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Captaincy continues Aleksander Barkov’s growth as a player

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It was Shawn Thornton who requested that Aleksander Barkov move his stall closer to his within the Florida Panthers’ locker room. In Barkov’s second year in the NHL it was Thornton’s goal to get the shy young Finn to show off his personality a little bit more around his teammates.

The move happened and Thornton slowly pecked away and brought more and more of Barkov’s personality out.

“When you sit next to that kind of player and person, it helps you a lot,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Even the first couple of days, you’re just shy and sit next to him and answer his questions. Then a little bit at a time you just get out of your shell and start talking to him, joking with him and just have fun with him. That helped me a lot. If you can be good friends with this guy, you can be good friends with everybody.”

That small change allowed Barkov to get comfortable in his early NHL days and was the first step in him feeling confident enough to take on the responsibility of team captain, which the Panthers announced on Monday.

Barkov was approached at the end of last season and asked if he felt ready should they decide to have him wear the ‘C,’ replacing Derek MacKenzie. He said he was ready for the honor but also fine with remaining as an alternate, which he served as last season.

You might think there would be some awkwardness with MacKenzie being asked to give up the captaincy, but when he was given the ‘C’ in 2016 he knew that he was just holding it before one of the team’s younger stars was ready for the responsibility.

[Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov]

So when the change became official, MacKenzie was thrilled to be passing it on to Barkov.

“He called me right away and congratulated me,” Barkov said. “I was really happy to hear him calling me and congratulating me and telling me he’s OK with everything and he’s actually fine with that and he’s going to help me. I learned a lot from him. He’s probably one of the best captains I’ve ever heard in my six seasons here.”

MacKenzie, along with Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski were the three captains Barkov played for since breaking into the NHL in 2013. Each of them has left a lasting imprint on the 23-year-old Panthers star.

“Those three guys, they helped me so much,” said Barkov, who also added that former NHLer Ville Nieminen, who played with Barkov and his father in Finland, was also a big influence. “Not just being a captain, just being great people you can talk to about anything, even if everything is good you can just go to them and talk to them and they’re true professionals. I got lucky to be with them in the same organization.”

Barkov takes on the captaincy at an important time in the Panthers’ growth. He’s coming off a career season offensively and the team missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point. Bob Boughner is entering his second year behind the bench, Mike Hoffman was acquired over the summer and highly-touted prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could make an impact. There are plenty of expectations that the trend continues upwards in 2018-19.

As far as leadership style goes, Barkov doesn’t expect much to change as they look to build off the last few seasons. The only thing that may change is how many dinners he may have to pick up as captain, but MacKenzie didn’t give him the heads up on that.

“No, nobody told me about that,” Barkov said laughing. “I’m just trying to keep quiet so nobody remembers that.”

————

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.

Testing Letestu: What each PTO is up against heading into training camps

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In most cases, an NHL team hands out a PTO to a player for a reason: their services aren’t in very high demand.

Usually, that’s because said player doesn’t really bring a ton to the table. Sometimes the deficit is more on the evaluators, though, as some good players have had to deal with reluctant buyers. Maybe a veteran isn’t done yet. Perhaps a younger player simply didn’t receive fair opportunities. After all, the Golden Knights showed that one team’s player who didn’t need to be protected could turn into another team’s key, difference-making performers.

Heading into training camps this time around, there could be some diamonds in the rough … or at least players who are good enough to help a team in a depth role. Let’s take a look at PTO situations to gauge who has a chance, who should get a look even if they fall short, and so on.

Mark Letestu (pictured), Florida Panthers

Just about every year, there is a player who’s surprisingly needing to accept a PTO. Letestu is that candidate this time around.

Letestu’s a versatile player who can score a bit, keep his head above water in tough assignments, and win faceoffs at a nice clip. He might not be perfect, but it’s hard to imagine him not making sense as, at worst, a 13th forward somewhere.

One cannot help but wonder if Florida might struggle to find a spot for him, though. Cap Friendly lists 15 forwards, and while I’d personally take Letestu instead of Micheal Haley and Troy Brouwer without flinching, those guys have contracts. Owen Tippett could also barge into the argument and take a spot as well.

Again, Letestu should be in the NHL in 2018-19, it just might not be with Florida.

Emerson Etem, Los Angeles Kings

If nothing else, Los Angeles could use Etem’s speed. Etem also ranks as a feel-good story, as landing a tryout with the Kings brings back memories of the California native drawing cheers in L.A. during the 2010 NHL Draft.

Good times:

Despite the Kings’ limited depth talent, there are quite a few obstacles in the way of Etem landing a legitimate spot. If it comes down to Etem or, say, Gabriel Vilardi, the smart money is on Vilardi. Maybe he’d beat out a lower-end forward if all things are equal, but those players have guaranteed contracts. Los Angeles’ cap crunch – The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman notes that the Kings may only carry 13 instead of 14 forwards – doesn’t necessarily help Etem, even if he’d likely come at a low cost.

Perhaps a two-way contract would work for Etem and the Kings if he impresses during his PTO? Etem spent last season between the AHL and Swiss league, anyway, so it might not be such a bad deal. From the Kings’ perspective, they’d have an experienced player who they can call up

Jeff Glass (unofficial), Calgary Flames

Let’s group the feel-good stories together.

At age 32, Jeff Glass finally got a chance to play in the NHL, and ran with that opportunity early on. Now he gets to try out for the team he grew up rooting for, as Sportsnet’s Eric Francis notes, although the Flames haven’t announced the PTO officially yet.

“When I was a kid my dad would get tickets from work once or twice a year so I have fond memories of watching them play at the Saddledome,” Glass said, via Francis. “I grew up idolizing Trevor Kidd. Him and Rick Tabaracci were the Flames goalies when I was young and I got to go to his goalie schools here in town. Kidd was the man. He had the cool gear – I loved everything about him.

“It’s kind of cool wearing the Flames jersey. What a small world.”

The Flames might be bringing Glass in mainly because they’ll want extra goalies available considering their preseason trip to China. He’ll need to defy the odds to hurdle the Flames collection of young backup hopefuls: Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons. At least he’s used to being a long shot.

Jason Garrison and Scottie Upshall, Edmonton Oilers

With Andrej Sekera out for the season, it makes some sense for the Oilers to give Garrison a look, although I’d be much more interested in KHL-bound Cody Franson.

Garrison’s already battling with depth defensemen Jakub Jerabek and Kevin Gravel, and don’t count out Evan Bouchard. Garrison’s big shot could be useful on the power play – that might be his primary theoretical use at this point in his career, as he’s a far cry from the nice player he once was – so Bouchard’s offensive skills could make Garrison that much more redundant.

The Oilers … march to the beat of their own drum (yeah, let’s put it that way) when it comes to assessing talent, but even Edmonton will expect better from Garrison than what he did in an admittedly small sample of eight games with Vegas:

Aside from quibbling about who they’re taking a look at, you can’t really fault Edmonton for checking.

You also couldn’t fault Garrison for picking fellow PTO Scottie Upshall’s brain about acing a tryout. After all, as Connor McDavid noted, the dude knows how to earn a spot even if he can’t seem to get a traditional contract offer.

Personally, Upshall seems like a more appealing addition than Garrison. Upshall seems reasonably useful in a fourth-line capacity, even when taking on far from glamorous assignments (St. Louis had him start 30.8-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and a ludicrously low 22.3-percent in 2016-17). He’s generally regarded as a pretty solid skater.

It wouldn’t be shocking if it came down to Upshall or Kailer Yamamoto, a player who almost feels like the exact opposite of Upshall: he’s an exceedingly young, offense-leaning, small-ish forward who didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal yet. Upshall vs. Yamamoto/other depth forwards should be interesting to watch, and perhaps an opposing team might scoop up the veteran if Upshall doesn’t make the cut?

Simon Despres, Montreal Canadiens

Somewhat like Etem, Despres is a still-young, former late-first-rounder now trying to claw back into the league.

The 26-year-old defenseman currently stands as a sad “What if?” question, as the concussion he suffered from a Tyson Barrie hit set Despres’ career back:

Can he earn a spot on a sputtering Montreal team? Well, the roster is loaded with defensemen – even if it’s quantity over quality – so that is a pretty tall task. The Habs love hoarding former first-rounders, though, so a two-way contract might not be the worst option for both sides. Training camp/preseason games might not provide sufficient opportunities for Despres to show that he can still be viable at the NHL level.

Mark Fayne and Marcel Noebels, Boston Bruins

Fayne has 389 regular-season games of NHL experience, showing promise at times during his Devils days. Still, he bombed with Edmonton, to the point that his last NHL reps came in 2016-17, when he only suited up for four games. His AHL numbers aren’t going to generate much demand.

Noebels is a 26-year-old forward who hasn’t appeared in an NHL game yet, spending the last few years in Germany playing for the Berlin Polar Bears. He did go in the fourth round (118th overall by Philly) in 2011, for what that’s worth.

Much like the Flames, the Bruins are playing exhibition games in China, so my guess is that is the main reason why Fayne and Noebels received PTOs.

***

Of all the players above, I’d wager that Letestu is most capable of making a Lee Stempniak/P.A. Parenteau-type impact as a PTO who accomplishes something beyond the “replacement level.”

He doesn’t distinguish himself from the field as far as opportunities go, however, as it’s a packed field of forwards in Florida.

Who do you think will make the cut, if anyone?

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 add Troy Brouwer on one-year contract

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After having the final two years of his contract with the Calgary Flames bought out earlier this month, veteran forward Troy Brouwer has a new home in the NHL.

The Florida Panthers announced on Monday that they have signed the 33-year-old Brouwer to a one-year deal.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed by the team but it will reportedly pay him $850,000 according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

“Troy is a skilled veteran forward with championship experience,” said Panthers general manager Dale Tallon in a team statement. “He adds depth to our forward group and his leadership will help our developing young core take the next step this season.”

Brouwer had signed a four-year, $18 million contract with the Flames prior to the 2016-17 season, a deal that quickly became an albatross on the team’s salary cap structure as his production fell off a cliff over the past two years, tallying just 19 goals and 47 points in his first 150 games with the Flames. Calgary is taking a $1.5 million salary cap hit in each of the next four years to be rid of him.

The big draw here is obviously the fact that Tallon has a history with Brouwer dating back to their days in Chicago where Brouwer spent the first five years of his career, helping the team win a Stanley Cup during the 2009-10 season. The Blackhawks had to trade Brouwer following the 2010-11 season as part of one of their many salary cap purges over the years, sending him to Washington for a first-round draft pick. The Capitals later traded him to St. Louis in a deal for T.J. Oshie that has pretty clearly worked out in their favor.

How much Brouwer has left in the tank remains to be seen, and his presence probably reduces the likelihood of one of the Panthers’ prospects opening the year with the team (Owen Tippett?). In other words: The Panthers are really banking on that veteran presence he provides making an impact.

After a tough start to the 2017-18 season the Panthers finished the year strong and missed the second wild card spot by just a single point. They have a good young core in place led by Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad, and have added Mike Hoffman along with Brouwer this offseason.

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.

Three questions facing Florida Panthers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

What even more on the Cats? PHT has you covered today:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Will their goalies hold up?

If this was “NHL 19,” the Panthers would just turn injuries off and the goalie issues would be pretty much fine. After all, Roberto Luongo is a probably Hall of Famer and James Reimer has frequently been an analytics darling who’s probably a platoon-level goalie more than a backup.

Luongo enjoyed a fantastic per-game season in 2017-18, generating a sparkling .929 save percentage. Unfortunately, he was limited to just 35 games played, and while Reimer was better than you’d expect a backup to be (few No. 2 goalies would generate a .913 save percentage, at least in 44 games), it wasn’t enough.

Injuries have been an unfortunate issue for Reimer during certain spans of his career, and they might just be an inevitable reality for Luongo, who’s now 39 and has played in 1,001 regular-season games. That’s a lot of hockey for a skater, let alone a goalie. Considering Luongo’s two stints with mostly-mediocre Panthers teams, many of those games were tough ones where he faced a barrage of shots, too.

Before you send out a Luongo-level snarky tweet, yes, it’s true that Panthers management is aware of the problem.

They went as far as to sign respectable former Jets backup Michael Hutchinson to a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

Such a signing should help avert total disaster, yet despite spending $9.23M on goalies (according to Cap Friendly), the netminder position remains a question for a team that is probably counting every penny spent.

2. Was last season’s hot finish a mirage or a sign of better things to come?

Since Jan. 1, the Panthers generated 57 points (in 44 games), tying them for the seventh-most in the NHL. Their 27 wins ranked fifth during that same span.

Appropriately enough, Florida got hotter as summer neared. From Feb. 1 to the end of the regular season the Panthers went 24-8-2, generating 50 points, second only to the Nashville Predators’ 52. The Panthers scored 111 goals while allowing only 87.

In many cases, struggling sports teams allow themselves to get duped into weighing success in a small sample size as a sign of bigger things to come.

Still, there are some reasons to wonder if Florida might actually be onto something special. Still-new head coach Bob Boughner seemed to find a nice formula, as Nick Bjugstad found nice chemistry with Aleksander Barkov, allowing Jonathan Huberdeau to combine with Vincent Trocheck to form a potent second scoring option.

Naturally, some of that late success also came from question 1 working out, as goaltending was a strength, too.

3. Will Florida’s depth become a strength?

One of the most exciting thoughts for Florida is that, generally speaking, they didn’t suffer any major subtractions (*cough* like last summer *cough cough*), while they made a very interesting trade in landing Mike Hoffman.

Hoffman could slide into one of the Panthers’ top two lines and provide a significant upgrade. If he ended up with Barkov, Hoffman could easily enjoy his first 30-goal season.

The winger with all that drama isn’t the only player who might be able to give the Panthers a boost.

Depending upon how training camp battles go, the Panthers could really buttress their forward corps with some intriguing young talent. Both Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could land spots on Florida’s roster, thus possibly opening the door for the Cats to go from a top-heavy team to a fairly deep scoring attack.

Could Hoffman and others come together to create a third line? Might the Panthers spread the wealth in some other way?

These are good problems to have, and the Panthers bring an enticing mix of talent to the table in 2018-19.

Of course, the Atlantic Division is rugged at the top, and the Panthers have only made the postseason twice since 2000-01 and didn’t win a playoff series during that span, so this franchise still has a lot to prove.

That said, they also have Barkov …

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 do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

Hockey nerds, would you like a fun activity? C’mon, the season is far away, you know you want one …

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Ask yourself a question: what are the best contracts in the NHL, under two parameters:

1. The contract must have some term on it. It was a great run, Erik Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, and Max Pacioretty. (Pours one out for John Tavares‘ ridiculous, recently expired deal.)

2. It can’t be a rookie contract, because that’s cheating.

Waits …

Waits some more …

Pencils up, you can stop scouring Cap Friendly now.

For my money – it’s not my money, I can barely afford to run a team in DFS – the best contract in the NHL is probably that of Nathan MacKinnon. He was a (deserving) Hart finalist for the low-low price of a $6.3 million cap hit. If that wasn’t enough, MacKinnon is somehow just 22, and his dirt-cheap cap hit runs for five more seasons.

(Joe Sakic just took a second to stop smirking about the Matt Duchene trade to smirk about MacKinnon’s contract.)

One can debate this topic from dawn until dusk – heck, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall‘s deal is in the discussion, too, though not for much longer – but I’d argue that the Florida Panthers rank among the teams who boast the most great contracts.

Specifically, this franchise is doing a wonderful job of signing fantastic forwards to equally fantastic deals. They’re paralleling what the Nashville Predators are doing with their defensemen: sign guys, usually with proactive extensions, to fairly long-term deals before they’ve fully blossomed.

The result: a slew of contracts that give a budget-conscious team a real chance to compete.

(Yes, it’s more than a little bit amusing that the Panthers biffed the expansion draft by giving away Reilly Smith [a nice $5M value even then] and Jonathan Marchessault [who signed a team-friendly deal in the middle of his first Vegas season, also for $5M per year], yet Florida still boasts so many great deals. There are advantages, you see, to being bad for a long time, not to mention operating in a state that gives sports teams certain tax advantages.)

Take a look at the great deals, and ones that at least qualify as good.

Aleksander Barkov – Panthers fans might have been screaming “Barkov” during that MacKinnon/Hall/etc. discussion, and with good reason. You could make a strong argument that the rising Selke-caliber forward’s deal is the biggest steal at $5.9M through 2021-22.

Like MacKinnon, Barkov is just 22, as he was selected one spot after the speedy Avs center. It turns out Florida was quite smart in doing so, despite the mild surprise.

Barkov set a ton of career-highs (27 goals, 51 assists, 78 points) despite seeing his usage flip-flop from beginning about 60-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone before to beginning close to 60-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2017-18.

He’s a legitimate, tide-turning top-line center, and Barkov’s making a relative pittance. He’s also not alone in being a bargain, even if he’s the best value of this bunch.

Jonathan Huberdeau‘s cap hit matches Barkov’s $5.9M, although Huberdeau’s deal runs through 2022-23. In this way, Huberdeau-Barkov parallel Johnny GaudreauSean Monahan as players with similar deals, with both being great values, even if one shines brighter than the other.

We’ll probably move Huberdeau up the bargain rankings more if he can stay healthy, as he did in playing all 82 games in 2017-18. So far, he’s shown the ability to drive puck possession in his own right, seeing a similar increase in defensive work last season. He matched Barkov’s 27 goals, and while he didn’t score as many points, 69 is still a new career-high.

Vincent Trocheck – For a while there, Trocheck was Florida’s other best-kept secret, behind Barkov.

It’s going to be tough for the underrated center to slip under the radar if he matches or exceeds last season’s 31 goals and 75 points, though. Trocheck’s possession stats slipped after some masterful years, yet those could very well go up if Huberdeau stays by his side, as was the case late in last season.

Trocheck is another fantastic steal at just $4.75M through 2021-22.

Evgenii Dadonov – It might seem weird for a 29-year-old to break through, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider how fantastic Dadonov was during his first season after a KHL sojourn.

Other GMs might not feel like it makes sense – or is fair – that a guy who just scored 28 goals and 65 points is making just $4M per year for two more seasons, but it fits into the pretty picture Florida is painting.

Nick Bjugstad – You could knock Dadonov, and also Bjugstad, for enjoying their best days when they landed on Aleksander Barkov’s line. It’s certainly a factor to consider, as Barkov clearly makes his linemates better.

Should the Panthers really care, though? Like Dadonov, Bjugstad suddenly seems like a bargain if he can stick on one of those top lines, maybe more so than trying to carry a line by himself. Bjugstad’s season totals weren’t amazing (19 goals, 49 points), but consider that he scored 10 goals and 27 points in just 35 games following the All-Star break.

Cooking with fire once he landed with Barkov suddenly makes his $4.1M for three more seasons look like quite the boon.

Mike Hoffman? – It’s too early to tell how Hoffman will fit in with the Panthers, as discussed in greater detail here.

Still, a guy who’s scored 20+ goals for four straight seasons and at least 56 for three consecutive years is probably at least a solid value at $5.188M per year (through 2019-20). Chances are, if Hoffman hits the Barkov lottery –  or clicks with Trocheck – then he’ll look like a steal, too.

***

So, to review, here are the good-to-great forward deals:

Barkov: $5.9M, four more seasons
Huberdeau: $5.9M, five more seasons
Hoffman: $5.188M, two more seasons
Trocheck: $4.75M, four more seasons
Bjugstad: $4.1M, three more seasons
Dadonov: $4M, two more seasons

This gives the Panthers quite the window to compete, and maybe thrive at a level many aren’t expecting. That’s especially true if these steals coincide nicely with rookie contracts for Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, and if the veterans on this team can hang on for a few more seasons.

Panthers management received well-earned ribbing for mismanaging the transition back to GM Dale Tallon, and Tallon’s stumbled a time or two.

Even so, between “The Computer Boys” locking up some good contracts, and Tallon helping with a Dadonov here and Hoffman trade there, the Panthers are in an awfully interesting position.

Now they just need to actually put it all together, and preferably for a full season, instead of a few months.

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.