Keith Yandle

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Ekblad, Yandle, Stralman are biggest X-factors for Panthers

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

We know this much about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers: They have the potential to be a really good offensive team, while new starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a potential game-changer in net.

The latter fills the biggest position of need and is a high-profile player with an extensive track record of success. What he does on the ice will play a significant role in what the team does in the standings and whether or not it will be able to get back to the playoffs.

Even though Bobrovsky might be the single most important player on the ice, the team in front of him can still help him out and make the transition to a new team easier by improving its overall defensive play and lessening the workload he will have to face every night.

That must start with the duo of Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under PressureThree Questions]

Both players are signed long-term and will count nearly $14 million against the cap for the next four years (Ekblad is signed for two additional years after that) and are the most prominent defensemen on the team. They play the most minutes, they are great in the offensive zone, and they are among the most productive players in the league at their position.

All of that is great and valuable.

What has not been great is their inability to actually stop teams defensively, and that is something that is going to have to change for the Panthers to find success.

For all of their production offensively, Ekblad and Yandle have consistently sat among the bottom-third of NHL defenders over the past three years when it comes to preventing shot attempts and scoring chances at even-strength, while the Panthers have consistently been outshot and outchanced when they are on the ice. That is true whether they are paired together (something that has happened frequently over the past three years) and when they are split apart.

The problem for the Panthers is Ekblad and Yandle provide a very important skill that is a necessity for a winning team — offensive firepower from the blue line.

But for as good as they are in that area that skillset starts to get negated if they are giving up just as much, if not more, at the other end of the ice. You don’t want them to give up too much of their strength because, well, that is their strength and a big part of why they are valuable. But if the Panthers can’t get some sort of improvement out of them defensively that is going to be a big hurdle to overcome in their quest to return to the playoffs.

That is going to be the big challenge for new coach Joel Quenneville as he has to decide whether to keep them together as a pairing, how to distribute their minutes, and how to retain their offensive value while also not giving up even more on the defensive side.

The intriguing option here is where new defender Anton Stralman might be able to fit in.

Stralman, when healthy, has been one of the steadiest and most reliable defensive players in the league throughout his career. He was an outstanding complement to Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay for years, and even though he’s older and coming off an injury-shortened season (obviously two potential red flags) there seems to at least be the potential for him to help solidify a team that needs a massive upgrade defensively.

If he can provide the steadying presence, and maybe give Ekblad or Yandle a reliable partner that can make a world of difference for the Panthers.

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.

Pressure is on Tallon for Panthers to win after big offseason

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

Even with their lack of recent success there has still been a lot to like about this Florida Panthers team.

Aleksander Barkov is one of the best all-around players in the world and just now entering his prime years. He is a star and a cornerstone player that you should be able to build a championship contending team around.

Along with him, the Panthers just finished the 2018-19 season as a top-10 offensive team and have a pretty promising core of forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov. When combined with Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle on defense, there is a foundation here they should be able to compete with. What’s even better is that a lot of those core players (specifically Barkov and Huberdeau) are signed long-term to team-friendly contracts under the salary cap.

The key was going to be for general manager Dale Tallon and the front office to put the right people around them to allow that to happen. That was the mission for this offseason.

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

The only question that matters for the Panthers — and Tallon specifically — is if he acquired the right people.

Among the new additions to the organization…

  • The hiring of Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winning and future Hall of Fame coach that has a history of success with Tallon.
  • One of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason in starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on a massive seven-year, $70 million contract. In the short-term it could be a huge addition and maybe even help put the Panthers back in the playoffs. Given Bobrovsky’s age, inevitable decline, and size of the contract it could also become a long-term headache.
  • The additional free agent signings of defender Anton Stralman (three years, $16.5 million) and forward Brett Connolly (four years, $14 million)

Those are some big contracts, all of them carrying varying degrees of long-term risk. It will probably become very apparent very early in the process if they are going to make a positive impact on getting the Panthers to where they want to be. That means Tallon’s long-term future with the team could be riding on the success or failure of those signings.

Tallon has been in a position of power with the Panthers since 2010 and during that time the team has seen its roster get overhauled, is now on its seventh different head coach, and has just two playoff appearances (and only five playoff victories) to show for that time. Given the talent the Panthers have at the top of the lineup, the high-profile coach they just hired, and the money they handed out this offseason (not to mention the eight-year contract defenseman Mike Matheson just signed a year ago) the expectation has to be for the Panthers to win, and to win right now.

The longer the team goes without winning, the more likely it is more changes get made and the Panthers are running out of people to change before they get to Tallon. You can’t trade every player, and it makes little sense to trade a Barkov or Huberdeau because the rest of the team isn’t good enough.

Quenneville is going to get some kind of an extended leash to start because of his resume and the fact he literally just arrived.

That leaves the person responsible for the final say over what the team looks like.

In the end the Bobrovsky contract will probably be what makes or breaks Tallon’s tenure in Florida.

If the Panthers get the Vezina-caliber goalie he was in Columbus it might be enough to propel them back to the playoffs this season and beyond.

If they do not get that goalie it is probably going to be more of the same for the Panthers on the ice, leaving the team with a pricey goalie on the wrong side of 30. That simply will not be good enough.

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.

Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.


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

New York Rangers ’15-16 Outlook

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If you’re fascinated by athletes chasing big numbers in contract years, then the New York Rangers have been a go-to source of entertainment in recent years.

It’s difficult (if not nebulous) to try to quantify the impact of “greed is good,” but the Rangers are a hungry team with plenty of motivation in 2015-16. That’s what happens when you mortgage bits of your future via trades and employ some players chasing their next checks.

You never really know how wide open a Stanley Cup window might be.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault saw that in action in Vancouver, as the franchise declined from a huge contender to a bubble team in little time.

We’ve asked more than once if Henrik Lundqist’s elite days are numbered. It’s also worth noting that at 31, Rick Nash is in the middle of that age in which snipers see a slide in production.

The contract year situations aren’t of “uh oh, we better re-sign Henrik Lundqvist/our current captain/Derek Stepan” enormity, but they’re still intriguing.

On defense, you have veteran Keith Yandle and fading graybeard (literally) Dan Boyle. Antti Raanta also enters a pivotal year as an NHL backup.

The forward group might be the most intriguing.

Just look at the pending RFAs alone: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T Miller and Emerson Etem. There’s some fascinating potential for all four of those players.

Even with Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit set to expire, salary cap gymnastic may be required once again in the summer of 2016.

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Paying players after strong years – and learning to let some of the less essential ones go – has been a pretty rewarding process for the Rangers, even if there’s been the occasional miss (see: Anton Stralman).

Poll: Will the Coyotes be the worst team in the NHL next season?

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Arizona GM Don Maloney thinks his Coyotes are “going to be a better team” than the one that finished 29th overall last year.

In fact, he says they’re “entering the season to be a playoff team.”

“I look at our roster and say, ‘OK, we may not have the most pure talent as some of the teams in the West,” Maloney told NHL.com, “but with a great coach and a great game plan and a stable center ice and a better blue line and solid goaltending, we should be able to compete every night, whether it’s the Chicago Blackhawks or the Stanley Cup champions or the bottom of the Western Conference.”

Others look at Arizona’s roster and wonder how anyone can be so optimistic. Shane Doan is 38 now. Sam Gagner and Keith Yandle, their second- and third-leading scorers from last year, are gone. The goaltending remains a big question mark. Besides Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the blue line isn’t overly impressive. Sure, the Coyotes have some excellent prospects in Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Dylan Strome, but their combined NHL experience is practically nil.

At online bookmaker Bovada, the Coyotes are the longest shot on the board to win the Stanley Cup, at 150/1. The Leafs, Sabres, and Hurricanes are next, each at 100/1.

OK, time to vote.

If you don’t think the Coyotes will be the worst team in the NHL, feel free to add your pick below.