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The 10 players that will impact NHL playoff race in second half

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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.

Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.

For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.

1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.

Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.

3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.

4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.

6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.

7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.

8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.

9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.

10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.

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.

Florida Panthers to host 2021 NHL All-Star Game

2021 NHL All-Star Game
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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Friday that the NHL All-Star Game will be making its return to Florida next season when the Panthers play host to the 2021 game.

All-Star Weekend 2021 will take place at BB&T Arena on Jan. 29-30. Bettman hinted during his Friday press conference that the event may have an “international flavor” to it. Talks with the NHLPA are still on-going.

It will be Florida’s second time hosting the All-Star weekend after previously hosting it during the 2002-03 season.

That game was notable for a couple of reasons.

For one, it was the first time an NHL All-Star Game (or any NHL game for that matter) was decided by a shootout with the Western Conference winning by a 6-5 score. It was a sign of things to come as the league would eventually transition to that tie-breaking procedure for the start of the 2005-06 season.

Atlanta Thrashers forward Dany Heatley scored four times and was named MVP.

It was also the year that Panthers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, voted into the game as a starter, was traded by the host team just two days before the All-Star Game. While he played in the game, he did not participate in the Skills Competition because he did not want to wear the jersey of a team (the Panthers) he no longer played for. You can read all about that entire series of events in this previous PHT Time Machine. Ozolinsh was one of two Panthers in that game, joining Olli Jokinen.

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.

Roundtable: Biggest surprises, disappointments at NHL All-Star break

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What player has been your biggest surprise of the first half of the 2019-20 season?

SEAN: Tristan Jarry, Penguins. A season ago the Penguins netminder played only two games in the NHL having lost the backup job to Casey DeSmith. This season he’s usurped Matt Murray for the No. 1 job and helped backstop the team into contender status as the roster has dealt with numerous injuries.  He’s top five in even strength save percentage, goals saved above average, and has helped Pittsburgh to 16 wins in 22 starts.

JAMES: John Carlson, Capitals. Look, we all knew Carlson could score. He’s been rising up the defensive scoring ranks for a while now (interestingly, increasing even after he got paid). Still, 60 points in just 49 games, placing him comfortably in front of Auston Matthews for 10th overall in the NHL right now? Yeah, can’t say I saw that coming.

ADAM: Bryan Rust, Penguins. He has always been a pretty good complementary player, but this year his play has just reached an entirely unexpected level. He is on a near 50-goal, 100-point pace over 82 games! No one ever expected that from him. Even if he cools off in the second half he is still going to have career year.

JOEY: David Perron, Blues. He’s currently on a point-per-game pace and he’s also top 20 in league scoring. We knew he was a good hockey player, but he’s playing at a totally different level right now.

SCOTT: Artemi Panarin, Rangers. High-priced free agents have a long history of failing at Madison Square Garden but Panarin has been everything the Blueshirts could have hoped. The Russian winger is on his way to his first All-Star game and could be the star player that helps the Rangers right the ship.

What team has been your biggest surprise so far?

SEAN: Blue Jackets. They lose their two biggest stars and their trade deadline pick ups walk in free agency. The enter 2019-20 with one goaltender who posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-.900 save percentage and another who had spent his entire pro career in Switzerland. So of course they’d be sitting in a wild card spot on the heels of third place in the Metropolitan Division at the All-Star Break. Just as we all expected.

JAMES: Blue Jackets. Honestly, I’d expected the Blue Jackets to be scrappy, but without that extra oomph to avoid being (word that rhymes with scrappy). Instead, they’re in the thick of the East wild-card races, not that differently from last season, when they still had Sergei Bobrovsky and especially Artemi Panarin. Managing to hang in there with a legitimately crushing run of injuries makes them even more surprising.

ADAM: Canucks. The easy answer here is probably Columbus or Arizona, but I had fairly high hopes for both at the start of the season. So I am going to say the Canucks get the call for biggest surprise. I liked Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, and figured Quinn Hughes would make a big impact, but the rest of the team just seemed like it was years away from contention. 

JOEY: Blue Jackets. Somehow, they’ve found a way to be in a Wild Card spot at this point. John Tortorella is doing the coaching job of his life and he’s been able to get some reliable goaltending from unlikely candidates. It would be awesome to see them make it back to the postseason after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

SCOTT: Blues. I felt there was potential for a huge letdown after a surprising championship run last season and the Vladimir Tarasenko injury only strengthened those beliefs. However, they have been dominant at home and are sitting on top of the most competitive division in the NHL.

[MORE: PHT’S MIDSEASON NHL AWARDS]

What player has been your biggest disappointment?

SEAN: Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings. There’s a lot of work to be done in Hockeytown to make the Red Wings a playoff team again, but there is a small core of players for GM Steve Yzerman to build around. Athanasiou is supposed to be one of those players but has struggled mightily after posting 30 goals last season. Through 36 games he only has five goals and 19 points. You’d expect his 5.7 shooting percentage to jump in the second half, which he needs since he’ll be an RFA this summer and can earn himself a nice raise.

JAMES: P.K. Subban, Devils. The hope was that Subban would bounce back from a troubling 2018-19. After all, it seemed like Subban was injured. Instead, things have gone worse, as his offense dried up while he continues to struggle defensively. I’m not totally giving up on P.K. — he might still be less than 100 percent — but I’m not exactly betting on him being a $9M defender again, either.

ADAM: Sergei Bobrovsky, PanthersI thought Bobrovsky’s contract was going to be a problem in three or four years, but I figured the Panthers would at least get a couple of quality seasons out of him before that happened. They have not even been able to get that yet. I figured he would be the missing piece to get them back in the playoffs in the short-term, and while they might make the playoffs it is currently in spite of Bobrovsky’s and not because of it. 

JOEY: Alex Galchenyuk, Penguins. The Penguins gave up Phil Kessel in a trade for Galchenyuk, but things just haven’t worked out the way they had hoped with him. Despite all the injuries in Pittsburgh this year, Galchenyuk hasn’t been able to make an impact with his new team. He’s now played for three teams in three seasons and it doesn’t look like his stop in Pittsburgh will be very long. Who knows what’s next for him.

SCOTT: P.K. Subban, Devils. The hope was Subban’s career would be rejuvenated by a trade to the New Jersey Devils. However, not much has gone right in Newark and Subban’s disappointing play has been a factor in John Hynes and Ray Shero losing their jobs.

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What team has been your biggest disappointment?

SEAN: Predators. Teams you expected to be better but aren’t so far can pinpoint poor goaltending as a main factor. You wouldn’t expect that from Nashville but Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros — with a combined .918 even strength save percentage — helped sink Peter Laviolette and have kept the Predators outside of the Western Conference playoff picture.

JAMES: Sharks. How can it not be the Sharks? Looking at the age of that roster, many of us expected a stark reality … just not so soon. The parallels between the 2018-19 version of their hated rivals, the Kings, are honestly getting a little scary. Maybe the Sharks can be respectable again soon … kind of like the Kings, whose underlying numbers indicate they’re actually better than their place in the standings indicates.

ADAM: Sharks. Couple of options here but I think the Sharks take this title pretty easily. You had to know the goaltending was going to be a problem again, but it is far from their only problem. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have both had terrible seasons (by their standards), while several forwards have regressed or underperformed. This should still be a Stanley Cup contender and they are not only a disappointment, they are downright bad. 

JOEY: Predators. The Predators made a splash when they signed Duchene in free agency and another one when they dumped P.K. Subban on New Jersey. Unfortunately for them, those moves haven’t made them any better this year. They’ve already fired head coach Peter Laviollette and things haven’t looked much better since then.

SCOTT: Predators. A coaching change could help turn things around, but the Predators expected to compete for the Stanley Cup this season and are currently on the outside looking in.

What current team in a playoff spot will fall out by the end of the regular season?

SEAN: Oilers. Their team even strength save percentage is .909 and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl make up 35% of their goals scored. Winnipeg and Chicago are right behind them and Nashville is lurking.

JAMES: Blue Jackets. A competitive team is going to finish ninth in the East. To me, the Blue Jackets just don’t give themselves good enough margins for error. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at goal differential, and when you see that, it seems clear that the Blue Jackets are only slightly outscoring their problems.

ADAM: PanthersI want to buy into the Panthers because I love the way Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau play, but the goaltending question still concerns me and if they fall out of the top-three in the Atlantic Division I question if they can finish ahead of one of those Metropolitan teams in a Wild Card spot. 

JOEY: Blue Jackets. As impressed as I’ve been with the Blue Jackets, it’s hard to envision them making the postseason ahead of teams like Toronto, Philadelphia and Florida. They deserve credit for the job they’ve done, but they still have a long way to go before they clinch a playoff spot.

SCOTT: Blue Jackets. They have overcome great odds to remain competitive but eventually they will feel the loss of three star players. John Tortorella should be in the Jack Adams conversation with a strong first half, but a second-half slump could be looming.

What team currently out of the playoffs make it in?

SEAN: Predators. They’ve underachieved all season and the hole to dig out of isn’t too deep. If Saros and Rinne can start making saves again and Nashville’s special teams can wake up, they can find a way back in the postseason.

JAMES: Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs aren’t perfect. They are brilliantly talented, however, and have been able to unleash the fury since Sheldon Keefe took over. I think that talent will help them push across the finish line.

ADAM: Maple Leafs. Toronto is too talented to not make it. I know they have their flaws defensively, but you have to think they are going to do something to address that and I just can’t imagine this roster missing. Do they have enough to get through Boston or Tampa Bay? Maybe not. But they will be in. 

JOEY: Maple Leafs. Yes, the Leafs are without Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin right now, but you have to imagine that they’ll figure things out before it’s too late. Toronto has too much firepower with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares.

SCOTT: Flyers. It has previously taken teams quite a while to adjust to Alain Vigneault’s system. If the Flyers can figure out their struggles on the road and survive Carter Hart’s injury, they have the talent to find their way into the tournament.

What team needs to make a big splash at the February trade deadline?

SEAN: Maple Leafs. Their star core players are off their rookie contracts and three straight Round 1 exits means the pressure is on in Toronto. The blue line is the biggest area of need, especially with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin out injured. GM Kyle Dubas will need to shore up the back end in order to put them in a better position entering the playoffs — if they get there, of course.

JAMES: Oilers. Look, there are teams like the Bruins, whose windows could close in a hurry. But, frankly, we as hockey fans should be more outraged that Connor McDavid, hockey superhuman, is so rarely in the playoffs. It’s a travesty, and the Oilers need to give him some help. Not just for McDavid, but frankly, for all of us.

ADAM: Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs need to do something on defense. Morgan Rielly’s injury is huge and Tyson Barrie has not quite worked out as hoped. Add to that the fact that Barrie and Jake Muzzin are unrestricted free agents after this season and they need to do something to strengthen the blue line for now and in the future. 

JOEY: Bruins. The Bruins could add a defenseman and/or some secondary scoring before Feb. 24. Boston is good enough to go on a postseason run, but they could definitely use some reinforcements.

SCOTT: Islanders. They have won with excellent coaching and strong defensive play, but they desperately need a big-time scorer up front. They missed out on Panarin this summer and didn’t pull the trigger on Mark Stone last season. Is Lou Lamoriello ready to bring in the proper support to help the Islanders advance through the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Most dangerous lead in hockey? This season, it’s all of them

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Joel Quenneville remembers years past when NHL teams leading going into the third period could feel comfortable chalking up two points. A win was a pretty sure bet.

Earlier this season, his Florida Panthers erased a four-goal deficit to win a game. And then they did it again. Even the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach didn’t see that coming.

”We didn’t envision coming back either game,” Quenneville said.

It’s becoming easier than ever to envision. There have already been five four-goal comeback wins this season, tied for the most in NHL history. And the 18 three-goal comebacks are the most through the same number of games in 30 years.

No lead is safe.

”Used to be the dreaded, two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey, but now it seems like the four-goal lead’s the hardest one to hold on to,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”Teams believe they can come back at any time.”

Coaches and players point to a number of different factors for all the rallying going on, ranging from rules designed to create more offense to better power plays, more skill and talent, and human nature when it comes to holding a comfortable lead or facing a difficult deficit.

”It’s very difficult to hold leads now just with some of the rules that have been added,” said coach Todd Reirden, whose Washington Capitals recently erased a three-goal deficit to beat the New York Islanders. ”Just different little nuances that have helped scoring increase in the league. It’s just the way that penalties are called, too, and the league wants offense and they love that aspect of teams coming from behind like that.”

Those rules include more penalties called for obstructing, hooking, holding and slashing and increased advantages on faceoffs for the offensive team. Just like the standings that are set up to be neck-and-neck down the stretch to the playoffs, the modern game is designed for no team to be out of a game.

When David Quinn’s New York Rangers went down 4-0 at Montreal this season, the second-year coach considered it a little unfair based on their effort. They won 6-5 in regulation.

”One of the things we talked about in between the first and second period was: ‘Don’t play the score. If you do the right thing over and over again, the game will reward you,”’ Quinn recalled. ”And I thought that’s what happened. Within a game, you’ve got to be mentally tough, and you’re going to have to have resiliency.”

See the Panthers, who stunned Anaheim and Boston with those four-goal comebacks. Quenneville has been behind an NHL bench for a long time and doesn’t have a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

”You get a fortunate break on a bounce here, and it can really shift the momentum,” Quenneville said. ”There’s been a lot of offense in this year’s game, teams going for it. You’ve got a 4-0 lead, whether you take your foot off the pedal and all of a sudden you maybe relax a little bit, but the other team’s pressing, they’re pinching, they’re taking more offensive zone chances and thinking that way. You get a couple of breaks and all of a sudden, the other team’s on their heels.”

Much of it is psychological. Players after building a big lead could naturally think their heavy lifting is over for the game. Those on the other side are just getting started.

”The team that’s ahead, as much as you fight it, there’s a natural instinct to just ease off the gas a little and give (up) opportunities,” said Matt Niskanen, whose Philadelphia Flyers recently beat the Bruins in a shootout after trailing by three goals. ”Mentally, you tell yourself, ‘Don’t let up, keep playing the same way because we’re having success for a reason.’ It’s a really hard thing to fight.”

After reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins lead the Atlantic Division at the All-Star break despite a penchant for blowing leads.

”We’ve got to bear down,” Boston center Patrice Bergeron said. ”You can’t just have a good effort, be satisfied with that, and then just play for a half a game.”

Half a game isn’t enough, especially since hockey has moved toward more offensively skilled players and away from those tasked with keeping the puck out of the net. There’s also the fact that 25 of 31 teams are either in or within 10 points of a playoff spot, and it’s hard for teams to dominate a whole game — let alone a season.

”It just shows the parity of the league and that on any given night, everybody can beat somebody else” Reirden said ”It’s extremely competitive.”

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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The Florida Panthers not only gave head coach Joel Quenneville a win in his first return to Chicago on Tuesday night, they extended their winning streak to six games and roll into the All-Star break and bye week as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.

They are also in the rather unfamiliar territory of having a strong hold on a playoff spot this late in the season.

The Panthers are just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place in the Atlantic Division while also owning a four-point cushion over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It obviously doesn’t lock them into anything, but it has to be a pleasant change of pace after slow starts the previous two years all but crushed their playoff hopes by the All-Star break.

It’s also a big step in the right direction for an organization that needs to earn the trust of its fanbase and give people in their market a reason to finally care about them. As we detailed back in August, this has been the least successful organization in terms of playoff success since the start of 2000 across the NHL and NBA. Overall, they have made the playoffs just five times in 25 years and have only won three playoff series ever — all of them coming during one improbable playoff run during the 1995-96 season.

In recent years we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere after years of struggle to go on deep playoff runs. Two years it was the Winnipeg Jets, after never winning a playoff game in the first 17 years of their existence, going to the Western Conference Final. A year ago it was the Carolina Hurricanes snapping a nine-year postseason drought and going to the Eastern Conference Final.

There is at least some reason to believe the Panthers could be capable of going on a similar run this season.

The offense is legit

Pop quiz: Who is the NHL’s highest scoring team right now? Toronto? Pittsburgh? Washington? Tampa Bay? Colorado? All good guess, and all wrong. It’s the Florida Panthers, averaging a league-best 3.83 goals per game as of Wednesday.

Leading the way is their outstanding top-line duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Individually, they have each been top-10 scorers in the NHL over the past three seasons and together they are one of the best top-line duos in the league, producing goals at a rate similar to some of the league’s best.

But it’s not just them that drive the offense.

Thanks to Frank Vatrano‘s hat trick on Tuesday, the Panthers already have seven players with at least 14 goals this season, most in the league. There are only six other teams in the league that have more than four (Vancouver has six; Colorado, Vegas, Washington, and Winnipeg all have five each).

Goaltending can still be the big difference maker here

This is probably the wildest part of Florida’s success.

Goaltending was by far their biggest area of need this offseason and they addressed it by delivering a dump truck full of money to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had been one of the NHL’s best goalies during his time in Columbus and on more than one occasion helped carry the team to the playoffs. The Panthers’ hope was that he could be their new No. 1 goalie, solidify the position, and be the missing piece to finally get them back in the playoffs.

The Panthers may end up back in the playoffs, but right now it is in spite of their goaltending.

As of Wednesday the Panthers sit 27th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage and 25th in all situations save percentage. Typically teams with goaltending like this do not make the playoffs, or even have a chance to make the playoffs. Out of the bottom-15 teams in overall save percentage right now, Florida and Vegas are the only two teams holding a playoff spot.

On one hand, this might be their undoing in the second half if Bobrovsky can’t get back on track.

On the other hand, if he DOES get back on track the Panthers could be a dangerous team to deal with. There was always risk with giving a 31-year-old goalie a seven-year, $70 million contract, but his career shouldn’t fall off a cliff this quickly. His first half in Florida has been similar to his first half performance in Columbus a year ago. He finished last season by catching fire in February, March, and April and not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, but also sweep one of the best regular season teams in NHL history. He still has that ability.

They could still use some help on defense

While Bobrovsky has definitely struggled, it would be unfair to put all of the Panthers’ goal prevention problems on just him. Because there are some issues in front of him.

The Panthers have invested a ton of money and resources on their blue line but the results have not yet followed. In terms of shot attempts against, shots against, scoring chances and expected goals the Panthers are no better than average (and in some cases near the bottom of the league). That’s something that is going to have to be addressed, but the salary cap situation will not make it easy.

Big picture: The Panthers have some flaws, and right now might have to get through Tampa Bay and Boston in rounds 1 and 2 in a potential playoff run, but there is reason for optimism here. They have the highest scoring team in the league, the eighth best points percentage in the league, and have done that with some of the worst goaltending in the league. A tweak or two on the blue line and Bobrovsky rediscovering his ability to stop pucks and there might be something interesting brewing here.

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.