Aleksander Barkov

Previewing the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Much better … and they’re paying a premium to do so, what with Sergei Bobrovsky‘s risky seven-year, $70 million contract.

The changes in net didn’t stop there, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer being traded away. Joel Quenneville is the other big-name addition as head coach, while the Panthers also paid a pretty penny for Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman.

If nothing else, the Panthers proved that they’re willing to spend money.

Strengths: The Panthers entered 2018-19 with optimism for a simple reason: they have some great, young forwards. Aleksander Barkov is the headliner, but Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and (if healthy) Vincent Trocheck are all excellent players, most of them signed on bargain deals.

On paper, there’s a pretty big drop-off from the top six to the two lower forward lines, even if Connolly ends up being a boost for Florida’s depth. One thing that can swing the depth battle a bit would be promising prospects graduating. Can Henrik Borgstrom take that next step? Might Owen Tippett leap to become a full-time NHL winger? Aleksi Heponiemi was already sent down to the AHL, but there are others who might win training camp battles, and they might just move the needle in playoff bubbles for the Cats.

Weaknesses: Florida’s defense is expensive, but not necessarily worth the money. That was an uncomfortable undercurrent to their goaltending struggles last season: how much of this came down to putting netminders in a position to fail? Stralman had some great highs during his underrated career, yet his play dropped off badly recently, so he might be yet another Panthers blueliner who fails to justify his price tag.

This is an area where Florida hopes that the combination of Bobrovsky’s often-elite goaltending mixes with Quenneville’s system to keep the puck out of the net, while that offense hogs the puck. There are situations where that juggling act might fail, and there are also doubts about Florida’s backup options if Bob struggles and/or gets injured.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Quenneville hopes to prove that he still has it, and the Panthers must be feeling impatient after years of disappointments, particularly after spending big bucks to get better. Coach Q isn’t bulletproof, but he’s pretty safe with this being his first season. Let’s call it a 2 on the seat scale.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Bobrovsky, Hoffman, and Trocheck.

After some drama and a final season of peaks and valleys in Columbus, Bob got his wish. He’s out from under Torts, and he got paid. Excuse me, he got paid. Now it’s time to prove that he’s still a Vezina-level goalie, even as he turns 31 on Sept. 20.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is chasing his big payday, as the sniper enters a contract year where his next deal can really climb or fall depending upon how he performs in 2019-20.

Trocheck has been a gem for the Panthers, yet it’s unclear how well he might perform not that far removed from a ghastly injury last season. It’s impressive that he was able to return in 2018-19, but can he find that pre-injury game that was so all-around brilliant?

Playoffs or Lottery: They’re closer to the playoffs than the lottery.

It’s not out of line to paint a picture of a huge jump, with health, Bobrovsky’s goaltending, strong top scorers, and Quenneville coalescing into a new-look contender. There are plenty of ways things can go wrong, too, including Bob having another so-so season like he did in 2018-19.

More than anything else, the Panthers might just face long odds to climb into the Atlantic’s top three, as they’re less of a sure thing than the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. That doesn’t mean Florida can’t dislodge one or more of that seemingly mighty group, but it’s easier to picture them battling for a wild-card spot.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Panthers’ Barkov still feels sting of disappointing season

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — For Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov agony and anguish were constant companions this summer.

Despite outstanding individual numbers, reflecting on his season wasn’t fun for Barkov – and watching hockey on TV just made him feel worse.

The Panthers fell short of the playoffs for the third straight season, and it cost coach Bob Boughner his job. Additional fallout included the retirement of goalie Roberto Luongo.

And while their replacements are well respected – coach Joel Quenneville, who won three Stanley Cup titles with the Chicago Blackhawks; and Segei Bobrovsky, one of the top goalies in the 2019 free-agent market – Barkov hasn’t forgotten why they were needed in the first place.

”You never want anyone to leave your team, get fired or traded,” Barkov said during Florida’s Media Day event on Thursday at the BB&T Center. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and ask what you could’ve done better for that not to happen.”

Barkov was asked if he watched the Columbus Blue Jackets in the playoffs last season with the idea that their goalie, Bobrovsky, would sign with the Panthers.

”There were a lot of rumors, but I wasn’t thinking he would be our goalie,” Barkov said. ”I was just watching hockey and enjoying that but also (angry) that we were not in the playoffs.”

Barkov, who turned 24 earlier this month, did his part. He led the Panthers with 96 points, earned his first NHL All-Star Game berth and received the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, award. The award is given to the player who combines excellence on the ice with outstanding sportsmanship.

In addition, Barkov, who played all 82 games in his first season as Panthers captain, reached career highs in goals (35) and assists (61). He finished fifth for the Selke Trophy (for best defensive forward) and 16th for the Hart (MVP).

Barkov has earned the respect of his long-time teammates such as defenseman Aaron Ekblad as well as those who have just joined the team this year, a list that includes Bobrovsky.

”I don’t think ‘Barky’ will ever go out and scream at guys,” Ekblad said when asked about Barkov as a captain. ”But he’s the best on-ice leader I’ve been around, and he’s a great off-ice leader as well because the more you see him work, the more you want to work yourself.”

The sweat Barkov puts into his job, the attention to detail and that desire to do just that little bit extra – all those attributes have caught Bobrovsky’s attention.

”It’s a big deal when your captain is also your hardest-working guy,” Bobrovsky said. ”He’s a great two-way player.”

Panthers have gift in Barkov they can’t waste

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Even with all of the recent losing and non-playoff seasons there is still plenty of reason for Florida Panthers to be optimistic about the short-and long-term outlook of their team.

One of the biggest is the presence of star center Aleksander Barkov.

The 23-year-old center has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around players over the past few years due to his blend of elite offense and superb defensive play. Since the start of the 2015-16 season he is 10th among all players in points-per-game (0.99) and has received significant Selke Trophy votes each year, finishing in the top-six in three of those years.

Finally healthy enough to play a full season a year ago, he took a huge step forward and showed just how dominant he can be.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure |  Three Questions | X-Factor]

What makes him even more valuable to the Panthers right now is that he has one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NHL, counting just $5.9 million against the salary cap over the next three seasons, which should cover all of his prime years in the league. It helps make him one of the most valuable assets in NHL right alongside Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. Having a player this good, this young, and still this cheap for their best years in the league is a huge competitive advantage over other teams in the league. You need superstar players to win, and they tend to cost a significant amount of money. In today’s dollars, usually close to double what Barkov current counts against the cap.

Because Barkov signed such a long-term contract at such a young age there was always a chance he would outperform it if he reached all of his potential, and he has. Under the rules of the current CBA there is nothing he or the team can do about his salary for at least two more years.

What the Panthers CAN do, though, is take advantage of the good fortune they hit on with Barkov’s contract (and Jonathan Huberdeau‘s as well) and use that savings to try and build something around him.

It’s not often an NHL team gets a situation like this (great in their prime player for so cheap) and when they do they can’t let the opportunity to build around them to slip away.

MORE:
Can Panthers finally give their fans reason to pay attention?
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Can Panthers finally give fans reason to pay attention?

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The Florida Panthers may not own the NHL’s longest postseason drought, but there is no organization in the league that is more synonymous with losing than them.

How bad has it been?

In the first 25 years of their existence the Panthers have qualified for the playoffs just five times. Only two of those playoff appearances have come in the past 19 years and they have not played beyond the first-round since their improbable 1996 run to the Stanley Cup Final (the year of the rat). Other than that, it has been nothing. This is why it’s hard for me to be critical of Panthers fans (or potential Panther fans) for staying away from the arena or not showing up at the box office or, more simply, just not caring.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure |  Three Questions | X-Factor]

The best (and only) way to build a fan-base in any sport is to put an entertaining, successful product on the ice, court, or field, and no franchise in the NHL has failed more consistently at that than the Panthers. Refer back to two playoff appearances in the past 19 years. That is an almost unbelievable and unprecedented run of futility in professional sports, especially in a league where more than half of the teams make the postseason every year.

Just take a look at the teams with the fewest playoff games in the NHL and NBA since the start of the 2000 season. I am combining those two leagues because they have the most similar setups in the postseason (16 playoff teams each year; eight playoff teams in each conference; best-of-seven setup in the playoffs).

Look at how far below the Panthers have been behind the next worst teams. It is staggering.

If you are a sports fan in South Florida, even if just a casual one, what incentive has there been for you to get emotionally invested in this team?

They have lost on the ice consistently.

They have had PR nightmares (most recently the expansion draft debacle; the saga around Gerard Gallant’s firing and the organizational dysfunction overhaul that was taking place at that time).

They have, more often than not, been poorly run from a hockey and roster standpoint and never had any postseason success on the rare occasion they have qualified.

Hockey can work in any region, in any city, and any market, and there is great example as to how it can work in Florida just a few hours north of Miami. But you have to give people a reason to invest their time and money in your team, and in two-and-a-half decades the Panthers have never done that with any regularity.

It has to start changing, and this year’s team might have the potential to finally start shifting things in a positive direction. They have a star in Aleksander Barkov, hired one of the most successful coaches in NHL history (Joel Quenneville), and spent real money this offseason, including on one of the biggest free agents on the market at an important position of need (starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky).

There are risks with some of these moves and contracts that could result in even more change and turnover if they backfire, but there is at least some reason to be optimistic.

They just have to start getting results on the ice to turn that optimism into something that sticks around and gives their fans a reason to show up and keep returning.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.