Is there easy fix for Panthers’ continued woes?

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The Florida Panthers should be a lot better than this.

After a nearly miraculous second half surge to close out the 2017-18 NHL season that brought them to within a single point of a playoff spot, the Panthers went out over the summer and added another top-line scorer in Mike Hoffman to a team that already had a pretty good, and extremely affordable, core of high-end forwards in place.

Those forwards are good. Really good.

Aleksander Barkov, still only 23 years old, is one of the game’s best all-around players, and even though his peers around the league view him as underrated, he should be considered a star in the eyes of everyone.

It is not just him that excels at the top of the lineup.

Between Barkov, Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov, the Panthers currently have four of the NHL’s top-45 point producers, including two of the top-20 (Barkov and Huberdeau), with all of them signed to contracts that can definitely be described as “team friendly.”

All of them are signed through at least the end of next season, with none of them counting more than $5.9 million against the salary cap. Those are well below market contracts for what they produce.

That quartet also does not include Vincent Trocheck, a bonafide 25-30 goal, 60-point winger when healthy, and Frank Vatrano, who is already scored 23 goals this season. Add those two in and there is what should be the makings of a contending core in place that has also give the organization (and will continue to give them) plenty of salary cap flexibility to build around them.

Despite all of that, the result this season has been a significant step backwards as they play out the string in what will be yet another lost, forgotten season for a franchise that has known nothing but lost, forgotten seasons for almost its entire existence. The 2018-19 season, when it mercifully wraps up in south Florida, will be the 20th time in their 25 year history that the Panthers have missed the playoffs, and the 16th time over the past 18.

In a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs every year, that is a stunningly depressing run of futility that is made even more frustrating in the short-term because of how much high-end talent there actually is on the roster.

Things have seemingly hit rock bottom over the past week — and emphatically so — with a trio of ugly losses that has seen the team give up seven, seven, and six goals. It is a stretch of games that finally resulted in Trocheck reaching his breaking point on Tuesday night following the latest drubbing, this one at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

“Structurally we can’t give up — I feel like five of their six goals were let them have as much room or as much time as they wanted. Three of their goals were right down the slot or in front of our net,” fumed Trocheck. “It’s just laziness. Not doing your job. It’s just unacceptable to leave our goalies out to dry the last three games, to let up that many goals in three games is an absolute embarrassment.”

When asked what exactly was going wrong with the defensive breakdowns over these past few games, he continued.

“It’s just not paying attention to our system,” he said. “We’re getting away from our system. Somebody is trying to do somebody else’s job, you’re duplicating on guys, and whenever you duplicate obviously someone is going to be open and in the NHL they are going to find that open guy. They did, especially in the first, and that is what leads to goals against. Then it seems like we get down two goals like we did the past couple of games and we let off the gas and we just kinda quit. It’s embarrassing. It’s extremely embarrassing. Every single guy in here should be embarrassed the past three games.”

Harsh words, but not entirely wrong words, either. The defensive structure and commitment to it has been bad, and when you add in sub-par goaltending on top of it you are going to have the type of problems the Panthers currently have.

So how do they fix it?

First, it is never a good sign for a coach when you’re on your way to a second straight non-playoff season behind the bench and one of your top players is talking about how the team “kinda quit” and that they can’t stick to the system. Especially when there is a three-time Stanley Cup winning, high-profile coach just sitting out there without a job right now that also happens to have a history of working with the team’s current general manager and having success.

Second, as laughable as it might be to say about a franchise with the recent track record the Panthers have, there is something to be said for patience when it comes to some of the players on the roster. Specifically the players at the top of the roster.

For years the Winnipeg Jets continued to commit to the same core of players that produced the same mediocre results in the standings year after year. It would almost be a constant running joke every season about how inactive the Jets were from a roster standpoint and never did anything to change things. But they knew the players at the top (player like Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, etc.) were not the problem. They were good, and they stuck with them and waited for the right complementary pieces from within (and a franchise player at the top of the draft in Patrik Laine) to come along and make it so they were no longer being wasted.

Could they have accelerated the timeframe to becoming a contender by maybe being more aggressive in some areas (like finding a new goalie)? Absolutely they could have. But the point is they didn’t sacrifice the players that weren’t a problem in the name of “changing culture” or “changing the mood in the room” or whatever it is bad teams do when they trade their few good players for pennies on the dollar.

They stuck with them, eventually added the right pieces around them, and are now being rewarded with a Stanley Cup contender that is led by those same core players.

In other words, unless somebody absolutely blows their doors off with a trade offer there is literally zero reason to even consider moving the likes of Barkov, Huberdeau, or Trocheck.

Instead, the focus needs to continue to be adding around them because this should still be a core they can win with.

Given how cheaply some of them are signed, combined with the fact they shed some big money in future years by trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two expiring contracts, the Panthers have put themselves in a position to be major players in free agency and ownership seems to have a willingness to spend to the cap this summer. As it stands right now, the Panthers are projected to have around $17 million in salary cap space to play with which could make them the favorites to land pretty much any free agent they wanted.

Speculation for months has centered around the Columbus duo of forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Panarin obviously does nothing to fix the team’s defensive shortcomings, but it also wouldn’t hurt to add another top scorer to the lineup. Bobrovsky is an even trickier situation because even though they need an upgrade in net, they already have two big-money goalies on the roster and for as good as he has been throughout his career you can not ignore the fact signing any soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to the type of contract he would demand on the open market is going to carry some significant risk.

One thing is for certain, though, and that is things have to be shored up defensively.

Maybe that starts behind the bench.

Maybe it has to be a focus on defenders in free agency.

Maybe it is a goalie, whether it is Bobrovsky or somebody else, because for as good as Roberto Luongo has been throughout his career he is starting to finally lose the battle with father time.

Maybe it has to be a combination of all three.

With Barkov, Huberdeau, and a healthy Trocheck the Panthers have some of the most important — and hardest to acquire — pieces in place when it comes to building a contender. With them in place it should not take a full-scale rebuild or total teardown to get to where they want to be.

It is possible to get there quickly if the right pieces are added around them.

A perpetually mediocre team like the Jets was finally able to do it around their core of players.

With money to spend and salary cap space at their disposal this summer, we are about to find out if this current Panthers’ front office is able to do it as well.

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.

Mike Hoffman just had to have banner mocking his ‘hours’ with Sharks

via Mike Hoffman on Twitter
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Every now and then, a player will “join” a team via a trade, only to never play a game with that team before being traded again.

It’s part of the process during three-team trades, whether they’re official or unofficial, so that was the case with Mike Hoffman and the San Jose Sharks. For a few hours, he was a “member” of the team after Sharks sent very little to the Ottawa Senators in a trade for Hoffman, only for the Sharks to flip Hoffman to the Florida Panthers.

You’d imagine that there’s no animosity on either side, as that trade allowed the Sharks to get out of Mikkel Boedker‘s problem contract.

For many, it was a mere transactional curiosity, something that would inspire a few “Oh yeah, that happened,” type responses.

Yet, for a group of Sharks fans, Hoffman’s “return” to San Jose provided an opportunity for trolling at such a level that even Hoffman approved. Teal City Crew, a “fan-driven supporter club of the Sharks” located in section 218, decided to create a banner honoring Hoffman’s mere hours with the Sharks.

It was very good, so good that Hoffman had to have it for himself.

Hoffman apparently had those fans invited to Panthers practice on Friday, so he could collect that “keepsake.”

As isolated and unusual as the situation is, it does bring some other recent events to mind.

Good-natured trolling: Sidney Crosby was so amused by the laser-precise heckling of a New York Rangers fan, that he made sure that fan received a customized, autographed stick.

Grief for banners: Perhaps the widespread mockery the Nashville Predators received for putting up banners for smaller accomplishments provided some inspiration, too?

[When should your team hang a banner?]

With any random scroll on social media, you face uncomfortably high odds of seeing something terrible. If you follow a lot of sports fans and figures, sometimes things go too far when a player has a tough game.

So, while these gestures seem minor, it’s pretty refreshing to see such friendly interactions between players and fans of rival teams.

Hot take: being nice is even more underrated than Mike Hoffman.

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.

The Buzzer: Matthew Tkachuk gets first hat trick before Keith did

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Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Matthew generated his first NHL hat trick at age 21 … and 89 days. His father, Keith Tkachuk, generated his first hat trick at age 21, but at 209 days. Getting to that mark sooner than Keith? That’s impressive stuff.

Tkachuk’s third goal was an empty-netter, but he also had an assist in Calgary’s 6-3 win against Vegas, so that’s an impressive four-point night overall. He now has 29 goals and 67 points in 69 games this season, lining himself up for a substantial second contract.

The Flames were so potent offensively, they deserve at least two of the top three spots. At least since no one else really produced on the same scale on Sunday.

As a bonus, there’s this remarkable photo from Getty Images, with also includes Brady Tkachuk, who’s basically unmistakable:

via Getty Images

2. Michael Frolik

As is often the case with the three stars, your preference likely comes down to what you weigh the heaviest. It seems too boring to just reward the entire “3M Line” with all three stars, really, so we’re going to need to make a distinction here.

Again, Mikael Backlund has a strong case. He scored two goals and one assist, with his helper being a primary assist. All of those points came before Tkachuk’s empty-netter.

One of Frolik’s four assists were on that empty-netter, but … four assists, everyone. That’s quite impressive.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Frolik, as this four-point outburst ended what was a six-game pointless streak. Frolik has been a healthy scratch this season, and has generally struggled to convince Bill Peters that he should maintain the 3M-edness of “The 3M Line.” Nights like Sunday argue that, maybe, Peters should take the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) approach here.

3. Pheonix Copley

No goalie generated a shutout on Sunday, but there were some nice performances nonetheless.

Both Jaroslav Halak and Matt Murray provided strong performances in an exciting Penguins win against the Bruins, with Murray stopping 39 out of 41 shots. It’s tempting to give Murray something of a “weekend achievement” award after he made some astounding stops on Saturday, too.

Yet, Copley gets the slight nod. Copley made 33 out of 34 saves to help the Capitals beat the Jets on Sunday. As sparsely used as Copley is, he’s now on a five-game winning streak.

Highlight of the Night

From the great Sidney Crosby pass to the fantastic goal by Jake Guentzel, the GWG from the Penguins – Bruins game gets the nod:

Factoids:

Scores

FLA 6 – DET 1
WSH 3 – WPG 1
PIT 4 – BOS 2
CGY 6 – VGK 3
LAK 3 – ANA 2

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.

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.

Success of Senators’ rebuild depends entirely on Eugene Melnyk

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The Ottawa Senators’ teardown is all but complete. Now the building back up has to begin.

On Monday, general manager Pierre Dorion traded the last meaningful remnant of a roster that was one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final not even two full years ago when he sent Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights. It was a huge trade that could significantly alter the Western Conference both, now and in the future with Stone agreeing to new terms on a contract in Vegas, and gave the Senators what should be one of the biggest pieces of their rebuild in stud defense prospect Erik Brannstrom.

That trade followed the other pre-deadline deals that saw them send Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a collection of draft picks and prospects that will be used for this massive overhaul of the organization. Together, all means that in under two years the Senators have now parted ways with Duchene, Dzingel, Stone, Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, and Mike Hoffman. That Turris-Duchene trade also included what will be this year’s first-round pick … which will almost certainly have the highest odds of being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

It has to be a brutal time for Senators fans because not only was that the foundation of a team that was on the threshold of a championship (literally one goal away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final!), but because there is no real hope for short-term success. We saw that play out on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. when what is left of the Senators’ roster was just completely and totally steamrolled by the defending champions.

[Related: Golden Knights win Stone sweepstakes, agree to extension]

There is going to be a lot more of that the rest of this season, and probably even into next season.

What is even more troubling is long-term outlook could be potentially bleak as well because no one really knows how this rebuild is going to go.

The Senators have tried to be transparent with their plans (sometimes uncomfortably so) and they do have some intriguing pieces to build around.

Keeping their 2018 first-round pick (fourth overall) over the 2019 selection as part of the Duchene trade could prove to be disastrous if it ends up being the No. 1 overall pick, but they did get a really good player in Brady Tkachuk out of it. He has flashed top-line potential this season and looks like a keeper.

Thomas Chabot has also been a positive development this season and stepped in admirably to, as best he can, replace what the team lost in Karlsson on the blue line. He has been one of the league’s most productive defenders this season and after all of the trades is the leading scorer — by a wide margin — of the remaining players on the Senators’ roster. He figures to be the centerpiece of the rebuild along with the recently acquired Brannstrom.

Dorion could not say enough positive things about his newest top prospect, referring to him as a “star” and also saying it “was a long day, but we did something good for the Ottawa Senators today.”

If Brannstrom develops as the Senators hope he can, they should have the makings of a dominant defense pairing with him and Chabot.

Even though they lost the chance to potentially land Jack Hughes this season, they still managed to get back a first-round pick (and maybe a second next year) as part of the Duchene trade and now have 27 draft picks over the next three years, including five in the first two round of the 2020 draft. From a pure hockey standpoint they have at least tried to put a foundation in place to potentially build something. They still have to make the picks, and they still have to develop them into NHL players, and they still have to hope players like Tkachuk, Chabot, and Brannstrom become the star-level players they are anticipating they will become.

But what is truly going to make-or-break this rebuild is one man, and one man only — owner Eugene Melnyk.

He recently outlined an aggressive spending plan that, in his words, will lead to an unparalleled run of success that will feature the Senators spending to the league’s salary cap every year from 2021-2025. That would line up with what would be the peak years for players like Chabot, White, Tkachuk, and Brannstrom and leave the door open for the team to be aggressive in free agency or in trades.

On paper, it all sounds like a great plan. But it has to actually happen in the real world for any of it to matter.

Here is why it is hard for me — and why it should be hard for Senators fans — to just blindly accept that it is going to happen.

First, the Senators under Melnyk haven’t shown anything close to a willingness to do that in recent years, even when the team was good. They have consistently been well below the league’s salary cap for the past decade, even when the team was good and a playoff team.

Second, we just watched them send out two homegrown All-Stars in Karlsson and Stone, one of which is probably the greatest player the team has ever had and one of the best players ever at his position, because they could not convince them — or were unwilling to match their salary demands — to re-sign.

If you, as an organization, are not willing or able to pay up to keep players like them, then why should we be confident the team will be willing to keep a player like Chabot, or Brannstrom, or Tkachuk in the future if they become the players the Senators hope they will become?

The answer is you shouldn’t, because actions speak louder than words, and all of the recent actions of this organization suggest this is just going to be a never-ending cycle where the Senators look more like a farm team for the rest of the NHL than any sort of legitimate championship contender.

MORE: Senators’ owner outlines aggressive spending plan

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.