contemplate his future.

Season Overview

After their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final during the 2018-19 season, expectations were sky high for the Hurricanes at the start of this season.

The results so far have been a bit of a mixed bag.

At the time of the NHL’s hiatus the Hurricanes occupied the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference but were in the middle of an intense fight alongside the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Florida Panthers for those two playoff spots. They still seem to have the inside track for one of them, but the overall results may not be exactly as good as they hoped given their success last year and the improvements they attempted to make to the roster in the offseason (additions of Jake Gardiner, Erik Haula, Ryan Dzingel) and internal improvements from young players like Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas.

One of the biggest things that has held them back — injuries.

Specifically, the injuries to top defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce.

Prior to breaking a bone in his leg in mid-January, Hamilton was not only having a Norris Trophy caliber season, he may have been the best all-around defensemen in the NHL this season. It was a completely dominant performance and one that was not going to be easy to replace.

When Pesce was injured a month later — along with James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, the teams top two goalies — it put a pretty significant dent in their greatest overall strength.

They attempted to address the defense at the trade deadline by acquiring Vatanen and Skjei in separate trades, while also adding another potential impact forward in Trocheck. The latter joins an already impressive core of forwards that includes Aho, Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen.

Assuming everyone on defense is healthy, that is a potentially imposing roster.

Highlight of the Season

What else could it be other than 42-year-old David Ayres, a zamboni driver by day, entering a game and getting the win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

MORE:
Hurricanes’ biggest surprises and disappointments
Hurricanes long-term outlook
John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

Trying to make sense of Panthers’ plan after Trocheck trade

Panthers trade
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It was only about a month ago that things were really starting to look up for the Florida Panthers.

They were in the middle of a six-game winning streak, had the highest scoring offense in the league, and at least looked like a solid bet to make the playoffs for just the sixth time in franchise history. Given the moves they made over the summer the playoffs should have been a very realistic goal, if not an expectation.

They can still get there, but they are probably only a 50-50 shot (at best) entering the stretch run as they compete with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

On Monday they made one of the most curious decisions at the NHL trade deadline when they dealt forward Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, and two prospects.

It is a strange trade for the Panthers on pretty much every level.

For one, Trocheck is the best player changing teams here and is still signed for a couple of more years at a reasonable salary cap hit.

There’s nothing wrong with Haula and Wallmark as players. They’re legit NHLers and have a place on a good team. But neither one is an upgrade over Trocheck or has the upside that he does when he’s at his best. Haula is also an unrestricted free agent after this season. If he doesn’t re-sign, the trade comes down to Wallmark and the development of two solid-but-not-great prospects.

Even more curious was general manager Dale Tallon’s explanation for the trade. Basically, he just wanted to shake something up for a team that has struggled since the All-Star break.

Via The Athletic’s George Richards:

“Since the All-Star break, our team has really struggled and we wanted to find a way to shake things up and see what would work,” Tallon said on Monday afternoon, an hour after the NHL’s trade deadline for the 2019-20 season had passed.

“The more we got into discussions over the past 10 days or so, teams starting making offers. Some of them were pretty fair, some better than others. We just decided this was the right path to add more depth throughout the organization, for the big club and the minor-league team, and it was conscious from all of us that this was a fair deal and something we should do not only for the present but for the future.”

Something about this just seems flawed. Do you really weigh a couple of weeks so highly that you trade a player that, as recently as the beginning of this season, was considered one of your core players to “add more depth throughout the organization?” Especially when that player’s trade value is probably at a low-point, and without even addressing the team’s biggest current need? And in the middle of a push to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a year where you’ve invested millions of dollars and a ton of assets?

If anything the justification at the time could have been that it created enough salary cap space to add a defenseman in another move before the trade deadline, but that did not even happen.

It just seems like less than ideal asset management, something that has been a reoccurring — and significant — problem for the Tallon-led Panthers.

The expansion draft fiasco that saw them give away Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights three years ago has been well documented. Last year they dealt Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann for a collection of spare parts and mid-round draft picks to help clear salary for a free agency splurge. They ultimately landed their prized free agent — goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky — on a massive contract, and then followed that up by putting him behind a porous defensive team that can not stop anyone. Now this trade happens.

In the end it is probably not a trade that is going to ruin the season, and they very well could still end up making the playoffs even after sending Trocheck away. But it is not necessarily the result that is concerning here. It is the process that seemingly went into the decision that is most concerning (panic move when things are going bad, selling key player at low value, questionable asset management). It is the sort of process that has repeatedly burned the Panthers in recent years.

Related: NHL Power Rankings: Teams that improved the most at NHL Trade Deadline

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.