With only five games left until the Olympic break, a lot of folks are starting to ask the question, "Will the Panthers be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?" After watching the last game against the Boston Bruins, you'd have to assume the latter, as the Bruins just absolutely dominated Florida in all aspects of the game, most notably the physical side. The Panthers have ten unrestricted free agents with contracts that expire at the end of the season, including both goaltenders, and four restricted free agents. With this team's erratic performance preventing them from making their way back into the playoff conversation, it's likely that General Manager Dale Tallon will be selling off and preparing for next season.
However, we're still in this season, and the Panthers have to continue to play with some kind of urgency, because Toronto is playing some solid hockey lately and will torch the Cats if they don't bring the type of effort that most of us are looking for but rarely see for 60 minutes. The Leafs were becoming a bit of a punchline, as they often are, around the league before this recent resurgence, and their play has quieted that talk as they now sit fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers may have the only win in the season series so far, but with the Leafs playing as well as they are, the Panthers will have to work hard for the full game to even have a chance of walking away with a win.
The next five games will be the indicator of which direction Tallon takes the club in regards to trades. The Panthers simply aren't showing that they can be a winning team night in and night out, and it's almost entirely due to compete level. The team can't blame injuries this year, and they can't blame coaching, as they've been through two pretty good ones so far. This is on the players and their willingness to play every shift like it was the most important shift of the game. I'd like to say we'll see that, but I think we all know by now that on any given night, the effort level can be decided by the flip of a coin.
The LBC GameThread will be waiting with open arms, and check out Pension Plan Puppets for some Leafs hilarity.
Players to Watch
Jonathan Huberdeau - There's just way too much chatter about Huberdeau being a bust or being a liability on the ice. Does anyone else watch the rest of the team? Yes, Huberdeau's not playing anywhere near dominant hockey and turns the puck over to a strong breeze, but he's not playing infinitely worse than some other guys in the lineup that are guilty of the same transgressions. It might not be the popular opinion right now but I think Huberdeau just needs to keep playing through things. What would benefit Huberdeau, however, is some veteran leadership busting their tails every night so that he had a standard level of competition and effort to hold himself to. Monkey see, monkey do. He's very young and came into a losing culture, and is still mired in a losing culture despite the rhetoric. I'm not condoning his lack of hustle he displays at times, but it's easy to see how he got to this point and how hard it is to climb back out of it.
Erik Gudbranson - Two healthy scratches in a row should light a really, really hot fire under Gudbranson. Always a fiery competitor, he should be back in the lineup tonight and ready to rock. He's made a lot of progress this season and all that momentum was lost once he missed time due an orbital bone injury, but Gudbranson should be able to get it back and continue to play like the top-four defenseman that he is. Pairing him back up with Dylan Olsen would be big, but it remains to be seen if Peter Horacek does that with the presence of Ed Jovanovski in the lineup.
Nazem Kadri - Constantly rumored to be on the trading block, Kadri's 35 points in 51 games hardly belie his first round selection, but his game is growing with him. Only 23 years old, the Leafs would be wise to be more patient with Kadri and continue to keep him in a Leafs sweater, though he will attract a lot of interest on the trade market should the Leafs decide to deal him. There could be quite a return for a young center with nearly 100 points in 150 games played. Kadri's riding a three-game points streak and should see some chances against a shaky Panthers defense.