Joel Quenneville

In Q They Trust: With Quenneville, Panthers eyeing playoffs

SUNRISE, Fla. — It was April 8, the first Monday after the NHL regular season. As 16 teams were getting ready for the playoffs, the Florida Panthers – as usual – were getting ready to begin an offseason. And as workers were smashing the team’s home ice to get the arena floor ready for summer, players were gathered in a big conference room.

They were listening to Joel Quenneville speak as Florida’s coach for the first time.

His message could not have been clearer: Going forward, things must be different.

”I want every one of you guys to remember where you’re at right now and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said. ”Next year, we want to be coming off the ice right now with our skates on and preparing for our first-round opponent.”

Playoffs or bust.

It is a most interesting marriage – a team that hardly ever goes to the playoffs, and a coach who hardly ever misses them. Quenneville has won three Stanley Cups as a coach, his 890 wins are second-most in NHL history and he’s inheriting a Florida core that has seen its potential touted for years but still has yet to contend for a title.

”He’s energetic, easy to talk to and he means business,” Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said. ”He came in, is setting a precedent early and he’s getting the guys’ attention – which is great.”

Quenneville’s hiring in Florida reunited him with Panthers general manager Dale Tallon. Together, they put together the bulk of a team that would win three Stanley Cups in Chicago. Tallon wasn’t around for those hoistings after being let go by the Blackhawks, though Quenneville insists he should be considered a massive part of those titles.

In Florida, they’re looking to rekindle that magic and they have one of the NHL’s best top lines to lead the way in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.

”It’s a special line,” Quenneville said. ”They do a lot of things well together. They know where each other are around the ice. Their patience and play-recognition is high-end. They had such a strong year together and did some good things on the power play as well. So it works.”

Quenneville’s hiring was just one of many big moves by the Panthers in the offseason – with the biggest player splash being the signing of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who’ll replace the now-retired Roberto Luongo as Florida’s No. 1 netminder.

Tallon said he thinks Bobrovsky is the best goalie in the game.

”We’re happy to have him,” Quenneville said.

Here’s what to know about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers:

WHO’S HERE

Coach Joel Quenneville, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Anton Stralman, F Noel Acciari, F Brett Connolly.

WHO’S NOT

G Roberto Luongo (retired), G James Reimer (traded to Carolina), coach Bob Boughner (fired after two seasons).

KEY PLAYERS

The hope for change hinges mainly on Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal and will carry the load in net. Florida’s top six scorers last season – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Keith Yandle and Frank Vatrano – all set career-highs for points, and it still wasn’t enough for a postseason berth. The Panthers will need their offense, and perhaps even more.

OUTLOOK

The first 20 games might tell the story. Over the last 19 years, the Panthers have averaged only 17 standings points in the first 20 games – meaning they almost always fall back in the chase for playoff positioning early, and hardly ever recover. This year, 13 of Florida’s first 20 games are against teams that are coming off trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Survive those, and the Panthers could be off and running.

PREDICTION

The Panthers went out and got who they consider the best coach in Quenneville, who they consider the best goalie in Bobrovsky, added more scoring and figure that they shored up a defense that was too porous too often last season. No more excuses. Not only will Florida get to the postseason for just the third time in the last 19 seasons, the Panthers will actually win a series for the first time since 1996.

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.

Blackhawks encouraged by strong second half under Colliton

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A second straight season without playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is unacceptable for the Chicago Blackhawks of today. Having won three championships since 2010, the franchise established itself as one of the NHL’s elite teams, but not playing deep into April the last two years resulted in change.

Joel Quenneville and his three Blackhawks Cup rings were told to go after 15 games last season. Enter Jeremy Colliton, who was running the bench for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford. It was a drastic switch for a roster that features plenty of veterans, but after some time letting the new coach’s system sink in, the results finally began to show.

The Blackhawks recorded 39 points in 31 games after the All-Star break, third-most in the Western Conference over that span. They scored 112 goals, tied for fourth-most in the NHL, and vaulted themselves into a wild card race that they would ultimately fall short in by six points.

The takeaway from that final stretch was that the players saw hope that some continuity in their play, improvements defensively, and a full training camp and regular season under Colliton will pay off.

“It’s almost like we’re restarting again,” Patrick Kane told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour. “You can kind of throw those [championship] years out the window. I know we have a couple guys from those teams but a lot has changed in the NHL, a lot has changed with our team. 

“I don’t want to say we’re in a rebuild, but we’re just rebuilding the team we need to be to win a championship. With the roster turnover, with Jeremy having more experience, our veterans coming in as motivated as they’ve ever been, it bodes well for our team this year.”

[MORE: Colliton looking forward to camp with new-look Blackhawks]

While the offense was hot, the defense was not. Only three teams in the West allowed more goals than the Blackhawks did (102) post-All-Star break. The acquisitions of Robin Lehner, Olli Maatta, and Calvin de Haan aim to improve things on that side of the ice, but it will require more than the players whose main job is to keep the “Goals Allowed” column a low number.

“I think everyone’s got to buy into the system,” said Alex DeBrincat. “It took us too long to get to the point where we were pissed off and not wanting to get scored on. Last year we’d win games 7-6, but hopefully this year we can not let up that many goals and still be winning games and be in the race.”

The adjustments that Colliton implemented took time to settle in, especially the man-to-man defensive zone strategy. For Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, the changes were more than he realized at first. Playing under Quenneville for so long players were used to a certain rhythm of doing things, like the tempo of practices.

“But in games, I think our defensive system changed, all those things that just kind of came naturally with how I played defensively as a forward all changed overnight and there was definitely some adjustment where we were still playing pretty good but just couldn’t find a way to win games and get over that hump once Jeremy took over,” Toews said.

Those struggles early on under Colliton included an eight-game losing streak and three wins in their first 17 games after Quenneville’s firing. But 67 games of experience for the new coach means 67 games of knowing what buttons to push for each of his players and 67 games of identifying the weaknesses that need improvement. The Blackhawks’ veterans aren’t going to put up with another season ending without a playoff berth and the road back there begins with the buying of what the head coach is selling.

“Jeremy is so detailed. He’s thought of everything. His approach is incredible, his preparation is incredible,” Toews said. “He’s great at talking to us, letting us know what he’s thinking. We’ve got to respect that he’s the boss, he’s making those decisions and he’s taking that responsibility. As a captain you sometimes have your own opinions, but you’re not always going to see perfectly eye to eye. He’s one of those guys who’s willing to hear you out and talk to you on a daily basis. 

“But having said that, there’s no guarantees. We’ve got to come to training camp ready to work knowing that we’re going to have to work really hard to get back to where we were near the end of last season.”

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

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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.

Setting realistic expectations for Rangers, Devils, Panthers after big summer

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The New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, and Florida Panthers were not only three of the busiest teams in the NHL this summer, they also made some of the biggest and most notable roster transactions.

Blockbuster moves in the summer mean big expectations for the season. Sometimes those expectations can be a little too much based on offseason moves and preseason hype.

So what should fans of those three teams be realistically expecting this season after what appears to be a successful summer?

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Florida Panthers

Key additions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, Joel Quenneville
How high should expectations be?
Wild card or bust.

The Panthers are not yet on the same level as the the top-three teams in the Atlantic (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto) but there is no reason the playoffs should not be a minimum expectation this season.

They have high-level players at forward and fixed their single biggest flaw from a year ago with the addition of Bobrovsky. How bad was the Panthers’ goaltending last year? Despite allowing the seventh fewest shots per game, they still managed to allow the fourth most goals thanks to the second-worst save percentage (.891) in the league. Even a .900 save percentage would have trimmed 20 goals off of their total, while a league average (.905) mark would have trimmed off more than 30. Bobrovsky has finished just one of the past seven seasons with a mark lower than .910. Even though Bobrovsky won’t play every game, getting that level of play from him over 50-55 games could make a massive difference. Combine that with a Hall of Fame coach and the returning core they have up front and anything less than a playoff appearance should be considered a significant disappointment.

New Jersey Devils

Key additions: P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Hughes
How high should expectations be: Lower than they probably are

There is a lot to like about what the Devils did this offseason. They added a potential superstar in Hughes, a superstar defender in Subban, they have a healthy Taylor Hall returning to the lineup, and they added two other intriguing forwards in Gusev and Simmonds. And they did not have to give up anything of significance to do any of it. If nothing else the Devils are going to be a LOT more exciting to watch than they have been in recent seasons and they should obviously be better.

There are just a few problems here. For one, the Devils still have a massive question mark in goal and if things go poorly none of their additions are really going to matter all that much. Goaltending will make or break this team, and the current options are not promising.

The other issue is that the new additions are not without their questions. Subban and Simmonds are both on the wrong side of 30 and have shown some signs of slowing down (especially Simmonds). Gusev is extremely intriguing and full of potential, but is still an unknown that could go either way. There are reasons to be optimistic and if everything goes perfectly well this team could be a factor in the playoff race. But the more “what ifs” you add in to a team the more likely it is that something goes wrong.

New York Rangers

Key additions: Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox
How high should expectations be: Compete for a playoff spot

Thanks to a little draft lottery luck and some major spending the Rangers’ rebuild accelerated in a big way this summer thanks to the additions of Panarin and Kakko. That is a ton of impact talent entering the organization in a short period of time.

Normally spending big money on the UFA market is a fools paradise, but there are always exceptions, and players like Panarin tend to qualify as that sort of exception. He is still in his prime, doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his career, and is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He is a game-changer. But even with him, Trouba, and young players like Kakko and Fox it may not be quite enough to make up the sizable gap between them and the Eastern Conference playoff teams.

Are the Rangers are a sure-fire playoff team yet? Probably not, because they still have some questions with their depth and defense. But they should be able to stay in the discussion fairly deep into the season. Why should you like the Rangers’ playoff chances more than their arch-rivals in New Jersey? They have what could be (and should be) far better goaltending and seemingly fewer questions with their new offseason additions.

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.

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.