Sergei Bobrovsky

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What is the Panthers’ long-term outlook?

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Florida Panthers

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Everything about this team in the immediate future is going to be built around the forward duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

They are two of the best and most productive players in the league, while Barkov has developed into one of the NHL’s most complete two-way centers. Barkov is signed for two more seasons after this one, while Huberdeau is locked in for another three. They have matching salary cap hits of $5.9 million per season.

Beyond them, the core gets a little cloudier because all of their long-term investments come with some pretty significant risks.

Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is signed for another six seasons at a salary cap hit of $10 million per season. They are going to need him to be significantly better than he has been so far if there is any chance of him playing out the remainder of that deal in Florida.

In front of him they have invested heavily in their defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, and Mike Matheson all signed for at least the next two seasons, while Ekblad, Yandle, and Matheson go for at least the next three years. Ekblad and Matheson are both signed for the next five. They have a ton of money invested in that quartet, but they haven’t really received a great return on that investment at this point.

Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, two of their best forwards, are unsigned beyond this season and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If they can not re-sign one — or both — that would be a significant amount of offense going out the door.

Long-Term Needs

Even though the Panthers have made a huge long-term financial investment in their defense and goaltending, they are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league right now.

Ekblad and Yandle are a solid duo at the top, and maybe even a little underrated. Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 overall pick definitely raises the expectations around him, but he has been an extremely productive player offensively and shown improvement in his all-around game. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s a good player.

But once you get beyond that top duo there are a lot of flaws and question marks with the defense as a whole, and not a lot of immediate help on the horizon to help fix it. That is one of the things that made the in-season trade of Vincent Trocheck so confusing. It was a deal that did not need to be made, and they did not even use it to address their biggest flaw.

They could also be looking at a depth issue at forward if they can not get Hoffman and Dadonov re-signed.

Long-Term Strengths

The biggest strength for the Panthers is probably the simple fact they not only have two elite players in Barkov and Huberdeau, but that they have them both signed for multiple seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $11 million per season. They are exceptional bargains against the cap, they are both elite players, and they are both in the middle of their prime years in the NHL. Having that sort of situation at the top of the lineup should be a massive advantage for a front office to work with. Those are the hardest players to find (the elite, game-changers on offense) and they tend to cost the most money. The Panthers not only already have them in place, they have them for far less than they should ordinarily cost. That is a gift and a bonus you do not want to waste.

It also might seem weird saying this given how much Bobrovsky struggled in his debut season with the team, but they do seem to have a lot of goaltending options in the short-and long-term.

Even if Bobrovsky’s contract turns into a problem in a few years, he should be better than he was this season and at least give them a few seasons of high level play. Chris Driedger has also been a pleasant surprise in net this season and could settle in as a nice back-up option, while they also have one of the top goaltending prospects in the league in Spencer Knight after using a top-15 pick on him in the draft a year ago.

They also have one of the NHL’s best coaches in Joel Quenneville.

More:

• Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers
• Panthers’ surprises and disappointments

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: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Florida Panthers.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s slow start

This has not yet worked out as hoped.

Even during the 2018-19 season it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Panthers were going to do everything in their power to throw a truck load of money at Bobrovsky on the free agent market in an effort to fix their biggest organizational weakness from a year ago — goaltending.

They desperately needed a goalie, Bobrovsky was the best goalie available on the market, and he has a track record of being one of the best goalies in the league. It was a perfect match, even if an expensive one.

The Panthers ended up signing him to a seven-year, $70 million contract. It certainly came with some risks and concerns, with the biggest one being how long he would be worth such a monstrous salary cap number. Given his age and the normal aging curve for goalies there was an expectation that the contract would become an albatross before it expired, but that the Panthers should still get some high-level years out of their prized addition. So far, they have not even received that.

Bobrovsky got off to a massively disappointing start that has resulted in one of the worst overall seasons of his career. It would be entirely unfair to put all of the blame on him — the Panthers are lousy defensively — but there is no question that his performance has been less than expected. He has been better since the start of December, but still not what the Panthers hoped for.

Noel Acciari‘s 20-goal season

The Panthers were extremely busy this past summer on the free agent market, and one of their most successful signings has probably been the one that received the least fanfare at the time.

Before this season the 28-year-old Acciari had scored 18 goals 180 career games with the Boston Bruins.

This season? He already has 20 goals in 66 games with the Panthers, including back-to-back hat tricks in mid-December.

Sure, he is riding an exceptionally high shooting percentage that will eventually regress (18 percent), but 20 goals in 66 games is still a positive development. Can not take those goals away. They still happened.

Chris Driedger a pleasant surprise in net

Before this season Driedger had appeared in just three NHL games, and none since the 2016-17 season.

Even though his sampling this season has been small (only 12 appearances) he has still been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Panthers thanks to a 7-2-1 record and .938 save percentage.

He  has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between the ECHL and AHL (and posting very good numbers along the way) without really getting much of an opportunity at the highest level. He was able to take advantage of it this season and has helped keep the Panthers in the playoff race when they needed a short-term boost in goal.

The Vincent Trocheck trade made little sense

By little sense, I actually mean no sense.

Just before the NHL trade deadline, and with the Panthers still very much in the race, they traded Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for what basically looked to be a quantity over quality return.

All signs indicated that it was trade done simply to “shake things up” for a team that was struggling.

The problem with that mindset is that Trocheck was not only one of their core players and still signed beyond this season, but they were also moving him at what might have been his lowest value and did not even address their biggest need — defense. What was the point? It simply was not good asset management from a team that has demonstrated some poor asset management habits in the very recent past. It just seemed like the type of move that would be a letdown for Panthers fans that are desperate for a competitive hockey team, and one that might finally make the playoffs with some regularity.

MORE PANTHERS:
Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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.

Columbus Blue Jackets: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Elvis enters the building as goaltending surprises for Blue Jackets

If any position in sports challenged the saying “You get what you pay for,” it would be NHL goaltending.

The Blue Jackets haven’t just watched Sergei Bobrovsky fall short of his $10M asking price with Florida already. They’ve also seen their $2M tandem of 25-year-olds (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) provide some of the best goaltending since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets head coach.

If forced to guess, people might postulate that Korpisalo would drive that bus. While his development’s been bumpy since Columbus took measures to keep him during the expansion draft, Korpisalo at least had NHL experience. As much as people loved the idea of putting on blue suede shoes and making bad Elvis jokes, could the Blue Jackets expect Merzlikins to convert nice Swiss league numbers to acceptable backup work?

Nope. Instead, Korpisalo has been solid but unspectacular, when he hasn’t been hurt. Meanwhile, Merzlikins has been a smash hit.

Speaking of surprises and prices, there could be more up ahead. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are pending RFAs. What’s even a fair contract for Merzlikins, especially if the NHL doesn’t resume action until 2020-21?

Torts walks the walk

For some time, the feeling was: whether John Tortorella is actually a good coach or not, he at least provides entertaining press conferences. When the Torts rage boils over, snarky folks are the biggest winners.

Tortorella’s backers must feel vindicated, as the Blue Jackets sit in the playoff bubble even after the team lost Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin — along with facing wave after wave of injuries.

Much like Barry Trotz nurturing strong numbers for Islanders goalies, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation in Columbus. Merzlikins deserves credit for his strong .925 save percentage this season, but surely Torts helped make life easier for Elvis.

Take a look at Hockey Viz’s coaching impacts and you’ll see that Tortorella seems to be getting more and more effective during his time as Blue Jackets head coach:

Pretty impressive stuff from Tortorella.

Numerous health-related disappointments for Blue Jackets

Chalk up the Blue Jackets’ crushing run of injuries to bad luck … I think.

There is one thought: maybe certain style choices increase the risks of injuries. Tortorella’s teams are notorious for being gritty, and most obviously blocking shots. Could that make his players more susceptible to injuries? Maybe such issues wouldn’t just crop up because of single seasons, but rather multiple years of playing that way?

Overall, I’d still say it’s mostly bad luck.

The Blue Jackets should definitely be careful though, particularly if the NHL opts to squeeze in some portion of the rest of 2019-20 while holding a full 82-game campaign in 2020-21.

Offensive disappointments for Blue Jackets

Look, any reasonable person expected Columbus to have a tougher time scoring goals without Artemi Panarin (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Duchene). Even so, when Pierre-Luc Dubois is your leading scorer at 49 points through 70 games, it’s dishonest not to put offense on the list of disappointments.

This is likely the more reasonable knock on Tortorella’s ultimately-worth-it focus on defense than injury concerns. Certain Blue Jackets would likely put up bigger numbers in a more open system; it just likely wouldn’t be the wisest strategy overall.

There are disappointments within those disappointments for the Blue Jackets:

  • To some extent, it’s a bummer that Sonny Milano never quite found his place. Not surprising, but a bummer, as there’s talent there.
  • Alexander Wennberg didn’t rebound to his most promising form. Instead, he sits at a middling 22 points in 57 games, including just five goals.
  • Josh Anderson suffered through a disastrous 2019-20 season. Along with injuries, Anderson enjoyed almost zero puck luck, scoring a single goal on just a 1.6 shooting percentage (four points in 26 games overall). That hurts after Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals and 47 points in 2018-19, and fell just short of 20 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

My guess is that Anderson can still contribute as a power forward once he gets healthy. Those numbers almost certainly were affected by injury issues to some extent, too. Even so … ouch.

***

Overall, the surprises are more pleasant than the disappointments ended up being painful for the Blue Jackets. It’s truly remarkable that they’re in almost the same spot in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19.

What should we expect if there’s more for 2019-20, and then in 2020-21, though?

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

Record: 33-22-15 (81 points in 70 games played); fifth in the Metro, second East wild card
Leading Scorer: Pierre-Luc Dubois, 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists)

In-season Roster Moves:

  • Traded Sonny Milano to the Anaheim Ducks for Devin Shore.
  • Sent Markus Hannikainen to the Arizona Coyotes for a conditional seventh-rounder.

Season Overview: 

In 2018-19, the Blue Jackets finished the season in the second wild-card spot, right behind the Hurricanes. In 2019-20 … the Blue Jackets went into the COVID-19 halt in the second wild-card spot, right behind the Hurricanes.

Now, sure, it’s not the exact same situation. In this year’s case, the Islanders would take that spot if you went by points percentage, as they’re only a point behind the Blue Jackets (80 to Columbus’ 81) while the Islanders hold two games in hand (68 to Columbus’ 70 GP).

Yet,  how many people would have expected the Blue Jackets to manage this feat? Columbus didn’t just lose Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency. The Blue Jackets also lost a ton of players to injuries, often significant ones, from Seth Jones to Cam Atkinson to Joonas Korpisalo.

Like him or not, this season’s been a testament to John Tortorella’s coaching abilities. While the Blue Jackets aren’t winning every possession battle (especially regarding high-danger chances), they’re not cratering in the same way Winnipeg has after painful personnel purges.

All things considered, it’s impressive that the Blue Jackets fall in the middle of the pack by various metrics, including this “Reality vs. Expectation” chart from Charting Hockey (which uses Evolving Hockey’s data).

2019-20 Blue Jackets Charting Hockey Evolving Hockey

For Torts’ structure to bend-but-not-break, Columbus did need strong goaltending, though. Elvis Merzlikins delivered (13-9-8, .925 save percentage) even more than Korpisalo did (19-12-5, .911 save percentage) to help hold everything together.

We’ll see if the Blue Jackets get the chance to prove that they could hold onto their current spot. Either way, Tortorella and the Blue Jackets already proved a lot in 2019-20.

Highlight of the 2019-20 Season for Blue Jackets: 

The Blue Jackets didn’t only win six in a row during some of Elvis’ hottest days in the building. They also pulled off a 10-game point streak from Jan. 11 to Feb. 7 (9-0-1). Stretching back further, they went 11-1-1 in 13 games (Jan. 6 to Feb. 7) and 13-2-1 in 16 (Dec. 31 to Feb. 7).

Yes, they plummeted into the pause (3-6-6 from Feb. 8 to March. 8), but that previous tear was really something.

If you need something more of the highlight reel variety, recall Sonny Milano’s between-the-legs goal, a nice memory Milano created before he was traded:

And, hey, if you need some righteous Tortorella rage at refs, there was some of that this season, too.

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

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.