The end of calendar year 2015 saw various NHL media outlets riding Paul Revere style through the internet, television and radio to announce the alarming news that there is a hockey team in South Florida that is marching to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. The Panthers are suddenly the talk of the east, and Dale Tallon, Aaron Ekblad, Roberto Luongo, and Jaromir Jagr have all been sudden visitors to the NHL talk shows. The Cats even got the unbelievable praise of Pittsburgh Penguin enthusiast - Pierre McGuire, who informed listeners on NHL Sirius/XM Radio that they should be watching the Panthers because they are playing a very entertaining style of hockey, and doing it well. If you are reading this while eating your cheerios, and said breakfast oats just spit from your mouth... well, we understand.
It seems it was only weeks ago that the majority of us here at LBC were fed up, frustrated, embarrassed, and wondering where the team was that concluded the 2014-15 season with a late attempt at making the playoffs. Remember asking: where the hell is Huberdeau? I was looking everywhere and cursing his turnovers. That's ancient history now.
You can't blame a Panther fan for feeling a bit bipolar right about now- as we have gone from doldrums to top of the heap in about 30-days. The time has come for another LBC Roundtable discussion to digest whats transpired and take the vital signs for the team. It's been an unusually warm and rainy winter here in Southeast Florida, and the hidden LBC Everglades lair is infested with mosquitoes, but we will gladly endure due to our supreme dedication to you: the Florida Panther fan and LBC reader. So here, with the smell of Deet heavy in the air ("Smells like victory"), is our discussion of all things Panthers:
After an opening night dismantling of an unprepared Flyers team, the Panthers went on an uneven and mightily unproductive stretch that reportedly had Dale Tallon working the phones and fans at points booing the team at home. What's your diagnosis of the Panthers early season woes?
JC: The conclusion of last season, and the impressive home opener set the table for higher expectations, and I was as excited as anyone. I actually went and purchased a ticket package and wrote here in my preseason predictions that this team would be a playoff contender. I spent a lot of time trying to find answers in the numbers, and certainly the stats can identify some things, but really I think we were all correct that the lack of Aleksander Barkov in the lineup was a major cause of the downturn. He is just that good. But while we were all mostly correctly identifying that factor at the time, I think we can subsequently identify an equally important factor and that is youth. Despite the veterans on this team, it is a very young squad learning to play at the NHL level. Injuries exacerbated this, with a string of call ups from Portland. So my diagnosis is youth, and uneven results are what you'd expect to see from a young team.
Francisco: I would think it was the lack of consistency. As JC said youth was a massive factor in the Cats struggles (although Dave Bolland's play was horrid). I think the struggles may have also had to do with the NHL finally recognizing the Panthers as a tough team to play. In 2014-15. The Panthers surprised a ton of people in their playoff push. I believed that the Panthers wouldn't have that surprise benefit this season.
Todd: Adding some new players and finding the right line combinations and defense pairings was the cause of most of the early season inconsistency, as was the Barkov injury. After looking back, things were never really that bad. The Cats did struggle mightily against the Pacific Division (most of those games are now out of the way) and it took them awhile to find their footing at the BB&T Center.
Kevin: We watched the Cats score four goals in the first period and win it 7-1 in the season opener. I'll not lie, I was flying pretty high on them, and privately decided that this might actually be the elusive "Next Year," I've always referred to when uttering the sentence, "Wait 'til Next Year." A few weeks later, the Cats went on a 3-6-3 skid while getting outscored 38-to-25, and I'm sure that everyone could sense a feeling of "here we go again" in the GameThreads. Of course losing Barkov was huge. The team was noticably better soon after he got back. The Cats have lost just five-of-24 games in regulation since his return, and a lot of it is directly attributable to getting the top line together again. Also, I don't mean to pile on the guy, I'm sure he's a perfectly decent sort of chap, but Dave Bolland seems to D.T.'s only really glaring mistake. He never at any time has scored more than 20 goals, and has only cleared 40 points once (47 in 2008-09). At a head-scratching $5.5 million per season, he's clearly a buy-out waiting to happen, and the sooner the better.
Donny: Another year of getting used to each other. Few changes were made (F Reilly Smith being the most notable addition in exchange for Big Jimmy Hayes heading to Boston) but the roster was still in a feeling-out phase in the final game of 2014-15 with Jaromir Jagr being added at the previous trade deadline. Jagr signing for another year within hours of the close of that season went a long way toward solidifying the dressing room, but that move still took time to have an effect across the lineup, regardless of the Ageless One's efforts. All of that said, it took another summer for the Trochecks/Pirris/Huberdeaus/etc. to find their way. A lot of time was lost early on as the roster developed its identity, but that's not really "lost" time given the outcome so far.
The early season woes we just spoke of are seemingly behind the team and the Cats find themselves on top of the Atlantic; can they sustain this level of play?
JC: The Panthers have followed the path that Dale set with the Blackhawks rebuild. In 2007-08, the Hawks finished just short of the playoffs (10th in the west, 3rd in the Central) as youngsters Toews and Kane (in his rookie campaign) combined with Patrick Sharp- who had a breakout season, to lead a young team. From that season forward the Hawks have been playoff mainstays. I don't know if last season was the Cats version of an 07-08 "just-miss" or if thats destined to be this season. The good news is that the defense and goaltending have been outstanding- in the sense that we are not giving up many goals per game. As we sit here chatting, the team is 3rd in the league in goals-against-per-game (behind only the Caps and Kings), and thats a recipe for success. But you have to wonder how long you can sustain that with so many rookies in the lineup. It takes time and experience to play fruitfully for an entire NHL campaign, but now we have Nick Bjugstad back which should help mightily.
Francisco: The Cats always seem to have a mid-season lull around the All-Star break and I expect it to happen again. Hopefully the youngsters learned from last season and can mitigate the damage if it indeed happens again. The thing that gives me hope that the lull won't be severe as compared to years past is that a rested Nick Bjugstad is back and the AHL call-ups may be more apt to not let the lull happen with their NHL careers starting to finally blossom.
Todd: No, it would be unrealistic to expect them to rip off another ten game winning streak or win 17 out of 20 games, but can they pick up 6 or 7 points over 5-game blocks the rest of the way? I feel that's an achievable goal. I think Luongo and the defense have proven that they are going to be hard to crack all year long. That means the Panthers will be in pretty much every game, so, as long as the offense continues to grind out goals (with 3 being the magic number) they will keep winning at a good enough clip to make the playoffs, and maybe even win the division.
Kevin: Winning 85% of their games going forward in perpetuity is an impossible expectation. With that being said, they really are better than most other teams in the league at the moment, and a .650 points percentage is a reasonable expectation. It's also coincidentally the clip at which they are currently trucking along, and would have them finish the season with a tidy 107 points, although anything over 95 would guarantee a playoff berth. Even though we've been singing the praises of Florida's offense, the thing that leads me to believe these Cats are for real lie behind the blue line. Florida's defensive corps is amongst the best I've ever seen from top to bottom, and the Luongo/Montoya tandem can continue their current pace as long as the defenders continue their suffocating grip on opposing forwards.
Donny: They're playing well, so why not? Then again, why should they? The Cats find themselves atop a division in an evolutionary phase right now. A few of the usual favorites - Detroit, Boston & Montreal to name just three - are going through their own growing pains (in which direction any of them are headed is fodder for another post), leaving a vacuum at the top. Whomever has the front line scoring and depth to escape injury issues down the stretch will take the Atlantic crown. And the Panthers may just have the legs for both.
World Juniors 2016 has just wrapped up as we chat, so let's talk prospects for a moment. What Panther prospect has you the most excited or intrigued right now?
JC: Kyle Rau. Let me just spell out what this kid has done in his first- YES- first professional season (he played only 8 games last season in the AHL after leaving Minnesota): he is currently the Portland Pirates team leader in goals with 15 in 31 games played. We all love Rocco Grimaldi so consider this: Rocco scored 14 goals last season on an excellent San Antonio team in 64 games. Rau has scored 15 in less than half that number of games. He has done this while flipping through the line up between the 1st and 3rd lines, and often with different linemates. Some people just have the hockey IQ to see opportunities and make the right decisions to put the puck in the net- its an intangible. Kyle has it and I am excited to see what he can do on an NHL 3rd line.
Francisco: I've never been big into evaluating prospects especially in hyping them up (counting chickens before they hatch) but I'm very interested in what the Panthers will do concerning some of the older vets on the team in massive roles, namely Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell. Both players continue to be productive on the ice and hopefully it stays that way but Campbell is in the final year of his contract and I'm wondering which defenseman in the system is ready to fill his role. I'm also hoping maybe the Panthers can produce one great goalie for themselves for once. Every one of Florida's best goaltenders in franchise history, (Vanbiesbrouck, Luongo, Vokoun), has come from somewhere else.
Todd: Have to agree with JC on this one. Kyle Rau's numbers are too hard ignore. Rau is on pace for a 36-goal season in the AHL. Sure, that's a far cry from doing it in the NHL, but the AHL is still one of the best leagues in the world and this is a kid in his first professional season. I don't remember a young Panther prospect (this isn't a guy with NHL experience like Bobby Butler) ever producing those kind of numbers before.
Kevin: Gosh. I was going to say Kyle Rau. I've been a fan before I knew anything about him besides his diminutive size (he's only 5'8"). Getting him to the top level would put consecutive University of Minnesota "Mr. Hockey(s)" on the team. Since you both cited him, I'm going to name-check Mike Matheson. The Boston College alum is Brian Campbell's heir-apparent as Florida's blue-line power play quarterback. He had 71 points (57 of them assists) in three seasons with the Golden Eagles, and is currently leading the Portland Pirates with a plus-10 rating (by quite a fair margin). Ideally, I'd like to see Campbell and Matheson on the roster together for at least a season before old Soupy passes the torch, but Campbell is still quietly effective, although his future with the club remains up in the air.
Donny: Rau. Played alongside Bjugstad for three years, past Minnesota Mr. Hockey (as was Bjugstad a year earlier). Gotta love the potential here.
Staying with the youngsters- which of the Panthers rookies have impressed you the most so far this season- Grimaldi, Brickley, Howden, Petrovic, Shaw, Wilson, or Knight?
JC: I have liked the simple hustle of Brickley and Howden, and the hustle and face-off success of Knight, but for me it comes down to Shaw or Petrovic and I am going with Petrovic. Petro has had his struggles to be sure, but he is playing the most difficult position of all the rookies and he has done so against a very solid quality of competition. They say some of the best defense is played by those you don't notice- and Petro has done just that, especially since his recent return from injury. He is solid and becoming more dependable every week.
Francisco: Logan Shaw for sure. 4th line or not it seems he has his head in the right place every time he's on the ice.
Todd: Wanted to point out that while Petro is still green, he is technically not a rookie anymore by virtue of playing 33 games last season. That said, for a 23-year-old defenseman he is playing a solid role on the squad. As for the other youngsters, they all have had their moments, but Shaw has proven the job is not too big for him and has found the back of net more often than the others and Knight has been a pleasant surprise who has seemingly come out of nowhere to solidify the bottom of the lineup.
Kevin: I love Alex Petrovic's grit, Corban Knight's flash, and Rocco Grimaldi's hustle. Quinton Howden, however, is my favorite rookie out of this bunch. As Todd said, I don't really consider Petrovic to be a "rookie" anymore. Howden's been a solid spark plug on Florida's bottom line, and can be counted on to stir up the opposition with some consistency. I'd like to see him somehow get more than 11 minutes per game.
Donny: Knight has made the case for full-time NHL status with this club since being reacquired earlier in the season. He won't see time beyond Florida's third line but that's ok. He's become a part of this squad in so little time that it's scary. He's a minus player in only one of eleven games with the Panthers in 2015-16.
What Panthers player has impressed you the most so far this season?
JC: I would've said Montoya but Barkov has to take this one. He has emerged as the Jonathan Toews of this team and is all he was advertised to be when drafted. As he matured and adapted to the NHL game his speed and strength have both improved, and he is finally less deferential with the puck on his stick. Thank you Jaromir Jagr for giving us a more effective Sasha Barkov!
Francisco: Jonathan Huberdeau. I think he has found his niche in the NHL. He's almost like a point guard in basketball in that he's creating opportunities for others with the assist. Yo State Farm, instead of Chris/Cliff Paul how's about John/Josh Huberdeau?
Todd: It's always been easy to see that Barkov had a lot of talent and did all the little things right, but this season, we are starting to see him do the big things right. Watching him display more offensive prowess has been a welcome sight. And we now know the club is a much different (and lesser) beast without him in the lineup. The Panthers have had some important cogs out this season and haven't missed a beat in most cases. With Barkov out, it was easy to see the team was much easier to play against.
Kevin: I feel like Roberto Luongo is the easy answer. He's now the oldest netminder in the entire NHL, but he's putting up career best numbers with a 2.06 GAA and a .931 save percentage. Do the math. What if Luongo is "peaking" in his 36-year-old season? Could he play until he's 48, ala Dominik Hasek? Jaromir Jagr, no spring chicken himself, has had his praises sung all season long, but it's easy to see by looking at the game charts before he arrived versus after that he has had a definite positive impact on the overall game of Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Plus, he is leading a loaded Cats' roster with 14 goals and 30 overall points.
Donny: Luongo. Barkov is the easy answer, and Huberdeau has really climbed the ladder to establish himself as a top-line playmaker while Jagr remains the headline-grabber (for good reason), but Lu has been every bit the guy Mike Keenan took to arbitration in 2005, for whatever reason. He's as ageless a player as #68 in many respects, but this year has been especially telling. We're in Vezina talks at this stage, kids.
Who do you want to see more from on the Panthers?
JC: Brandon Pirri. He is playing better recently, but for the number of opportunities he is being given I want to see more. Despite playing on the 2nd power-play unit, which gets almost equal PP time to the first unit, he has only 3 power play goals. We all know how many shots he is getting on the power play- the system is designed FOR his shot! He is 3rd on the team in shots with 96. He has 9 goals on the season, good for 4th on the team (tied with Ekblad). His shooting percentage is 9.4% and he is also -2 (for what that's worth- but he also has a negative relative Corsi for % as well). Jonathan Huberdeau has a shooting percentage that is worse, and more shots as well, but Hubs is leading the team in helpers (with double the number of Pirri) and has shown himself to be more of a set-up player than scorer. Pirri has always shown to be the opposite. Scorers are always streaky, but with the opportunities he is being given, and some notable defensive deficiencies, Pirri needs to score more. Now, about the shootout........
Francisco: Nick Bjugstad. Big Nick was the Cats' best player last season before his back injury shut him down. The former Golden Gopher's departure might have made the difference last season coupled with Jagr's trade to push Florida into the 2015 postseason.
Todd: I am going to go with Big Bjugs here as well. Bjugstad has the scoring ability to help the Cats hit that 3-goal mark that results in so many wins. He needs to stay healthy and Gallant needs to find the best spot to use him in. If he remains at center, then he needs to have linemates who help maximize his potential. A lot of us want to see Bjugstad tried on the wing. With the club winning now, maybe this is the time to experiment a little bit with a player who's been out of action for most of the hot streak.
JC: Good call T, Bjugstad does need to shake off the cobwebs and rust and find his power game. He is a major contributor on the squad that (when playing Bjug-stud hockey) forces other teams to pick their poison- commit defensive resources to Barkov, speedy Trocheck, or big Bjug? He has not yet clicked, that much is certain.
Kevin: Derek MacKenzie. I was leaning toward Reilly Smith, but D-Mac symbolizes everything that the Florida Panthers have stood for this season. With less actual "talent" than nearly everyone on the team, he is always poking his nose in, everywhere. Chipping in a goal where and when you least expect it, stirring up trouble behind the opponent's goaltender, negating icing penalties, delivering punishment with a team-leading 129 hits, and generally representing the virtue of hard work versus natural ability. He's everything that we thought Jack Skille could have been. I can't get enough of this guy. Sign him to a lifetime deal, right now.
Donny: Power play goals. Figure it out, guys.
Bolland: buy-out, miraculous 2nd half production, or more of what we have already seen?
JC: Miracle production. What can I say, I'm an optimist.
Francisco: More of what we have already seen for me. This team is making the steps forward to become a contender but I can't avoid thinking they'll face a stumbling block along the way. Don't want Bolland to exacerbate that as he has been a non-factor so no use having deadweight on the team. I have to see it to believe it if the Panthers continue to play like the Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals.
Todd: Best case, they put Bolland back in the lineup and he shows enough that another team becomes interested and the Panthers can trade him while having to retain a portion of his ridiculous salary. Chances are that won't happen and they will buy him out during the offseason. It will be costly, but it's the right move. Bolland was a bad signing, they didn't really need him then and the team has proven with it's play while he's been on the shelf they absolutely don't need him now.
Kevin: I should have read all the way through before putting my (related) answer above. What I hope for is a buyout, and soon. What I expect is to see him eventually rejoin the club and put up similar numbers, to the detriment Florida's won-loss record. I agree completely with Todd's answer, and I also think that no other team could be enticed by the return of a trade. What could we get for him?
Donny: Been mulling this for weeks, with no easy answer. Apparently he's a good guy, with great dressing room presence, and cares about his team. That's all fabulous, but how on Earth do you insert him into this lineup once he is "healthy"? Who gets the boot? Answer? No one. Florida is going to have to swallow this deal in some fashion; likely be a salary dump - and retaining quite a bit of that salary - with another player to a club which needs a center. Sounds simple but it won't be.
Somehow Nick Bjugstad has become a player causing a somewhat polarizing difference of opinions among some Panthers fans. What do you believe he will be for this team upon his return (just days ago), goal scoring power forward or selfish defensive liability, center or wing, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th liner (or some other option not listed)?
JC: I'm not sure how it happened that Nick turned into a low-level scapegoat for the losses the Panthers suffered early this season. Apparently, some of the advanced stats suggested that he was awful (another reason I have started to eye the advanced numbers with suspicion). This big center has always done a solid but not excellent job in the face-off circle, with a career win % higher than Barky. He has also been a goal scorer, leading the team last season, and still tied in goals with Jokinen this season, despite playing 15 fewer games. Most telling of all was a stat released by the Rochester Analytics conference and reported at TSN that actually does tell us something useful: last season Bjugstad was 2nd highest in the league with the amount of seconds he was holding the puck before he scored his goals (roughly 4 seconds). That confirms what we all knew, which is that Nick is playing like a big power forward and creating his own opportunities. I believe Nick will be a highly productive 2nd line center for this team, and that his defense will improve now that the team's collective defense has improved (since his injury). His return is one of the things that makes me think the team can be even better in the weeks to come.
Francisco: He's here for the long haul with that contract but it is a legitimate concern of mine as to whether he can stay healthy for the second half. The guy has to be using that massive size to terrorize opponents.
Todd: Once he gets he feet wet, he should return to the Bjugs we all know and mostly love. He should help out by adding secondary scoring and continue to win his share of draws. I still think the Panthers might need to reshuffle to cement their second and third lines and Bjugstad will have a lot to do with that. As mentioned above, experimenting with him on the wing is something that could be considered.
Kevin: I love big Nick. I don't care what the "advanced" metrics say. The guy is a horse on the puck, Jagr-like even. He's going to give Florida 25 goals per (full) season for as long as he's here. I don't like him on the wing so much, Todd. He's much too valuable as a faceoff expert and clearly a genetically tailored center.
Donny: Big Nick returned on the third line a few nights ago. Now there's a "problem" I can live with as a fan. But it's not really fair to the team or the player to have someone of his talent level on the third troika. Then again, this team has been blind to labels like "scoring lines" and "checking lines". Everyone has gotten on the scoresheet when needed. If egos can be checked at the door, line placement won't matter.
So many positive things have occurred in 2015 and early '16 for the Panthers, what is the most exciting of them for you?
JC: The new terms with the county have to take a 2nd seat in my book to the emergence of Aleksander Barkov as an NHL star. The rumors from Harvey that perhaps the Finnish star is nearing an 8-year extension have me ecstatic. Taking Barky over what the pundits claimed (at the time) should've been Drouin or Jones....Dale, the heat you took over the Jack Skille pick in Chicago (over Kopitar) has officially been excised!!
Francisco: I'm most excited for something offseason but hopefully that offseason doesn't start until June of this year for these Panthers. The new look the team will unveil. The Panthers brass, the NHL, and Reebok/adidas have had 3 years to work on it and it could coincide with a team that NHL teams are already fearing. All the change happening right now has always gotten me amped.
Todd: All the off ice stuff is great, as is the emergence of certain individual players, but the thing I'm most excited about is the winning. As I type this the Panthers are in first place, riding an eleven-game winning streak. Not only am I feeling playoffs, I'm feeling that this team maybe capable of a deep run. That's pretty damn exciting.
Kevin: Validating Dale Tallon with the extension of his services springs to mind, but I can't get over All. The. Winning. This last month has been unreal. I've never had the pleasure of following what is such a great team so closely, and it's funny, it never gets old. I think the Cats could win every game forever and I'd never get tired of it.
Donny: Seeing newbies in attendance at home games and local spotlights turn toward the Cats. Goes without saying - or no, it should be said - that watching Dale Tallon's blueprint sprout not only budding roots but healthy trunks has been a pleasure. More times than I can recall I've turned to my wife during a game in recent weeks and I didn't need to say a word. She was of the same feeling and emotion. Like a "My goodness, it's really working" type of thing. That has been supremely special. Watching Gerard Gallant with a happy face - of the genuine variety - is pretty darned sweet as well.
And here's a little infographic comparing the 2015 Cats to the 2016 Cats.