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Trading Huberdeau could go very, very wrong for Panthers

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History is already repeating itself in an unpleasant way for the Florida Panthers, as they look all but certain to miss the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 seasons. You almost have to try to fail enough not to win a playoff series since 1995-96.

The good news is that the Panthers have amassed a tantalizingly talented group, and they can supplement that core with the right mix of luck and skill. You know, as long as they don’t keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.

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

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

“It’s a rumor, we don’t know if it’s true,” Huberdeau said on Tuesday. “I’m just going to play here for now. We’re trying to make a push for the playoffs and I am going to do everything I can. We’ll see what happens.”

Let’s dig into Huberdeau’s underrated value, the many questions Florida faces during a pivotal crossroads moment for the franchise, and the other, wiser routes they should take.

Huberdeau is a crucial building block

If the Maple Leafs have shown us anything with William Nylander and Auston Matthews (and soon Mitch Marner), it’s that young, high-end players aren’t going to be cheap on second contracts much longer. With that in mind, teams that do have high-end players locked up on bargain contracts should guard them as jealously as a child with ice cream.

Huberdeau is just 25, and his bargain cap hit is $5.9 million. That’s the same as Aleksander Barkov‘s deal, but Huberdeau’s contract runs one extra year (through 2022-23) than Barkov’s does (2021-22). Considering Vincent Trocheck‘s deal ($4.75M cap hit through 2021-22), the Panthers boast one of the most enviable cores in hockey because they could very well afford more pieces.

Not only that, but Huberdeau’s having a fantastic season while suffering from fairly bad luck.

His shooting percentage of 9.4 percent is his lowest since 2014-15, and his on-ice shooting percentage is 6.9 percent, the second-worst mark of his career. Despite not getting bounces, Huberdeau’s had a great season, generating 13 goals and 52 points in 55 games.

Honestly, if every GM made rules like “don’t trade a player when they’re experiencing some of their worst shooting percentages of their careers,” then a boatload of the NHL’s dumbest trades would never happen.

Yes, Panarin is better than Huberdeau, but the gap isn’t as big as you might expect, and who knows how many million more Panarin will cost than Huberdeau’s $5.9M? Will it be $10M per year, or $11M? Maybe more?

Huberdeau compares fairly well to Panarin, a full-fledged star. The Panthers shouldn’t move Huberdeau to get Panarin; instead, they should explore every avenue to get both on their team.

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

via Bill Comeau/Corsica

Looking at Panarin from a wide variety of angles, it’s resounding just how clearly he’s worth the hype. To an extent, it makes sense that some might see moving Huberdeau as a the price of doing business.

It’s just that the Panthers would be far wiser to pay a different price, as Huberdeau’s a gem.

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

What about Bob?

If the thinking is that the Panthers need to trade away Huberdeau to secure Panarin and Bob, the Panthers should do some soul-searching about Bobrovsky.

Don’t get me wrong. Goaltending has been the Panthers’ achilles heel, and while Bobrovsky’s .903 save percentage this season is troubling, Bob has a credible argument that he’s been the best goalie in the NHL since he joined the Blue Jackets.

Still, Bobrovsky is 30 and will turn 31 in September, and the Panthers already have almost $8M in cap space tied up in Roberto Luongo (39, $4.53M cap hit through 2021-22) and James Reimer (30, $3.4M through 2022-23). Yes, there are ways to alleviate some of the pressures; Luongo’s health might credibly land him on LTIR at some point in the semi-near future, and Reimer could be a buyout target.

This Panthers team might have a budget, though, and what if Bobrovsky trends closer to the backup-level goalie he’s been this season than the two-time Vezina-winner from the past?

Florida might be better off trying to find the next Robin Lehner, rather than risking Bobrovsky having a contract as scary as that of Carey Price or … well, their other two goalies.

Don’t force it

Moving Huberdeau to try to proactively lock down Panarin and Bobrovsky has some logic to it, but it would be a massive overpay.

Most obviously, the Panthers could just wait and see if Panarin and Bobrovsky would come to them via free agency, without costing them a single asset. If they’d sign extensions with Florida, wouldn’t they sign with them in July?

But the concerns about Bob bring up another possibility: maybe a Plan B would work better, overall?

The free agent market is reasonably robust with forwards. Maybe Mark Stone or Matt Duchene would want to soak up the sun and give Florida a boost? Overextending for Panarin and especially Bobrovsky could be a rough value proposition.

Move someone else

The Panthers also have plenty of other pieces to work with.

They could still get at least something for Derick Brassard and/or Riley Sheahan. Jamie McGinn‘s $3.33M is about to come off the books, so that can help even if it just makes a splashy free agent more affordable.

(According to Cap Friendly, the Panthers currently have about $58.5M devoted to 13 players; if the cap goes to $83M, that would give them about $24.5M.)

Thanks to the Nick Bjugstad and Alex Petrovic trades, the Panthers have picks in every round again, including three fourth-rounders. Those picks might not be appealing to the Blue Jackets in a potential Panarin trade, but if the Senators decide to move Stone and/or Duchene, suddenly Florida could be in that mix.

If trading Huberdeau is as much about clearing money as anything else, then there are much better ways to ease financial tensions. Perhaps the Panthers could bribe someone to absorb the full cost of Reimer’s contract, even if costs a pick or two?

Status quo isn’t so bad

Trying to add a big player makes a lot of sense for Florida, but blowing up what they have by recklessly giving up Huberdeau in a sell-low situation isn’t the best way to get better.

And don’t forget, Florida could be on the verge of adding some other nice pieces.

Henrik Borgstrom isn’t setting the NHL on fire, but he’s just 21, and many believe the big forward has serious potential. Many scouts are also excited about Owen Tippett, who’s about to turn 20 on Feb. 16.

The prospect of those prospects making bigger jumps might prompt some to say “OK, then, trade Huberdeau; they can replace him.” Instead, it should inspire the Panthers to take a more zen-like approach.

If you’re going to move any fully formed forward, you’d be better off moving Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, as both are only under contract through 2020-21. Yet, even in those cases, they’re both cost-effective, quality players.

Tallon should instead envision Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck, Hoffman, Dadonov, Borgstrom, Tippett, and a free agent giving the Panthers a mix of high-end skill and unusual-for-2019 depth.

Really, the Panthers’ biggest question might be: is Bob Boughner the right guy as head coach? Publicly speaking, Tallon at least seems to think so.

In summary: Don’t move Hubey

Overall, it makes sense that the Panthers want to add Panarin and Bobrovsky, or other big pieces. This team is getting impatient, and maybe doesn’t believe that it’s an option to sit idly by.

People make mistakes when they’re desperate, though, and the concept of a Huberdeau trade carries that stink. This doesn’t mean that there’s no scenario where it can work out for Florida … the odds are just higher that things would pay off if they did something else.

Decades of history argue that the Panthers won’t get this right, but they could very well build something special if they do. Good luck, Dale Tallon.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Trade Deadline 2019: Four playoff bubble teams that need to sell

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With the 2019 NHL trade deadline coming up on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET, we already have a pretty good idea as to who the clear buyers and sellers are.

We know Tampa Bay, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Vegas, Calgary, Nashville, Boston, Washington, San Jose and a few others (New York Islanders? Montreal Canadiens?) at the top of the standings will be buying.

We also know the teams at the bottom of the standings will be selling — teams like Detroit, Ottawa, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other clear rebuilding teams. We already looked at a couple of those teams in depth a little. (Chicago here; Los Angeles here).

We also know there are probably a few teams in the middle that might tinker with their roster a bit with a bigger picture move here or there. Maybe they even simply stay the course and do nothing. Teams like Vancouver, Carolina, and Buffalo.

Then there are a couple of teams that are still on the playoff bubble that have some big decisions to make.  Here, we take a look at four teams that are probably still considered on the playoff bubble that should resist the temptation to add and go into a seller mode.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

1. Anaheim Ducks. The record is a mirage. It is not even a good record, but it is still a mirage. The standings say they are only three points out of a playoff spot, which might be manageable and doable under normal conditions in a normal season. But they are only three points out of a playoff spot because the bottom half of the Western Conference is as bad as it’s ever been, and because John Gibson and Ryan Miller carried them to more wins than they deserved early in the season.

Even with three-point gap they still have five teams ahead of them for a playoff spot. They are also only on pace for 78 points this season. That is awful, and the fact they are still “in it” is a testament to how bad the rest of the Western Conference is around them.

Not only are the Ducks arguably the worst team in the NHL right now — and seemingly getting worse by the day — they have three massive contracts tied up in players age 33 or older and only have five draft picks in the 2019 class. So they’re bad now and are probably going to be bad for the foreseeable future. Yes, Corey Perry has only played in two games played this season. Yes, Ryan Kesler has dealt with injuries recently. But let’s be honest about this mess and admit that this team isn’t a 33-year-old Corey Perry and a 34-year-old Ryan Kesler away from being good again.

There should be no one on this roster that is untouchable other than John Gibson.

Jakob Silfverberg is their big upcoming free agent and they should absolutely be looking to move him. Given their current salary cap situation they can’t afford another long-term deal on a player pushing 30 that probably won’t be an impact player.

Tear it down and start over.

2. Florida Panthers. For the second year in a row the Panthers began the season by falling flat on their face in the first two months before trying to put it all together for a second half push that will ultimately fall short.

The Panthers already started selling by sending Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to Pittsburgh in an effort to dump salary.

Those salary dumps did two things.

First, it added to the Panthers’ stockpile of draft picks and gives them nine picks in 2019. It also helped them clear future salary cap space to prepare themselves for a run at Sergei Bobrovsky and/or Artemi Panarin. Or any other free agent they have their sights set on.

That sell off should continue in the coming weeks. Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, both acquired in the Pittsburgh trade, have no real long-term value to the Panthers beyond this season and could easily be flipped again as rentals at the deadline for additional picks. If they are going to take a run at Bobrovsky that means one of their goalies that is already under contract beyond this season (for several more seasons) is going to need to go.

The Panthers aren’t going to make up enough ground in the playoff race to be a factor this season, but they can position themselves to be players in the offseason and hopefully build around their of Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, and Jonathan Huberdeau.

3. Philadelphia Flyers. Goalies are weird, and projecting goalies long-term performance is not something you want to try to do based on less than 30 games at the NHL level because there is a good chance you are going to make yourself look like an idiot in the future by being horribly wrong. Having said that, I’m going to take a chance here and say Carter Hart might be the player. He might be the player the Flyers and their fans have been waiting for. He might be the player that actually sets them in net and positively impacts the franchise.

He might be. He could be. Maybe he is?

Heck, he has already helped change this season by arriving in the NHL and backstopping the team to an eight-game winning streak that has a chance to keep going with a couple of dog teams on the schedule over the next week.

That is all great news for the future of the Flyers. Perhaps even as soon as next season. But even with this current hot streak they are still five points out of a playoff spot and they still have three teams ahead of them. For as much ground as they have gained over the past two weeks that is still a difficult gap to overcome and they’re not going to keep winning forever.

When Chuck Fletcher took over as the new general manager I argued he needed to let this season play itself out, evaluate what he is, and then address what he still needs in the offseason. In other words, don’t come in and take a machete to the roster and don’t make some foolish short-term addition to the roster that tries to salvage the season. Let it play out.

With Hart emerging as the team’s starting goalie he could be a game-changer for them and it might be worth seeing what a core built around Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier can do with an actual living, breathing, solid NHL goalie. So a tear down probably isn’t in the cards.

What should be in the cards is dealing the upcoming unrestricted free agents on the roster (Wayne Simmonds and Michael Raffl specifically) if there is a market for them, and perhaps trying to dump an undesirable contract (Andrew MacDonald?).

The hot streak is probably (heavy emphasis on probably) too little, too late, but offers some encouragement for the very near future. There are pieces here to sell, but don’t blow it all up just yet.

4. Edmonton Oilers. They need to do something to fix this mess. But what is that something? The head coach and general manager are already gone There aren’t many options here that don’t result in another core player (likely Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Oscar Klefbom) getting shipped out. Given their history of those moves, that would probably be disastrous.

The Oilers look like a team that is on track to miss the playoffs, again, and there is no rental or addition they can possibly make in the next three weeks that is going to change that.

So they need to sell. Sell whatever they can that isn’t named McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins or Klefbom.

Some of that will be difficult because there isn’t much here beyond those four that has a lot of value. But the one name that stands out is Alex Chiasson. He joined the Oilers for nothing on a PTO, earned a spot on the roster, and has had a surprisingly decent season that has already seem him set a career high in goals scored.

A very Oilers-like move would be to look at a 28-year-old winger having a career season that is driven by an unsustainably high 25 percent shooting percentage and thinking, “he’s going to repeat this! Let’s sign him!”

The sensible move is to sell high, cash in what they can, and try to pick up a future asset for a player that was a pleasant surprise for you.

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.

More on trade: Penguins lock in; Panthers prep Panarin pursuit?

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In a previous post, PHT went over the elements of the fascinating trade between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers, noting the immediate cap concerns and some stats for the players involved. There’s more to chew on when you zoom out even further to the big picture for the teams — and to some extent, the entire league, considering potential trade deadline implications.

So, consider this peeling back another layer to this complex onion of a move. Let’s refresh your memory with the terms of the trade, and then get started.

Penguins receive: Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Panthers receive: Derick BrassardRiley Sheahan, one second-round pick in 2019, and two fourth-round picks (one from the Penguins, one from the Wild via the Jamie Oleksiak trade) in 2019.

Florida faces fascinating fork in the road

If you’re grading the Florida Panthers here, I’d advise you to write the letter grade with a pencil, not a permanent marker. There’s an undeniable air of “To be continued …” here.

You could turn into Charlie Kelly unearthing fictional conspiracy theories with all of the trade tree possibilities here, as the Panthers:

  • Gained about $5.25M in cap space for 2019-20 in shedding Bjugstad and McCann, being that Brassard ($3M) and Sheahan ($2.1M) will see their contracts expire after this season.

  • Replenished/supplemented draft picks by getting three from the Penguins. Not long ago, Florida was looking a bit stark for 2019; by getting a third for Alex Petrovic, a second back in this trade, and two extra fourth-rounders, the Panthers have ammo to make future moves.
  • They could flip Brassard (and maybe even Sheahan?) again for even more picks.

That additional cap space gives Florida room to work with if they want to shoot for Artemi Panarin, (and/or?) Sergei Bobrovsky, or other big-time free agent targets. If I were in the Panthers’ position, I’d be most aggressive in targeting Panarin, or someone like him (example: Mark Stone).

“We’ve freed up a lot of space for an aggressive summer in free agency,” GM Dale Tallon said after the trade, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

With Panarin in particular, the Panthers needs to really search their minds about trying to cut in line by essentially aiming for a sign-and-trade by the deadline, instead of the summer.

Going for a Panarin-type now would mean parting with assets, yet on the other hand, the Panthers would guarantee that they’d land that player if they agreed to an extension.

Such a scenario could very much be worth Florida’s while. After all, while the Panthers have some strengths for a would-be free agent (Florida tax breaks, Florida weather, maybe not Florida Man), they’ve also lacked success as a franchise. The Panthers could avoid losing out to a more established contender by simply bypassing the free agent process and getting a deal done by the deadline.

In the long run, this could be a lot like the NHL’s answer to the New York Knicks trading Kristaps Porzingis in hopes of landing someone like Kevin Durant.

If it works, the Panthers could land a tide-changing talent. This team already has Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Mike Hoffman. Imagine that group with a Panarin-level difference-maker added to the mix?

On the other hand, there’s the risk that the Panthers would be left with little but cap space, possibly leaving them stuck in a familiar situation, much like the sad-sack Knicks.

Time will tell, but it sure seems like Florida is betting big on its future, and that will be an exciting situation to watch.

[More on the immediate aspects of the trade]

Penguins gain *and* lose flexibility

Intriguingly, the Penguins are more versatile on the ice after this trade — but also might box themselves into a corner.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey notes, Pens GM Jim Rutherford values the forward balance this trade could strike, particularly since Bjugstad can play at RW but also at third-line center, where he’s currently slotted.

“It gives us guys who can play in the top-nine, in Nick’s case, the top-six,” Rutherford said. “It makes our top-12 stronger. Now we have guys who will play on our fourth line that can move up into the top-nine on any given night. We have more balance in our forwards than we’ve had all year.”

The Penguins are making calculated risks when it comes to shooting for short and mid-term competitiveness, but like some other aging contenders, you have to wonder if something will have to give.

Alone, spending $5.35M in cap space on Bjugstad and McCann won’t wreck the Penguins’ cap situation. It really wouldn’t be surprising if they end up being fantastic bargains for a team that is perpetually strapped for cash.

But GM Jim Rutherford is continuing to commit this team to moves beyond next season, rather than taking “rentals.”

Tanner Pearson‘s $3.75M cap hit runs through 2020-21. Jack Johnson‘s still-baffling $3.25M won’t run out until 2022-23. McCann’s deal expires after next season, but Bjugstad runs through 2020-21.

That money starts to add up. Via Cap Friendly, the Penguins are slated to allot $78.83M to just 16 players in 2019-20.

They’ve also been bleeding draft picks. Look at Brassard alone and you’ll see that they gave up a first-rounder in 2018 and third-rounder in 2019 (plus a package including Ian Cole and Filip Gustavsson) to land him, and then sent out three picks in this latest trade.

A lot of these moves look pretty positive for the Penguins. After all, they’re getting more than one shot to reap rewards from Bjugstad, as they did with Brassard before him.

On the other hand, if the Penguins are wrong – or if market forces dictate that certain free agents become cheaper than expected, like in the odd MLB situation – then they’ll have less agility to zig and zag. There’s a risk of not having quite enough talent to beat other contenders, while also draining your prospect pool so shallow that you’re stuck in limbo for an extended period of time.

Then again, maybe that’s just the price of doing business in the salary cap era.

***

In a vacuum, this is already a highly interesting trade, and one where the impact changes based on when you’re looking back in hindsight.

It gets even bigger if the Penguins strike the perfect balance for another Stanley Cup run, the Panthers maneuver to land a big fish in free agency or … maybe both?

How do you think this will play out, and what would you do next, particularly if you were running the Panthers? The 2019 trade deadline could end up being endlessly fascinating, and the summer of free agency might be even better. It’s a great time to sizzle on the hockey hot stove.

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.

Trade: Penguins land Bjugstad; Panthers receive picks, Brassard

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The Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins made a significant trade on Friday.

Pittsburgh confirmed these terms:

Penguins receive: Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Panthers receive: Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, one second-round pick in 2019, and two fourth-round picks (one from the Penguins, one from the Wild via the Jamie Oleksiak trade) in 2019.

This is a fascinating decision for both sides.

Penguins perspective

One thing that jumps out for Pittsburgh is that they’re taking on contracts that extend beyond next season, while giving up players who were on expiring deals.

Bjugstad, 26, carries a $4.1 million cap hit through 2020-21. He’s a big body (listed at 6-foot-6), and possesses a right-handed shot, two things the Penguins likely coveted.

Much like with Tanner Pearson, you could label Bjugstad as a “buy-low” candidate. After scoring 19 goals and 49 points last season, Bjugstad only has five goals and 12 points in 32 contests in 2018-19.

In line with Bjugstad, Jared McCann, 22, has a contract that extends beyond this season, as his $1.25M cap hit expires after 2019-20. After scoring nine goals and 28 points in 68 games in 2017-18, McCann has eight goals and 18 points in 46 games this season.

Bjugstad’s the bigger body, but both are former first-rounders (Bjugstad -19th in 2010; McCann – 24th in 2014), and McCann’s enjoying a slightly more effective season, so it will be interesting to see how this works out for the Pens. Bjugstad excelled when placed with Aleksander Barkov for a stretch last season, so maybe he’d flourish if he landed with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin?

(Bjugstad could also slot in as a 3C, so there’s at least versatility there.)

Panthers eye the future?

One interesting element here is that, while the Panthers received three 2019 picks in this trade, they could very well spin this into more assets. After all, it’s difficult to imagine Florida making enough of a surge to land in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

The Winnipeg Jets and other teams have been connected to Brassard in trade rumors, so Florida could very logically have decided that they will merely serve as a temporary home for the center. As of right now, he would likely slot in as the Panthers’ third center behind Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, which wouldn’t feel that different from looking up at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the higher center positions.

(Considering that Brassard could gain or lose a lot of money with how the next few months turn out, he’d probably want a better shot at landing a 2C role somewhere else.)

The juiciest possibility for Florida wouldn’t be merely flipping Brassard for more picks, though. It’s also plausible that the Panthers may make a bid for a big-ticket item like Artemi Panarin and/or Sergei Bobrovsky before the trade deadline, with the hopes of locking someone up long-term.

Despite the excitement generated by Brassard’s arrival in Pittsburgh, things never really worked out. So far in 2018-19, Brassard generated nine goals and 15 points in 40 games.

Sheahan, 27, carries a $2.1M cap hit that expires after 2018-19. He’s been limited to nine points in 49 games this season, and Sheahan’s seen his TOI dip to 12:39 this season after averaging 15:17 (near his career-best) in 2017-18.

***

Personally, this trade has me going back and forth, which makes it one of the best types of trades. Who do you think came out on top, if you had to pick either the Penguins or Panthers?

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.

Here they go again: Panthers hoping for late-season surge

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By Time Reynolds (AP Sports Writer)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are hoping for deja vu.

Sort of.

A year ago, the Panthers shook off a disastrous start to the season and caught fire after the All-Star break – only to miss the playoffs by a single point. This year, they’re heading into the break on a three-game winning streak and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season after spending the first three months of the year sputtering near the bottom of the NHL.

So here they go again, trying for another late and improbable playoff push.

”We have that confidence back, that swagger,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said after a 6-2 win over San Jose on Monday night.

They’ll need more than swagger.

The Panthers were 24-8-2 in the final 34 games last season, getting 50 of a possible 68 points down the stretch. This year, with 34 games left when they return to the ice on Feb. 1, they’ll need a similar run. Florida is 10 points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points from catching Boston for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division.

”I think we are starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”We have a long way to go.”

As unlikely as it seems – especially for the Panthers, an often-woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 – there is a potential path to the postseason.

Florida (20-20-8) has 12 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 23, and 11 of those are on home ice. That’s the good news. The flip side is this: Of those 12, eight are against teams that are currently in the top half of the NHL, including matchups with Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington, Pittsburgh and Vegas quickly after the All-Star break ends.

”It’s nice to be back to feeling the way I like to feel and the confidence is there,” said Luongo, who has won consecutive starts for the first time in more than a month. ”The guys are playing well in front of me. It’s a two-way street. When the guys play well I feel good and when I feel good the guys play well.”

There is a clear urgency, and it started last week with the team on what was then a seven-game losing skid.

Florida was without Vincent Trocheck for 27 games after he broke his right ankle in November. When he returned to practice last week, the Panthers’ plan was to keep him out until after the break in order to make sure he was fully ready to go.

Trocheck successfully argued otherwise. Not only did he play in three games since returning to practice – in a four-day span, no less – the Panthers went 3-0-0 in those games, clearly sparked by his comeback.

”We’re having fun,” said Trocheck, who has two goals and two assists since returning. ”It’s fun to win some hockey games. It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into a break like this with a little bit of momentum, having some fun, it’s going to make a big difference for the second half.”

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