With nine games left to play, and not much to play for, the Panthers are going to attempt to finish the season strong for several reasons, which includes the future of current head coach Peter Horachek and his staff. After the Tuesday dismissal of assistant general manager Mike Santos, who was brought on board by GM Dale Tallon back when Tallon himself was hired, many believe that Horachek will be on his way out after the season ends due to the lack of Santos recommending otherwise. There hasn't been enough performance from the team to justify keeping Horachek around, but I think the same could be said of just about anyone behind the Cats bench this season. Scotty Bowman might have been fired while trying to work with this collection of players.
The Panthers will play host to the Carolina Hurricanes tonight in a game filled with urgency for the Canes. Carolina isn't mathematically eliminated yet, but the future does not look promising as they'd have to basically win out to have a shot at clinching one of the wildcard positions in the East. The Canes had a disappointing season capped with the reported resignation of long-time general manager Jim Rutherford, set to take effect at the end of this season. The Canes spent quite a bit of money the last two seasons on bringing in top players to play alongside their developing youth, but it hasn't panned out despite some really solid performances in goal from former backup Anton Khudobin. Carolina still has a shot but it's going to take a herculean effort to reach the second season.
LBC GameThread is a go before the game, and Canes Country is your one-stop shop for all the hubbub around Rutherford's resignation and the tumultuous Carolina season. Puck drops at 7:30 PM EST, so get'cha popcorn ready.
Players to Watch
Nick Bjugstad - Bjugstad has been the best Panther player for much of this season, something that's quite impressive for a rookie. However, it looks like he's starting to hit a bit of a wall at times. This is Bjugstad's first full NHL season and the number of games (and wear and tear from those games) seems to be catching up to him a bit. It's great that he's shown the ability to fight through adversity and weariness, and I have no doubts that Bjugstad will learn from this and come back even more ready next season to lead this team offensively. He's a great talent and I am excited to see him and Aleksander Barkov anchor the top two lines in Florida for the foreseeable future.
Jordan Staal - If anyone misses Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal... god the Pens have a lot, don't they? Anyway, my point was that Staal has really suffered statistically from coming to a team that has absolutely nowhere near the offensive depth that Pittsburgh has. He's at 39 points this season, and he hasn't had that bad of a season statistically since 2007-2008. Carolina has him locked up for $6m a year until 2023 (no that's not a typo), so everyone who gives a crap about that organization is rooting for Staal to turn it around and be more of a factor for the team offensively.
Manny Malhotra - After what many said would be a career-ending eye injury, Malhotra has come back to play regular bottom line minutes for the Canes this season, surprising many in the process. He's been a great veteran presence for Carolina and has once again been solid in the faceoff circle. It's a shame that the Canes didn't do much this season because the story of Malhotra is a good one, and as well respected as he is in NHL circles, it'll be a shame if he finishes his career after this season.
Erik Gudbranson - Gudbranson will be returning from a knee injury tonight, one that slowed down his continued development yet again. After recently being pseudo-tabbed as the future captain of this team by Tallon in an interview, Gudbranson has much to show on the ice yet to achieve that kind of label and respect from his peers. That said, he could become the longest tenured Panther pretty soon if the roster shakeups continue in the offseason. The Cats will have to re-sign Gudbranson in the offseason, so those contract negotiations could go a long way in determining whether or not his future with the club is that of a leadership role. Regardless, he's been one of the better defenseman for the Cats this season and when healthy should continue to grow into the role that he's been groomed for.