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It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

2017-18

44-30-9, 96 pts. (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Mike Hoffman
Bogdan Kiselevich
Michael Hutchinson

OUT:

Radim Vrbata
Connor Brickley
Curtis Valk
Chases Balisy
Harri Sateri

RE-SIGNED:

Jared McCann
Frank Vatrano
MacKenzie Weegar
Alex Petrovic

The Florida Panthers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point.

One. Measly. Point.

Imagine where they’d have been if they kept Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Gerard Gallant, am I right?

All jokes aside, the Panthers actually had a pretty good year after finishing 26th in the NHL in 2016-17.

They managed through a coaching change, a new system and a time where both Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were hurt (thanks to the now-departed Harri Sateri) and still got to watch some of their biggest names — Aleksander Barkov (78 points), Vincent Trochek (75 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points) — flourish in career years.

Evgenii Dadonov came back from an extended stint in Russia with a love for producing points. He had 65 to sit fourth on the team after spending six seasons in his homeland. Dadonov and Barkov looked at home with each other on the top line, and the addition of Nick Bjugstad to the line later in the season formed a nice trio.

What didn’t help was the lack of secondary scoring. Outside of the five listed above one forward, no one topped 15 goals or 30 points. That said, the Panthers scored 40 more goals last season compared to the one previous. It’s a step in the right direction and fueled by young players that are only getting better.

That number could increase again this season, too. The Panthers went out and traded for Mike Hoffman after the debacle in Ottawa. Hoffman, despite off-ice issues with between his significant other and Erik Karlsson‘s, was solid on it with 22 goals and 56 points for a terrible Senators team.

Hoffman should slide into the left wing spot alongside Trocheck and Bjugstad, solidifying two quite good scoring lines.

A little more scoring from the bottom six could go a long way this season, as could an improved power play (21st) and penalty kill (16th).

The team was anchored on the backend by Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, but the Panthers still need to find a way to stop so much rubber coming their way. The Cats gave up 34.6 shots per game, third most in the NHL. A little shot suppression would surely help, and they’re hoping it comes in the form of Bogdan Kiselevich. Unless you’re an avid KHL supporter, you likely haven’t heard of Kiselevich, but in Florida, he’s expected to be a top-four pairing defenseman after an all-star season in Russia.

“Bogdan is a solid, shutdown defenseman who adds depth to our blue line and possesses a strong work ethic,” general manager Dale Tallon said when they signed the 28-year-old. “He’s proven himself to be a reliable defensive presence on the international stage and in the KHL and has the ability to be a steadying influence on the back end for our young defensemen.”

To its credit, Florida’s defense battened down the hatches as the season progressed, so finding that same stride early in this coming season will be crucial to a good start, which they didn’t have last year after going 7-11-2 in their first 20 games. Sometimes it’s about how you finish, and with the 24-8-2 record from Feb. 1 onward, the Panthers certainly closed out the season on a high note.

A healthy Luongo as a starter for the duration of next season would be a blessing for the Panthers. When he played, Luongo was the same solid netminder he’s always been, posting a .933 save percentage five-on-five and a very respectable 9.41 goals saved above average.

Reimer played more games than Luongo because of the latter’s injury but is slated to start the year as the backup once again. He had a .917 save percentage at five-on-five. The Panthers brought in former Winnipeg Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson, who provides good depth should the injury bug sting again.

Florida has been building quite the farm system over the past few years. Hoffman’s addition is the only opening day roster move Dale Tallon has pulled the trigger on so far, but there’s hope that a couple youngsters could make the jump.

Not trying to jinx it, but Panthers feel like a team on the brink — words not always uttered for this particular Florida-based team. Two very good scoring lines, an improved defensive group and an elite goalie (when healthy).

Keep it all consistent and it usually adds up to playoff hockey.

Prospect Pool

Henrik Borgstrom, C, 21, University of Denver (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

In his second season with the Pioneers, Borgstrom once again put up a strong showing, building off his freshman season with 23 goals and 52 points in 40 games. His play helped Denver become National Collegiate Hockey Conference champs, and Borgstrom was named the conference’s player of the year, forward of the year and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, handed to college’s top player. His season was topped off by four games with the Panthers and included his first NHL goal. Now, Borgstrom will challenge for a roster spot in Florida come training camp. For the 21-year-old, there’s a good chance he’s in the Show this year.

Owen Tippett, RW/LW, 19, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – 2017 first-round pick 

Taken 10th overall in last year’s NHL Draft, Tippett scored the same 75 points this past season in the OHL as he did in his draft year, only he did it this season in nine fewer games. Tippett began the year with the Panthers, playing in seven games and scoring his first NHL goal as he got his first taste of pro hockey. When the Steelheads were bounced from the first round of the OHL playoffs, Tippett got a second helping, this time with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, where he notched a goal and added an assist. Tippett will compete for a spot, and if he can make it, could provide that coveted secondary scoring. He’ll likely have to beat out Borgstrom, so that should be an interesting camp battle to keep an eye on.

Aleksi Heponiemi, C, 19, Karpat (Liiga) – 2017 second-round pick

Heponiemi peppered the Western Hockey League with 90 assists last season with the Swift Current Broncos, the most in the league, and finished third in league scoring with 118 points as he helped the Broncos to the league title and an appearance at the Memorial Cup. Too good for the Canadian junior hockey ranks — he had 204 points in 129 games over two years in Saskatchewan — Heponiemi will take his talents back home to Finland this season to play with Karpat in the Finnish Elite League. It will be a step up in competition for the speedster, who will get to play against men. His deal in Finland is for two years.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Panthers ready to welcome Mike Hoffman, fiancee with ‘clean slate’

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When Dale Tallon was contacted by Pierre Dorion last week about potential interest in Mike Hoffman, the Florida Panthers general manager thought the asking price from the Ottawa Senators GM was a bit high. He put that conversation to the side until he was contacted Monday night by Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks. Then a deal was made.

It was a wild Tuesday morning that saw Hoffman traded twice in the span of a few hours. He first went from Ottawa to the Sharks and then was later flipped to the Panthers.

“We felt this would be a perfect fit for our team,” Tallon said on a conference call Tuesday morning. “He’s 28, he can score, he can skate, he’s got a cannon for a shot.”

Hoffman, who played with Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau for one year with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, has scored 104 goals over the last four seasons and was the type of player Tallon was looking to add to his lineup to potentially play alongside Vincent Trocheck.

“Our power play will be better, too. He’s got a great one-timer, great shot,” Tallon said.

[Sharks flip Hoffman to Panthers]

Dorion was seeking players in a return, presumably so the team could stay above the salary cap floor for next season with more trades likely on the way (Karlsson, Bobby Ryan?). Wilson, however, was merely looking for draft picks for Hoffman as he’s been clearing cap space with many believing he’ll go strong after Ilya Kovalchuk and John Tavares.

By acquiring Hoffman, that comes with the questions about last week’s allegations about his fiancee cyberbullying Erik and Melinda Karlsson. 

Tallon said he spoke with some of his players and staff and “had no pushback at all” when it came to bringing Hoffman and his fiancee, Monika Caryk, into the Panthers family. “I trust my guys. I trust my staff,” he said.

He also spoke with Hoffman directly and Tallon noted he has a good relationship with the player’s agent, former NHLer Mike Liut. He feels confident that Hoffman and Caryk will be embraced by the team and by the Panthers’ wives and girlfriends.

“Together, we discussed that what happened there is in the past and we’re moving forward with a clean slate,” Tallon said.

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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.

Bill Torrey, architect of Islanders dynasty, dead at 83

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Bill Torrey, the longtime hockey executive who helped build the expansion New York Islanders into a Stanley Cup winning dynasty, has passed away at the age of 83.

From NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s statement:

“From his iconic bow tie, retired by the Islanders organization, to his devilish sense of humor, he truly was one of a kind. He grew up in close proximity to NHL greatness, near the Montreal Forum, where his passion for the game at all levels developed at an early age. He attended as many games as he could in junior rinks, where he was as at home as at an NHL Board of Governors meeting – and his counsel was sought out at both.

“On a personal level, Bill was a close and cherished friend and a great source of counsel. I will miss his wit, wisdom and warmth.

“We send our condolences to Bill’s four sons, William, Richard, Peter and Arthur; to his brother, David, and sister, Jane; and to his 10 grandchildren. And we have no doubt that Bill’s passing also is being mourned by the countless executives, coaches and players whom he inspired, guided and personally developed; and the millions of fans who were thrilled by the teams he built.”

From the New York Islanders:

“Bill set the model for how to build a franchise with the leadership he instilled through his coaching staff, his innovative drafting methods and the trades he executed,” Islanders President and General Manager Garth Snow said. “He was a pioneer, who became a mentor and even better friend, to so many in the industry. The teams he constructed set records that may never be broken, including the four straight Stanley Cup Championships and 19 straight playoff series wins. On behalf of the entire organization, we send our deepest condolences to Bill’s family.”

From the Florida Panthers:

“We’re shocked and heartbroken by the news of William ‘Bill’ Torrey’s passing and extend our deepest condolences to his four sons and grandchildren,” Panthers owner Vinnie Viola said in a statement. “An original Panther and the forefather of our franchise, Mr. Torrey had a champion’s spirit and lived for the game. His indomitable energy and his commitment to hockey and to South Florida was inspiring. It was an honor to work with him and know him.”

After some time in the American Hockey League and then with the expansion Oakland Seals, Torrey was hired as the first employee of the Islanders, who themselves were entering the NHL in 1972. As general manager of the new franchise, he built what would turn into a powerhouse through the draft, selecting key components of future championship teams, including Hall of Famers Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier. He also hired Al Arbour, who had won four titles as a player.

In building those winning Islanders teams, Torrey would made some shrewd trades to improve his club. The 1980 acquisition of Butch Goring from the Los Angeles Kings led to the forward being known as the “final piece of the puzzle,” as they would go on to win their first of four Cups two months later.

During his final season as Islanders GM in 1991-92, Torrey accepted LaFontaine’s trade request and sent him to the Buffalo Sabres as part of a package deal that brought Pierre Turgeon, Benoit Hogue and Uwe Krupp to Long Island. Another deal brought Steve Thomas in from Chicago and the moves paid off a year later after Torrey relinquished his titles of chairman and GM and moved into a consultant role. The Islanders would upset the defending back-to-back Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games to reach the Prince of Wales Conference Finals, where they would fall to the Montreal Canadiens.

New ownership meant change in the organization, so in 1993 Torrey joined yet another NHL expansion team as president of the Florida Panthers. A successful first three years in the league saw them record 83 points in 1993-94 and then reach the Cup Final two years later. Eventually, Torrey moved out of that role and had been serving as a special adviser to the general manager and an alternate governor.

His success earned him the 1983 Lester Patrick Trophy, induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995 and banners in two NHL arenas. Along with one in BB&T Center in Florida, Torrey was honored in 2001 at Nassau Coliseum with a banner featuring his signature bow tie.

“The thing I liked about them was that they were small,” Torrey said during his Hall of Fame speech via Newsday. “You can fold them up and put them in your pocket. You can’t spill on them.”

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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.

Boston Bruins fail in opportunity to win Atlantic Division

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The Boston Bruins had their opportunity.

A win on Sunday night in a make-up game against the Florida Panthers had no bearing on the already-eliminated Cats. But for the Bruins, it represented a chance to dethrone the Tampa Bay Lightning from the top spot in the Atlantic Division one and for all.

Instead, the Bruins wasted the chance, falling 4-2 to the Panthers, who finished the season on a five-game winning streak.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

The loss for the Bruins — and their second-place finish — was the gain for hockey fans everywhere.

Boston will now play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, with the Leafs finishing the season in third place. Two Original Six teams locking horns once more.

Pure hockey bliss.

The win also finalized the playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will face the New Jersey Devils, with the Pittsburgh Penguins renewing their rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets and Metropolitan Division winning Washington Capitals.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wayne Huizenga, founding owner of Florida Panthers, dies at 80

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MIAMI (AP) — College dropout Wayne Huizenga started with a trash hauling company, struck gold during America’s brief love affair with VHS tapes and eventually owned three professional sports teams.

Huizenga owned Blockbuster Entertainment, AutoNation and the world’s largest trash hauler, and was founding owner of baseball’s Florida Marlins and the NHL Florida Panthers. He bought the NFL Miami Dolphins for $138 million in 1994.

The one thing he never got was a Super Bowl win.

Huizenga died late Thursday, according to Valerie Hinkell, his longtime assistant. He was 80.

The Marlins won the 1997 World Series, and the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but Huizenga’s beloved Dolphins never reached a Super Bowl while he owned the team.

”If I have one disappointment, the disappointment would be that we did not bring a championship home,” Huizenga said shortly after he sold the Dolphins to New York real estate billionaire Stephen Ross, who still owns the team. ”It’s something we failed to do.”

Huizenga earned an almost cult-like following among business investors who watched him build Blockbuster Entertainment into the leading video rental chain by snapping up competitors. He cracked Forbes’ list of the 100 richest Americans, becoming chairman of Republic Services, one of the nation’s top waste management companies, and AutoNation, the nation’s largest automotive retailer.

”You just have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. ”It can only happen in America.”

For a time, Huizenga was also a favorite with South Florida sports fans, drawing cheers and autograph seekers in public. The crowd roared when he danced the hokey pokey on the field during an early Marlins game. He went on a spending spree to build a veteran team that won the World Series in only the franchise’s fifth year.

But his popularity plummeted when he ordered the roster dismantled after that season. He was frustrated by poor attendance and his failure to swing a deal for a new ballpark built with taxpayer money.

Many South Florida fans never forgave him for breaking up the championship team. Huizenga drew boos when introduced at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino’s retirement celebration in 2000, and kept a lower public profile after that.

In 2009, Huizenga said he regretted ordering the Marlins’ payroll purge.

”We lost $34 million the year we won the World Series, and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that,”’ Huizenga recalled. ”If I had it to do over again, I’d say, ‘OK, we’ll go one more year.”’

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He sold the Marlins in 1999 to John Henry, and sold the Panthers in 2001, unhappy with rising NHL player salaries and the stock price for the team’s public company.

Huizenga’s first sports love was the Dolphins – he had been a season-ticket holder since their inaugural season in 1966. But he fared better in the NFL as a businessman than as a sports fan.

He turned a nifty profit by selling the Dolphins and their stadium for $1.1 billion, nearly seven times what he paid to become sole owner. But he knew the bottom line in the NFL is championships, and his Dolphins perennially came up short.

Huizenga earned a reputation as a hands-off owner and won raves from many loyal employees, even though he made six coaching changes. He eased Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula into retirement in early 1996, and Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, interim coach Jim Bates, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sporano followed as coach.

In 2008, Huizenga’s final season as owner, the Dolphins had a turnaround year and won the AFC East on the final day of the regular season.

”It was a magical feeling,” Huizenga said. ”I had tears in my eyes. I kept looking away so I wouldn’t have to wipe my eyes in front of everybody.”

Miami lost in the first round of the playoffs and didn’t return to the postseason until 2016. But Huizenga won praise from such disparate personalities as Shula, Johnson and Marlins manager Jim Leyland even when they no longer worked for him.

Harry Wayne Huizenga was born in the Chicago suburbs on Dec. 29, 1937, to a family of garbage haulers. He attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but dropped out and began his own garbage hauling business in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1962. He would drive a garbage truck from 2 a.m. to noon each day, then shower and go out and solicit new customers in the afternoon.

One customer successfully sued Huizenga, saying that in an argument over a delinquent account, Huizenga injured him by grabbing his testicles – an allegation Huizenga always denied.

”I never did that. The guy was a deputy cop. It was his word against mine, a young kid,” he told Fortune magazine in 1996.

He eventually bought out several competitors, expanding throughout South Florida. In 1968, he merged with the Chicago sanitation company his uncles owned, creating Waste Management Inc., which eventually became the world’s largest trash company. That became his method of operation – becoming the first national player in industries that had been dominated by small and local operations. He resigned from the company in 1984, taking $100 million in stock.

But retirement bored him and he soon began buying dozens of small businesses like hotels and pest control companies. In 1987, a business partner persuaded him to check out Blockbuster, a small chain of video stores. At the time, video stores were mostly locally owned mom-and-pop operations. Huizenga didn’t even own a VCR.

”I had an image of them being dark and dingy and dirty types of adult bookstores,” he told The Miami Herald. ”But when I finally saw a Blockbuster store, it opened my mind.”

The stores were clean and carried 10,000 titles, 10 times more than the typical corner video store. He loved the concept and thought it could become the McDonalds of video. He and two partners bought 43 percent of the business for $19 million and he became chairman and president. By 1991, the chain had grown to over 1,800 stores, with one opening every 17 hours, on average.

”The whole deal was to move quickly before our competition saw what we were doing and moved in on us,” he told the business magazine FSB in 2003.

In 1994, Viacom bought Blockbuster, then a publicly traded company, for about $8 billion.

In 1995, Huizenga got back into trash hauling by buying Republic Waste Industries Inc. for $27 million. Mergers and acquisitions soon followed. He renamed the company Republic Industries as it branched out, buying Alamo Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental.

Republic, under Huizenga’s leadership, then started AutoNation, a national chain of car dealerships – again, an industry that had been dominated by local and regional ownership. At its peak, AutoNation had about 375 dealerships in 17 states.

Republic Services was spun off in 1998 to control the waste management portion of the portfolio, a sector that had grown to more than $1 billion in annual sales. He remained its chairman until 2002.

Huizenga became a large benefactor of Nova Southeastern University, a private South Florida school where the Dolphins train. Its business school is named after him – even though he never completed college.

In 1960 he married Joyce VanderWagon. Together they had two children, Wayne Jr. and Scott. They divorced in 1966. Wayne married his second wife, Marti Goldsby, in 1972. She died in 2017.