Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

4 Comments

VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Panthers land Joel Quenneville as next head coach

Getty Images
27 Comments

The Florida Panthers are going big for their next head coach after they announced on Monday that Joel Quenneville will replace Bob Boughner behind their bench.

“Joel is a three-time Stanley Cup champion head coach who will be a transformative leader for the Florida Panthers franchise,” said Panthers general manager Dale Tallon. “We’ve seized the opportunity to add one of the most successful head coaches in hockey history and we’re thrilled that Joel has agreed to take on the challenge of leading our promising young team. I’ve worked with Joel previously and have seen firsthand how his passion for the game, head coaching experience and leadership can impact an organization. Joel will accelerate our growth into a club that qualifies for the playoffs consistently and competes every year toward our goal of winning the Stanley Cup.”

In a statement after relieving Boughner of his duties on Sunday, Tallon noted he was seeking a “transformative, experienced head coach with Stanley Cup pedigree to lead our team going forward.” That certainly fit Quenneville’s profile, and considering their relationship — Tallon was the Chicago Blackhawks’ GM when he hired Quenneville to replace Denis Savard — you knew the Panthers would be pretty aggressive in trying to persuade the three-time Cup champion to head to Sunrise.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Quenneville also won’t come cheap, which shows you how much Panthers owner Vinnie Viola views this off-season in terms of turning the franchise around. According to Pierre LeBrun, the deal is worth over $30M for five years depending on bonuses. That also means the Blackhawks are happy to see their former head coach, who had a contract through the end of next season, off of their books and into the Eastern Conference.

The addition of a successful, big-name head coach is to be the start of a busy summer for Tallon and the Panthers. They’ve made the playoffs once in the last seven seasons and they aren’t splashing the cash for Quenneville to not be a playoff team a year from now. The biggest question is what happens in net with Roberto Luongo‘s future. The 40-year-old has three years left on his deal and just finished a season where he was hampered with injury. James Reimer still has two years remaining on his contract. Then you have the rumors of a potential tandem free agent signing this summer of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, which could be a game-changer for the franchise considering the talent that’s already there.

However busy the Panthers’ off-season turns out to be, Monday was a great start in hopes to moving in a better direction.

MORE: Quenneville sees Panthers’ roster with right ‘ingredients to win’

————

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 to watch for in final days of 2018-19 NHL season

Getty

There is only playoff spot still up for grabs in the NHL’s playoff race, and it could be decided as early as Friday night if the Columbus Blue Jackets can beat the New York Rangers. While that would be somewhat disappointing as it relates to drama and excitement for the final day of the regular season, there will still be plenty of big storylines to watch.

What should you be paying attention to? Let’s take a look.

1. Columbus just needs one win. Everything is sitting right there for the Blue Jackets. All they have to do is win one game against either the sixth-worst team in the league (the Rangers on Friday) or the worst team in the league (the Ottawa Senators on Saturday). That is it. That is all they need to do. If they manage to miss the playoffs (which they would do with if they fail to collect two points over those two games and if Montreal beats Toronto) it would probably be one of the most stunning end-of-season collapses in league history. No pressure!

2. Tampa Bay looks to tie the NHL’s single season win record. They can’t break the record, but if the Lightning beat the Boston Bruins they would win their 62nd game of the season, tying them with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a single season. They are currently one of just three teams to have ever won at least 60 in a single season.

3. More Nikita Kucherov milestones. Assuming they do not rest him, Nikita Kucherov would need four points to become the first player since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr during the 1995-96 season to record at least 130 points in a season. He is also four assists away from 90 for the season. While that seems like a tall order, keep in mind he already has eight four-point games this season, including one four-assist game.

4. Blues try to go from worst to first. In the first week of January the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference. With a win on Saturday, combined with losses by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, they would finish the season in first place in the Central Division. That is a remarkable turnaround in a very short period of time.

5. Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares shoot for 50. You have to go all the way back to the 2011-12 season to find the last time the NHL had multiple 50-goal scorers in the same season (Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin did it) but we have a chance to see it happen again this season. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl needs just one to become the first Oilers player since Wayne Gretzky scored 62 during the 1986-87 season (that is, if you exclude Craig Simpson’s 1987-88 season, where he only scored 43 of his goals as a member of the Oilers). His season has been kind of lost in the shadows of another monster year from Connor McDavid and overlooked because of the rest of the team’s struggles, but he has been sensational. Tavares, if he plays in what is a meaningless game for Toronto, would need to score three goals against the Montreal Canadiens to record his first 50-goal season. There have only been seven 50-goal performances since the start of the 2010-11 season, and four of them belong to Alex Ovechkin.

6. Four players are within reach of 100 points. Kucherov, McDavid, Draisaitl, Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand are already at the century mark, and with big games in their regular season finales Sidney Crosby (98 points), Johnny Gaudreau (98 points), Nathan MacKinnon (98 points), and Stamkos (97 points) could also get there. That is, of course, assuming they play. Pittsburgh (Crosby) and Colorado (MacKinnon) are the only players on teams that can improve their place in the standings, so it is possible Gaudreau or Stamkos could be held out. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov is the next closest player with 94 points, but would need an incredible effort to get to 100 on the season.

7. The potential for some finales. While there is no indication that he is going to retire, the reality is that Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is 40 years old and his future with the team (or in the NHL) could very much be in doubt. With the Wild missing the playoffs and a new general manager in charge, it is possible Bruce Boudreau could be coaching his final game in Minnesota. Jason Pominville, a long-time fan favorite in Buffalo, could be appearing in his final game as a member of the Sabres.

8. The draft lottery watch. The Ottawa Senators are locked in to the NHL’s worst record meaning their first-round pick (which now belongs to the Colorado Avalanche) will have the best odds to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But several other teams could see their odds change depending on the outcome of their remaining games. The big ones to watch are the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Entering play on Friday the Kings have the second worst record in the league, sitting just one point behind the Devils. A Devils regulation loss, combined with one Kings win, would see New Jersey’s lottery odds jump up from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent.

9. The Nichushkin and Rieder watch. Tobias Rieder has played 66 games for the Edmonton Oilers this season and not scored a goal. Valeri Nichushkin has played 57 games for the Dallas Stars and not scored a goal OR taken a penalty. Will one of them get a goal? At least let Rieder get one after he had to take all of the blame for the Oilers’ struggles this season.

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.

Panthers goalie Luongo to turn 40, figure out what’s next

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Roberto Luongo won 227 games during his 20s. He won 262 more games during his 30s.

And now, his 40s await.

Florida’s veteran goalie – the oldest netminder and third-oldest player to appear in the NHL this season – will celebrate his milestone 40th birthday on Thursday. He’s tentatively scheduled to start the Panthers’ season-finale on Saturday night. Then it’ll be time for Luongo to begin his rite of spring: figuring out whether to keep playing.

”I don’t really want to make any decisions over the course of a season,” said Luongo, who would be the 20th goalie to play an NHL game as a 40something. ”Obviously, there’s a lot of emotions involved with that and you want to make sure that you make the right decision for all parties involved. I still love to play the game, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Luongo still has three years left on his contract and hasn’t given any indication that he’s looking at Saturday night as a farewell. He led the Panthers’ goaltender corps in starts and minutes this season – even after injuring a knee on opening night and missing a month, then being sidelined again a few weeks later with an aggravation of the same problem.

The Panthers missed the playoffs again. The franchise hasn’t won a postseason series since 1996. But in the room, Luongo’s voice still carries more weight than any other.

”He’s a future Hall of Famer,” said 22-year-old Sam Montembeault – a rookie and possibly Florida’s goalie heir apparent, who grew up idolizing Luongo and now sits next to him in the locker room. ”Every time I come to the rink, I’m learning from him. Before every game, he gives me advice, talks to me about the tendencies of certain players. I hope at 39 years old I can be as good as he is. I’ll take that any day.”

Luongo’s numbers this season weren’t great: His goals-against average is 3.10, the highest of any full season in his career, and his save percentage is a career-low .900. But the Panthers were plagued by defensive issues all season, which needs consideration when looking at Luongo’s numbers. And he’s finishing the year strong, with a 4-1-0 record in his last five starts.

”I know he wants to finish this season off the right way,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”And I think, after the season, he’s going to relax and he’s going to take some time. He’s going to spend some time with his family and think about what he wants to do next year.”

The Panthers plan to be active in free agency this summer. They’ll likely target a top goalie on July 1 and have been high on Montembeault’s potential.

Still, it would still be shocking if Florida didn’t try to convince Luongo to come back.

He remains a fan favorite, the veritable face of the franchise. He’s third in NHL history in wins, second all-time in saves, and has won more games with the Panthers than any two other goalies to ever don the team colors have combined. And if anyone thinks his mind is made up, Luongo turned to Twitter this week in an effort to debunk a report that health issues are soon going to usher in the end of his career.

”The only thing that I don’t really enjoy is when you see something that’s completely fabricated,” Luongo said. ”That’s the part that sometimes you’re not too happy about. But that being said, I’ve been through it many times. I handled it the best way that I could by making a joke out of it, and I’m moving on from there.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Is there easy fix for Panthers’ continued woes?

11 Comments

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.