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Panthers must resist making same old mistakes

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If we’ve learned anything from the last decade-plus of hockey in the salary cap era, it’s that even the most well-run NHL teams sometimes need to make the not-quite-ideal decision to fire a coach during the season.

Such gambles can pay off, whether we’re talking about short-term gains or the sort of stylistic changes that powered, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Look at Joel Quenneville; as frustrating as it must have been for him to get fired mid-stream, he was also an in-season replacement for the Chicago Blackhawks. That ended up being a pretty good call.

So, sure, sometimes such decisions are unavoidable, as messy as they are.

It gets tougher to argue for wholesale changes when you keep doing it over and over again, and that thought bubbles to the surface as there are at least faint murmurs about Bob Boughner and the Florida Panthers.

The Athletic’s George Richards reports that Boughner’s job wasn’t saved (sub required) when the Panthers eked out a 4-3 overtime win on Monday.

Out of context, it’s reasonable to at least wonder. The Panthers came into 2018-19 as a dark horse candidate after nearly roaring into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, suckering more than a few people (raises hand) into thinking that they could be a dangerous team.

Instead, they continue to be a day late and a dollar short, finding themselves with a mediocre 9-9-4 record, tying them for second-to-last in the East with 22 standings points.

What’s maddening is that so much is going right for the Panthers, at least when you consider the fact that they’re without sorely underrated center Vincent Trocheck for the distant future.

It stings that the Panthers are so mediocre despite Mike Hoffman being red-hot, Aleksander Barkov being Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov solidifying himself as a great winger, Keith Yandle piling up points, and Jonathan Huberdeau actually staying healthy. If you were to give the NHL the “NBA Jam” treatment* and just boil things down to a team’s best players, then the Panthers could go toe-to-toe with anyone, more or less.

So, what gives? What’s coming down the road, and what should the Panthers do? Let’s explore.

* – Or “Open Ice” treatment, if you want to be a Midway stickler.

Trouble in net

For a budget team like the Panthers, investing $4.533 million in Roberto Luongo, $3.4M in James Reimer, and another $1.3M in Michael Hutchinson would be tough to stomach even if it was working out.

Troublingly, things very much have not been working out, and the future looks a little glum. After all, Luongo’s hated contract runs through 2021-22(!) and Reimer’s won’t expire until after 2020-21 season.

It’s tempting to give Luongo a pass because a) he’s been great for so long, not to mention often-unappreciated and b) injuries have really disrupted him lately. Still, when he’s been on the ice, he hasn’t been great, with just a .902 save percentage over nine fragmented appearances.

As a goalie who was once (mostly justifiably) a fancy stats darling, Reimer has been a big disappointment lately. Instead of flourishing with Luongo out, Reimer’s been lousy, suffering an .895 save percentage this season. Hutchinson’s been even worse.

Could some of those struggles boil down to coaching?

Possibly, but this isn’t a Randy Carlyle-type situation where a team is just bleeding chances at an alarming level. The Panthers are averaging 31.2 shots allowed per game, tying them for 12th in the NHL with the low-tempo, more-troubled Kings. That’s easier to stomach when you realize Florida is firing 35.6 SOG per game, second only to the volume-crazed Hurricanes. On paper, you’d think the Panthers could make that work.

Granted, certain numbers smile upon Boughner less than others. While the Panthers score well (to extremely well) in even-strength possession stats like Fenwick For Percentage, Natural Stat Trick’s numbers put them in the bottom-third when it comes to their balance between creating and limiting high-danger scoring chances.

However you weigh Boughner’s share of the blame, it’s not really as if the Panthers are a disaster.

They would need to be

And let’s be honest, it’s about time that this franchise picks a course and sticks with it for a while.

As Richards notes, Bougher is the fifth Panthers head coach since the team came under new ownership in 2013-14. They’ve had a bad run of pulling the plug early lately. Bougher’s merely in his second season with Florida. The Panthers also:

  • Fired Kevin Dineen 16 games in 2013-14.
  • Handled Gerard Gallant’s in-season firing as sloppily as possible in 2016-17, allowing for the notorious photo of the bewildered coaching getting into a cab after being canned. That was an awful look then, and it only gets worse as Gallant racks up achievements with the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Tom Rowe barely got a look in replacing Gallant, and things flip-flopped again when Dale Tallon took over for the analytics-minded, briefly-lived regime (thank goodness).

That timeline doesn’t even cover how wayward this franchise has been before new ownership took over, as it seemed like there was an unending stream of new cooks in the kitchen, whether the team continuously shed coaches, GMs, or both.

Such a scatterbrained (lack of) gameplan at least partially explains why the Panthers have only made the playoffs three times since 1997-98, and haven’t won a single playoff series since that stunning run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

Yes, it’s best not to simply double down because of sunk costs, but the Panthers would risk making the same mistake over and over again if they gave Bougher such a short run as head coach.

Big tests

That said, the Panthers are about to play the third game of what looks like a crucial eight-game homestand. Here are the remaining six games:

Wed, Nov. 28 vs. Anaheim
Fri, Nov. 30 vs. Buffalo
Sat, Dec. 1 vs. Tampa Bay
Tue, Dec. 4 vs. Boston
Thu, Dec. 6 vs. Colorado
Sat, Dec. 8 vs. Rangers

Not exactly an easy haul, right? Simply put, playoff teams fight through tough stretches, especially when it comes down to gaining crucial points during long runs of home games. So far, the Panthers have been up-and-down, yet they’ve managed to get three of four points (1-0-1).

It’s tough for Florida to see Montreal play well above expectations so far, and for the Sabres to make the leap they dreamed about. With the Lightning and Maple Leafs delivering as expected and the Bruins hanging in there through injuries, it doesn’t look like it will be an easy path for the Panthers.

Whether they can scratch and claw their way into a playoff berth or must suffer through another disappointing season, the bottom line is that Florida needs to start churning out better results. Boughner has to know that, even if it would be pretty harsh if it cost him his job.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

The Buzzer: Hat trick Laine returns; Juho who?

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Headlines from a hectic NHL night:

Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Let’s consider this a dual top star pick with Johnny Gaudreau (1G, 3A), as both players collected four points as the Flames raced out to a 7-0 lead and an eventual 7-2 win against the Golden Knights.

Giving Tkachuk the slight edge over “Johnny Hockey” because he got an extra goal (2G, 2A) and both of his assists were primary points.

Gaudreau earned the rare distinction of grabbing his four points in one period, matching an Olli Jokinen achievement, but Tkachuk only needed 24 seconds into the second period to hit four points in the contest. Perhaps the Flames’ big guns could have poured it on even more against a Golden Knights team that might have been a little fatigued in closing out a back-to-back? Either way, impressive stuff.

2. Kyle Connor

Patrik Laine got the glory in collecting yet another hat trick as the Jets held off the Canucks on Monday, but Connor could have selfishly bagged his second goal of the night by aiming at an empty net instead of sending the puck to Laine.

Connor generated an extra point for Winnipeg, scoring one goal and three assists.

The sophomore winger was part of the Jets’ barrage of Vancouver, as Connor fired seven of Winnipeg’s 49 shots on goal, a team-high mark for Monday.

3. Juho Lammikko

Raise your hand if you weren’t super-familiar with this Finnish Florida Panthers forward before Monday. (C’mon, put it up.)

The third-rounder from 2014 (65th overall) came into the night with zero goals and six assists in 16 NHL games. Lammikko generated four assists in Florida’s wild win vs. Ottawa. Lammikko gets dinged a bit for being in a losing effort.

In case you’re wondering, here’s how to pronounce his name, via Hockey Reference: YOO-hoh lah-MIH-koh.

Highlights of the Night

  • Check this post for that memorable Carey Price save.
  • One can debate how much of a distraction Mike Hoffman was for a “broken” Senators locker room. Maybe some will grumble that he received a friendly ovation during his return to Ottawa. What you can’t deny is that he scored against his old team, and you might not even be able to argue against the notion that he did so with serious style:

(More on Hoffman in a moment.)

  • Tyler Ennis might need to turn up the difficulty level:

Factoids

Yes, Patrik Laine is earning “Hat Trick Laine” references for good reason.

Another astounding tidbit:

Yes, Monday’s goal was special to Hoffman, but it was also part of an outstanding run:

Hot take: as impressed as you might be by Pekka Rinne tying Miikka Kiprusoff, it probably means way more to Rinne.

Scores

TOR 4, CBJ 2
NYR 2, DAL 1
BUF 5, PIT 4 (OT)
WSH 5, MTL 4 (OT)
FLA 7, OTT 5
LAK 2, STL 0
NSH 3, TBL 2
CGY 7, VGK 2
WIN 6, VAN 3

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Randy Carlyle is the new Toronto Maple Leafs head coach

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Call it another example of loyalty or merely familiarity, but definitely call it official: Brian Burke has made Randy Carlyle the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Carlyle will replace Ron Wilson, who was relieved of his duties Friday evening.

Carlyle and Burke were together in Anaheim, where they won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 2006-07 before Burke pursued his dream gig in Toronto.

Carlyle’s time with Anaheim

Carlyle will bring a different voice to the Toronto locker room because he’s more of a “taskmaster” type — an act that some would say eventually wore thin with the Ducks. Still, it’s tough to argue with his results as he compiled a 273-182-61 record (the most wins in franchise history) during his seven seasons as Anaheim’s head coach.

Burke’s big gamble

This is a bold move to a) help Burke protect his own job and b) stop the bleeding and make good on the franchise’s best chance to break its post-lockout playoff hex.

Analysis

The irony of this situation is that Carlyle and the man he’s replacing, Wilson, were turfed a short while after signing extensions. Carlyle re-upped with the Ducks this past summer but was canned on Nov. 30; Wilson was extended earlier this season (though he infamously announced the news on Christmas Day) but was fired with 18 games left in the regular season.

— Six degrees of separation: Wilson, Carlyle and Bruce Boudreau (who replaced Carlyle in Anaheim) all played together on the 1977-78 Maple Leafs. Carlyle becomes the 16th man to have both played for the Maple Leafs and then taken on the reins as the team’s coach.

— This move reunites Carlyle with All-Star Joffrey Lupul, who’s enjoying a fantastic season in Toronto. Lupul was traded away twice during Carlyle’s tenure in Anaheim and their relationship wasn’t great:

“You want to prove people wrong,” he said. “(Carlyle) didn’t give me any opportunity on left wing. His words to me were, ‘You’re not able to play left wing in this league.’ It’s something I’ve worked on since I got to Toronto, and now I feel more comfortable on left than I ever was on right.”

Told of Lupul’s post-trade sentiments, Carlyle smiled: “Players make comments. It’s not up to management or coaches to throw any dirt one way or the other.

— Burke and Carlyle will address the media on Saturday at 10am ET.

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Brian Burke faces tough task if he fires Ron Wilson

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Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is different from a lot of other NHL general managers for a wide variety of reasons – not just because he’s one of the sport’s great executive showmen.

His fierce – some might say stubborn – loyalty stands out among those qualities. While neighboring GM Bryan Murray seems to shed head coaches like snakes lose skin, Burke has allowed Ron Wilson to stay despite increasing pressure to remove his beloved bench boss.

As Michael Woods reports, it would be more than just a “hockey decision” for Burke (even if he claims otherwise).

Burke and Wilson were born a month apart, were college roommates and teammates on the Providence College Friars hockey team in Rhode Island in the 1970s and have been friends ever since.

(If more details like that aren’t enough for you to follow the link, go there for the mind-blowing photo of Burke and Wilson as co-captains at Providence College.)

Sports front offices base a lot of their decisions on loyalty and familiarity – just look at how wildly predictable Darryl Sutter’s hiring was in Los Angeles – but even with that in mind, Burke and Wilson’s roots go deep.

It’s not like that’s the only instance when Burke’s been a man of his word almost to a fault, either. Personally, his handling of Ilya Bryzgalov in Anaheim was particularly memorable. Instead of holding onto the talented (then) backup, he allowed Breezy to get a real chance to start with another team. He ended up putting outstanding numbers with the Phoenix Coyotes and earning that huge contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in the process.

If you ask me, Burke’s moving the Maple Leafs in a solid direction. There’s the instinct to believe that the two might go off the cliff Thelma & Louise-style if Toronto’s playoff drought continues this season, but it might just come down to Burke firing his friend and coach.

Don’t expect it to be an easy leap, though.

Columnist believes Joel Quenneville’s job could be in danger

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The NHL ranks pretty high among professional sports leagues when it comes to treating its coaches with a “What have you done for me lately?” approach. It’s almost comical how a bench boss can go from a Jack Adams winner to unemployed – sometimes in the span of a couple seasons.

With that in mind, it’s almost not too ridiculous to read some murmurs about Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s job security. (Almost.)

Adrian Dater brings up that question in his Sports Illustrated column. Before you call Dater a buffoon, sample his historically-backed argument:

Think it can’t happen? This is the NHL. Peter Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and was fired in 2008. John Tortorella won the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and was axed three seasons later. Bob Hartley won it with Colorado in 2001, went to Game 7 of the Western finals in 2002, and was canned 31 games into the ’02-03 season. Randy Carlyle won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and now he’s looking for work.

Quenneville has a contract that runs through the 2013-14 season, but money is about the only thing it guarantees. The pressure is always high on coaches in a league where financial profit usually only comes with a playoff berth. Quenneville is not immune to such reality. If his team’s current six-game losing streak (0-5-1) continues, and the postseason starts to look at all like the dicey proposition it was last year, sources close to the situation tell SI.com that a change behind the bench is possible.

Much like when the Pittsburgh Penguins hired Michel Therrien and the Washington Capitals promoted Bruce Boudreau, there was a noticeable difference when Chicago brought Quenneville in. Still, the Blackhawks are spending a lot of money and are far removed from the low-profile days of Daze and Zhamnov, so you never know.

Let me ask, then: is Quenneville’s seat getting hotter in Chicago?