Sergei Bobrovsky

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.

Blue Jackets look to move past drama of departing stars

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offseason drama churned up by the exodus of some of their top stars is now behind the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now they open training camp with some burning questions.

Can veteran Joonas Korpisalo, rookie Elvis Merzlikins or someone else step into the huge skates vacated by star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky?

How will Columbus replace the scoring of forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene?

Can Blue Jackets stalwarts like Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois make the Columbus faithful stop grumbling about the superstars who spurned the city and get the team to the playoffs for a fourth straight year?

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, for one, is indignant that anyone thinks the Blue Jackets will take a step backward following the offseason exodus of talent. He’s tired of talking about it already.

”We’re very, very confident in our core group,” Kekalainen said. ”And I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you, because it shows disrespect to our core group that brought us all that success we’ve had in the past three years.”

Kekalainen decided to go with a strategy of counting on trusted veterans to step up their offensive production along with moving up NHL-ready prospects to help fill the void left by Panarin – who made it clear a year ago he didn’t want to re-sign with the team and subsequently left for the New York Rangers – and Duchene, a trade-deadline rental who signed with Nashville.

”We’re all going to have to do it by committee,” said Atkinson, who had a career-high 41 goals and 28 assists last season. ”Hopefully, the guys who get the opportunity seize the moment, step in and step up for us because we’re going to need everyone.”

Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, both 20, are among the prospects expected to contribute. Texier came to the U.S. at the end of last season, had a short stay in the minors and then showed flashes of what he could do down the stretch for the Blue Jackets. Bemstrom starred in the Swedish professional league and comes to camp amid plenty of hype.

”(Panarin) is a very good player, he’s a game-breaker. But I’m not going to sit here and say that’s a hole,” said coach John Tortorella, who acknowledged he has a chip on his shoulder because of the predictions of doom. ”It just gives other people an opportunity to fill that, and I feel very comfortable where we’re going with some of our young kids.”

Kekalainen’s biggest offseason move was adding veteran help with Gustav Nyquist, a top-six forward who had a career-high 22 goals and 38 assists last season with Detroit and San Jose.

Replacing Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is the toughest order. Columbus will give Korpisalo a chance to be the everyday guy. Korpisalo has played well in stretches as Bobrovsky’s backup for the past four seasons. He’ll compete with the flashy 25-year-old Merzlikins, who has been outstanding in the Swiss league and in international play.

Players who have been here awhile insist the naysaying will go away if they win.

”We feel confident with what we have in this room,” All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said. ”We understand what the narrative is probably going to be this year, and I think now more than ever we have to maintain the tight chemistry in this room and not let outside noise interfere with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Blue Jackets, who got to the second round of the playoffs after a stunning sweep of Tampa Bay in the opening round last spring, will skate together for the first time Saturday free of the drama Panarin and Bobrovsky dragged around all last season after both made it known they didn’t want to stay in Columbus any longer than necessary.

”Maybe we don’t have the shiny pieces people like to talk about,” captain Nick Foligno said. ”But there’s going to be a lot of headlines, a lot of great plays going on because of the skill we have.”

NHL Power Rankings: Biggest stories of the offseason

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With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

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.

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.

Atkinson ready for Blue Jackets to ‘prove people wrong’

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CHICAGO — When training camps open next week, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be missing a number of faces that helped stage the biggest upset of the 2018-19 NHL season. Gone are Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky. But for Cam Atkinson, the franchise’s longest-tenured player, there are a number of players who can take on bigger roles this coming season to offset those losses.

“A guy like Josh Anderson taking a step forward and being more of a powerhouse and bringing it every single game,” Atkinson told NBC Sports during the 2019 NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago this week, “Not that he didn’t, but every guy’s going to have to step up. 

“I’m going to have to step up more, guys like Seth Jones can contribute more. Zach Werenski, I look at him and he can contribute more offensively, I think. [Oliver] Bjorkstrand can score a lot of goals.”

One player who got a small taste of the NHL last season with two regular season and eight Stanley Cup playoff games is Alexandre Texier. The French forward saw plenty of time on a line with Anderson and captain Nick Foligno in the postseason and scored twice in Game 4 to knock out the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.

Atkinson firmly believes Texier will be one of the Blue Jackets’ impact players and do it for a long time.

“He’s a young guy that played some playoff games last year. He’s a 19-year-old kid, so I think he’s going to have a great career,” he said.

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about the personnel departures, but to Atkinson, he understands it’s a business. 

Heading into the 2019-20 season, Columbus is a team that’s being pegged as a bottom dweller. That’s something Atkinson believes the Blue Jackets can rally behind.

“I think you have to look at it like we have to come in with a chip on our shoulder because everyone’s written us off already,” Atkinson said. “How do you think that makes the players feel? You can either go one of two ways: you can either take that and use that as motivation to prove people wrong or you can use it and go the opposite way and say maybe they were right. 

“I know being a leader I’m going to make sure we come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove people wrong.”

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.