Panthers are in good hands, but face big challenges in taking next step

Panthers are in good hands, but face bigs challenges in taking next step
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Get ready for a sentence I couldn’t imagine writing (unironically) not all that long ago. The Florida Panthers appear to be in … good hands?

For years, the Panthers blundered through some real mistakes. To be fair, Panthers GM Dale Tallon deserves the occasional bit of credit. Back in 2013, picking Aleksander Barkov ahead of Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones was mildly shocking. Today, it looks brilliant.

Unfortunately, Tallon made error after error around Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and a select few other positive standouts. Even when the Panthers found a gem out of the blue, they’d sometimes just sour on them for reasons. (Trading Jonathan Marchessault to get rid of Reilly Smith, possibly to keep Alex Petrovic, remains a profound head-scratcher.)

If you recall, Tallon’s response to regaining power over the short-lived Panthers “computer boys” prompted the veteran exec to utter “Thank God.” It’s early in the Bill Zito era, but after a single season, Panthers fans should be uttering that reaction.

Very positive early results

As a rule, I don’t love buying out players. While I’m sure the Panthers were champing at the bit to get rid of Keith Yandle, the savings from buying him out seem mediocre.

Even then, those quibbles melt away pretty quickly. If buying out Yandle simplified the Panthers’ expansion draft protection plan, then understood. If that was necessary to hand out potentially shrewd extensions to Anthony Duclair and Gustav Forsling? Then even better.

In a way, Duclair’s redemption arc almost matches that of the Panthers as a whole. A player and a team on a dramatic upswing:

But both contracts could serve up serious value for the Panthers.

Truly, retaining Duclair and Forsling feeds into a larger feeling around the Panthers.

This is a team that added a bunch of new players, most of whom were not particularly highly regarded. Credit Zito, Joel Quenneville, others, or a combination of factors, but the Panthers integrated new talent with aplomb.

Duclair and Sam Bennett probably stand as the most dramatic examples. In particular, it was astounding how seamlessly Bennett fit with Florida despite an in-season trade.

For a deeper look at how the Panthers mixed the right ingredients together with the right system, check out this from Jack Han.

While the Panthers fell to the Lightning in six games, there were times when it seemed like they were capable of something rare: making Tampa Bay a bit uncomfortable. Squint your eyes a bit, maybe picture a more stable goaltending situation, and you could imagine an even better Panthers team going forward.

3 Big obstacles as the Panthers hope to continue their climb

… There’s also some concern that the Panthers might struggle with an encore. Consider three key reasons why.

1. Ghosts of contracts past

As clever as Zito is, it’s tough to imagine the Panthers wiggling out of Sergei Bobrovsky‘s disastrous contract. At age 32, Bob carries that $10M cap hit through 2025-26 (five more seasons).

Such a contract is already taking up 12.3-percent of Florida’s space, and that’s assuming they’d ponder hitting the salary cap ceiling. It’s also a contract that can make other moves tougher. Would the Panthers be as willing to let Chris Driedger go if they weren’t stuck with Bobrovsky?

Adam Gretz broke down Yandle’s buyout details on Thursday:

2021-22: $2.34 million salary cap hit ($4 million salary cap savings)
2022-23: $5.3 million salary cap hit ($1.05 million salary cap savings)
2023-24: $1.24 million salary cap hit (-$1.24 million savings)
2024-25: $1.24 million salary cap hit (-$1.24 million savings)

Between Yandle, Roberto Luongo, and Scott Darling, the Panthers carry about $4.5M in dead money for at least 2021-22. If Bobrovsky’s a drag, that’s another $10M poorly spent.

For a team that has to be cost-conscious, that stings.

… And the Panthers would be wise to make any upcoming commitments either cap-friendly, or short-term.

2. Scary contract negotiations in the future?

When you’ve signed one of the best bargain contracts in the league, you gain quite the luxury. But then there’s the hangover-like feeling when the party’s over.

Aleksander Barkov, 25, carries a $5.9M cap hit for 2021-22, then he could become a UFA. It’s been a glorious six seasons, but payday’s approaching for the reigning Selke winner.

If I were the Panthers, I’d seek clarity regarding Barkov’s next contract. Frankly, I’d probably also want to extend Carter Verhaeghe (25, $1M for one more season, would be an RFA) sooner rather than later. If Verhaeghe sticks with Barkov and Duclair for another season, he could put up the sort of numbers that would make him far richer than his current steal-of-a-deal.

Two years down the line, there are other big potential stumbling blocks.

Like Barkov, 28-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau carries a mere $5.9M cap hit. He’ll need a new contract after 2022-23 (two seasons). Considering Huberdeau’s age, that might be complicated.

While the conversations were mostly limited to analytics circles, MacKenzie Weegar emerged with some dark horse Norris chatter in 2020-21. At 27, he’s a bargain at $3.25M (even if you’re not ready to ponder him as a borderline star) through 2022-23. Obviously, the Panthers wouldn’t mind if mainstream hockey people take longer to realize what they have in Weegar.

Promising goalie Spencer Knight, 20, will burn through his rookie contract after two more seasons, as well.

Now, the Panthers have some money coming off the books that should mitigate some challenges. Anton Stralman‘s just not who he once was, so it should be a relief to see that $5.5M evaporate after next season.

Overall, it might be crucial for the Panthers to remain sneaky-good (or better) in 2021-22. Doing so would maintain and potentially grow their fanbase. It may also be pivotal in convincing ownership to invest in keeping people like Barkov, Huberdeau, Weegar, and Knight in the fold.

(It might also be needed in bribing someone to take Bobrovsky off their hands … though that would be an easier sell down the road.)

3. A potentially deadly division

Look, it’s too early to truly know that the Atlantic Division will be brutal in 2021-22. That seems like the educated guess, however.

Consider what the Panthers could face:

  • Naturally, there’s the defending champions. This offseason could strike the Lightning hard, yet they have the core elements to contend again.
  • Despite some playoff heartache, the Bruins have a chance to be very, very good again. It’s not totally clear if Taylor Hall will be back, but Boston has room to remain among the elite.
  • Can the Maple Leafs get over the hump in the playoffs? Unclear. You’d be negligent to assume that they won’t be in the playoff mix, though.
  • Don’t count the Canadiens out after their Cinderella run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Even beyond that run, they’ve consistently been a competent-to-great team five-on-five. If Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield make them more dynamic, then look out.
  • The Senators, Red Wings, and Sabres are lesser concerns, no doubt. Every now and then, a rebuilding team makes a quicker leap than expected. Perhaps Ottawa could start to put things together?

Looking at the Atlantic Division, the Panthers might find themselves mainly eyeballing wild-card races.

Really, there would be no shame in that. The top five (Panthers included) looks pretty daunting a day before Seattle Kraken expansion draft protection lists are due.

For years, it often felt like the Panthers beat themselves. With some newfound hope, they seem a lot more competent, at least today. Unfortunately, taking the next step from competent to true contender won’t be easy.

Do you think they can pull it off?

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.

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    NHL on NBCSN: Marc-Andre Fleury is a win away from third all-time on his own

    NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild. Golden Knights-Wild stream coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

    Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury tied Roberto Luongo for third all-time in goalie wins with 489 in Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Coyotes.

    The next time he steps on the ice, he’ll be going for win 490, and third place by himself.

    “There won’t be a party or something like that,” Fleury said to reporters after Saturday’s game. “It’s still a bit surreal I think to have my name there with these guys. Maybe one day I’ll sit down and think about it and reflect on my career. For now, it’s a good win.”

    The 36-year-old Fleury is 62 wins behind Hall of Famer Patrick Roy for second all-time. Martin Brodeur’s record total of 691 seems impossibly far away for anyone.

    Luongo reached the mark in 1,044 career games; it took Fleury just 880.

    [GOLDEN KNIGHTS-WILD COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

    “Roberto is a guy I watched from his junior days and I got to play against him a bunch, in the NHL, too,” Fleury said. “Being a French-Canadian guy as well, I always kept an eye on him to see what he was doing. He was one of those goalies I watched growing up and tried to imitate.”

    Retiring Ducks goaltender Ryan Miller is the next closest active goalie to the top three at 391. Pekka Rinne trails him with 368 in 682 games while Montreal’s Carey Price has 360 in 707 contests.

    Fleury, who is 22-10-0 this season, is in the midst of a season-long six-game winning streak since April 11. He’s having potentially his best season yet, with a .926 save percentage — his second highest ever — and a career-best 2.08 goals against average. His five shutouts to date are tied for the third most of his career, but 33 games played is the quickest he’s been to that mark.

    The Golden Knights have won 10 of their last 11 games; Fleury’s play has been a catalyst.

    His .850 high-danger save percentage is 13th best in the entire league for goalies who have played at least 500 minutes. He also has the ninth highest goalie time on ice in the league, at 1608:13 minutes played. Fleury also sits 10th in the league in goals saved above average at 6.69, per Natural Stat Trick.

    Fleury has remained one of the best goalies in the NHL even at age 36, outperforming almost all of his career averages this season.

    He might not reach second all time — though, at this pace, who knows — but Fleury has a good chance of leading Vegas into a deep postseason run and hitting even more milestones.

    For now, with just a few games remaining in the regular season, Fleury is playing some of the best hockey of his career. While the Golden Knights stay hot, he’s been a big reason why.

    While he’s at it, Fleury is making a solid case for a Hall of Fame career, too.

    Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

    Ryan Miller to retire at end of 2020-21 NHL season

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    Ryan Miller has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2020-21 NHL season.

    “It was a dream come true when I played my first NHL game and it has been a privilege to spend 18 years as a professional,” the Ducks goaltender said in a statement. “I have decided that I am going to retire after the season having been given more time doing what I love than I could ever have hoped for. Thank you to you my teammates and staff, past and present. I’m thankful to so many who made my career possible and helped me on my journey from youth hockey to the NHL. Thank you to my family for supporting me with so much love and enthusiasm.”

    The 138th pick in the 1999 NHL Draft, Miller, 40, spent the first 11 years in the NHL with the Sabres, establishing himself as one of the league’s top netminders. He was rewarded for his play during the 2009-10 season with the Vezina Trophy. Miller also finished fourth in the voting for the Hart Trophy that year.

    [Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

    That same season he led the United States to within a goal of a gold medal against Canada at the Vancouver Olympic Games. His .946 save percentage in six games led to him being named to the all-tournament team, and earning him Best Goaltender and MVP honors.

    Miller is the all-time leader in wins among U.S.-born goaltenders (390) and is six starts away from 800 for his NHL career. He’ll finish with 18 seasons under his belt with four teams (Anaheim, Buffalo, St. Louis, Vancouver). And only Dominik Hasek (.922), Roberto Luongo (.919), Henrik Lundqvist (.918) Carey Price (.917) and Tomas Vokoun (.917) own better career save percentages than his .914 among goaltender with 700 appearances.

    (He was also a solid energy drink pitch man, as J.S. Aubin can attest.)

    Finally, Miller is also the answer to a unique piece of trivia. According to the Ducks, “he is the only player ever to be named the top goaltender in the NHL, Winter Olympics and American Hockey League, and the NCAA’s top player and best goaltender in his career.”

    Quite a career.

    PHT Morning Skate: OHL cancels 2021 season; McDavid’s best season

    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.

    • Stay at home orders and rising COVID-19 cases has forced the Ontario Hockey League to end plans for a 2021 season. [OHL]

    • Why this is the very best season of Connor McDavid‘s NHL career. [TSN]

    • Roberto Luongo has been named GM of Canada’s entry into the IIHF World Championship. Shane Doan has also been named to the management team. The tournament will take place May 21-June 6 in Riga, Latvia. [Sportsnet]

    • As they continue to push for a playoff spot, the Blues need the Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Tarasenko trio to start clicking. [Post-Dispatch]

    Carey Price will miss at least the next week after being placed in concussion protocol. [PHT]

    • Five losses in a row for the Maple Leafs and goaltending issues. How can they turn it around? [Toronto Sun]

    • A look at how NHL rosters will likely change before the summer expansion draft for the Kraken. [Sound of Hockey]

    • Another Max Domi scratch makes the Montreal trade with Columbus for Josh Anderson an even bigger win. [A Winning Habit]

    • One surprise for the Wild this season has been the play of Nico Sturm. [Hockey Wilderness]

    • Hockey’s ultimate EBUG, Nick Niedert, is hanging up his skates after an adventurous 817-game career. [Federal Hockey]

    • Former U.S. national defender Colleen Coyne is taking over as President of the NWHL’s Boston Pride. [The Ice Garden]

    • Did you know that Anders Cain a.k.a. Wyatt Russell has his own hockey card? [Puck Junk]

    ————

    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

    The Buzzer: Blues’ Hoffman, Ducks’ Stolarz stay hot; Fleury fourth all-time in wins

    The Buzzer: Blues' Hoffman, Ducks' Stolarz stay hot; Fleury fourth all-time in wins
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    3 Stars for Wednesday in the NHL

    1. Mike Hoffman, St. Louis Blues

    To some surprise, the Blues did not trade Mike Hoffman during the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. At least Hoffman’s rewarded (?) the Blues by going on a hot scoring streak lately.

    In his previous game, Hoffman produced two goals. He was even better on Wednesday, generating two goals and one assist. Hoffman factored into all three of the Blues’ points as they tried to erase the Avalanche’s advantage, but it wasn’t enough.

    With that, Hoffman has five goals and one assist for six points in five April games.

    On one hand, it’s not that surprising to see Hoffman rekindle his scoring touch; the talent’s always been there. But it’s hard to overstate just how rough things have been for him lately. Hoffman ended March with a five-game pointless streak, and also suffered through a stretch where he generated two points (1G, 1A) in 10 games. The Blues made Hoffman a healthy scratch, and not merely to protect him for a trade deadline move.

    This isn’t the first productive month for Hoffman with the Blues, mind you. With 11 points in 12 February games, he at least got on the scoreboard. That said, he’s a player who can sometimes nullify his offense (or be a net-negative) thanks to porous defense. The Blues had to know that, though, and maybe they’ll find the right mix after some very bumpy weeks.

    2. Tomas Nosek, Vegas Golden Knights

    Truly, you could give the second star of Wednesday in the NHL to Max Pacioretty. Just like Tomas Nosek, Pacioretty scored a goal and two assists as the Golden Knights flushed the Kings.

    But, really, we’re hearing all about Pacioretty thanks to that goal against Jonathan Quick. You can scroll down to see it for yourself.

    Maybe consider that goal a bit of a “gift,” thus giving Nosek something of a tiebreaker? Both players didn’t really help matters by offering up matching +3 ratings, either. Nosek collected his first two points via the Golden Knights’ first two goals, so he made his biggest impact when the game was closer.

    Nosek, 28, tied his career-high with 17 points this season, and he did it in 34 games (versus 68, when he scored 17 points in 2018-19). Solid stuff from someone who went undrafted.

    3. Anthony Stolarz, Anaheim Ducks

    If the Sharks fall short vs. the Blues and Coyotes in the race to claim the West Division’s fourth playoff spot, it won’t just be because Anthony Stolarz played the spoiler. But Stolarz, and the Ducks, have really been a thorn in the Sharks’ sides lately.

    Stolarz didn’t pull off back-to-back NHL shutouts for the Ducks on Wednesday after generating a 46-save goose egg on Trade Deadline Monday. Still, the Sharks could only beat Stolarz once in this game, as the towering goalie helped the Ducks win their third game in a row against their in-state rivals.

    This still only marks Stolarz’s 31st NHL appearance. That’s a small sample size, and his work this season is even a smaller one. Still, Stolarz has been putting up good numbers — when given the opportunity and/or healthy — in the AHL lately, too.

    Considering how close to retirement Ryan Miller must be, maybe the Ducks found a capable backup in Stolarz? (Then again, the rebuilding Ducks might even ponder the idea of trading John Gibson, in case Gibson’s value plummets as this process goes along.)

    At minimum, Stolarz played a big role in the Ducks spoiling some opportunities the Sharks likely identified as should-wins.

    Highlight of the night for Wednesday in the NHL

    Without a glaringly obvious highlight of Wednesday night in the NHL, let’s enjoy clips from the Avalanche holding off the Blues:

    Also, watch as the Golden Knights took care of business against the Kings:

    Lowlight of the night: Pacioretty goal beats Quick from the blueline

    You can see Pacioretty score that embarrassing goal against Quick in those Kings – Golden Knights highlights, but if you just want to watch that lowlight, check it out below:

    Stat of the Night: Fleury to fourth

    By posting his 485th career win on Wednesday, Marc-Andre Fleury broke his tie with Ed Belfour, and now sits fourth all-time in NHL history. It’s possible Fleury might move up the ladder this season, as Roberto Luongo sits at third place with 489 wins.

    Wednesday’s NHL scores

    Wild 5, Coyotes 2
    Flames 4, Canadiens 1
    Jets 3, Senators 2
    Avalanche 4, Blues 3
    Golden Knights 6, Kings 2
    Ducks 4, Sharks 1

    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.