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Big run has the Panthers on a collision course with the postseason

Cats threatening to shake up the ATL’s “Big 3” - could they soar even higher with the right move(s)?

Florida Panthers v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

This is the run.

The run that was needed. The run that legitimizes the Florida Panthers as a serious playoff threat in the post-All-Star schedule. The run that validates the hiring of Joel Quenneville (as if he needed it). The run that breathes confidence into the locker room, verifies the system and energizes under-performing players.

We would have liked it to happen earlier. We would have loved for this team to catch fire out of the gate and thunderously announce their arrival as a top threat in the Eastern Conference. But transitions aren’t always congruent with expectations. The reality is… it takes time to build a new culture. The Cats aren’t quite there yet. There is a long way to go, but Quenneville has this team headed in the right direction.

It took half of the season for the roster and coaching staff to get familiar, but it’s not like the Panthers were failing. The Cats haven’t lost more than three regulation games in a row. Florida opened the season with a respectable 29 points in 22 games. That start was critical to keeping the Panthers in the hunt early on.

The goaltending and defense have been maddening at times, but those are also two areas where in-season improvement is realistically possible without acquiring help outside of the organization. Sergei Bobrovsky’s .898 save percentage is abysmal compared to his career numbers. I expect his performance over the final 33 games to be significantly better. Imagine, this offense with the Bob that was promised?

The defense is still a work in progress, but Quenneville has deftly deployed Mark Pysyk as a forward, only to pull him back to the blue line when necessary. It’s not ideal that the coaching staff has to limit the minutes of guys like Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson when they are not committing to 5-on-5 defense late in games, but I’m so pleased that Coach Q is willing to do it.

Looking ahead to the trade deadline, I think this win streak and the now nearly 104-point pace the Panthers are on firmly labels Dale Tallon as a “buyer” leading up to the deadline on February 24. There are some areas the Panthers need to address.

My shopping list, in order, would be something like this:

Middle Six Center

Yes, Dominic Toninato has been a solid contributor in the bottom six since replacing Dryden Hunt. He’s gritty, does work in the corners, can skate, and he’s beginning to produce with eight points in his last 16 games. However, with Henrik Borgstrom not forcing his way back onto the roster, Florida doesn’t have a lot of depth after Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck at center. Brian Boyle is a nice piece, but I’m not sure that the Panthers can rely on Boyle and Toninato to eat up significant playoff minutes at center. Aleksi Saarela is probably the best option down in Springfield (17 points in his last 19 games), but I don’t think he’s the best representation of what the Panthers need out of a third line center for a true playoff run. I think this is an area of need that eclipses adding a defenseman. The Panthers have been relatively healthy this season, but any injury that would see a center out for a long period of time would be catastrophic. Additionally, Toninato is the only Panthers center in the current configuration with a face-off percentage under 50 percent (46.3).

Candidates (not in order of preference)

Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Pending UFA with a $3.1 million cap hit and on a career-best point pace, Pageau is almost certainly looking to cash in on free agency prior to his age 30 season. He looks to be a pure rental if/when Ottawa elects to shop him on the market. His 19 goals matches a career-high and he’s a wizard in the face-off circle despite his smaller stature. Pageau has graduated from a pesky, speedy middle six center with some upside to a bona fide offensive threat with an increase in ice time and a massive uptick in shooting percentage. He kills penalties and has the skating ability to forecheck in Quenneville’s preferred system. With an affordable salary hit and enjoying a career season, Pageau’s cost could be relatively high in future assets, even for a pure rental, considering the Senators rebuild.

Erik Haula – My feelings on Haula’s game have been well-documented on LBC. I think he’d be a perfect fit in Florida. Haula is a pending UFA on a very affordable $2.75 million deal and there have been no discussions reported for an extension in Carolina. He got off to a red-hot start in Raleigh with seven goals in his first nine games, but has cooled down and missed some time with injury. He was a healthy scratch in the Hurricanes final game before the break and is goal-less in January. With the re-signing of Justin Williams and a solid sophomore season from Lucas Wallmark, might Carolina be willing to part with Haula? The Hurricanes have about $19 million in cap space for next year, but will have two defensive openings (Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk are UFAs) to fill and Warren Foegele is an arbitration eligible RFA.

Mikael Granlund – If Nashville continues to tread water or trend downward, the Predators could become sellers by the deadline. If so, Granlund is a candidate to hit the market. His contract is large, a $5.75 million cap hit, but he could be a versatile depth piece for a playoff contender. In fact, that is exactly the circumstances by which Nashville acquired him last year. He’s playing wing now for the Predators, but his natural position is center. A strong defensive player for his size, he’s a former 26-goal scorer and put up a nearly 0.69 point per game average when he played top six minutes with Minnesota.

Patrick Marleau – In what could be the 40-year old’s swan song in the NHL, Marleau is still providing some useful ice time as a winger. He’s averaging just over 15 minutes a game and has eight goals and 17 points. A natural center, Marleau would provide veteran leadership and 191 games of playoff experience. The price tag would be pretty low. The question is… would Marleau welcome a move or does he want to end his career alongside Joe Thornton in San Jose? A re-energized Marleau would be a solid veteran back-up option. He sports a career 51.4 percent in the circle.

Top-4 Shutdown Style Defenseman

This is a high ask and a tricky task for Tallon to pull off successfully. MacKenzie Weegar seems to be out indefinitely. The Panthers’ offense has led the charge during this six-game winning streak while the defense has been marginally better (2.83 goals allowed average compared to 3.33 in the first 43 games). Pysyk has proven to be a valuable piece with his versatility. The chances that the Panthers unload Michael Matheson’s contract is minimal, plus he’s been showing signs of improvement (plus-10 in the last 13 games with four goals, eight points). However, the defensive group is lacking when it comes to a true shutdown defender and there won’t be a lot of options on the trade market. Could Riley Stillman essentially fill the role that an outside acquisition would as a physical defenseman? Quenneville is certainly giving him that opportunity. Stillman has played 20-plus minutes in each of the last four games and he hasn’t been a minus player since a January 4 loss to Buffalo (plus-6 in eight games). Still, veteran experience can be vital during a playoff chase and potential run. Here is a look at a few guys the Panthers might target.

Candidates (not in order of preference)

Erik Gustafsson – At a $1.2 million cap hit and putting up solid numbers on a likely non-playoff team as a pending UFA, Gustafsson is going to draw attention if Chicago cools off and becomes a seller. More of a puck-mover than shutdown defender, he plays a mobile game. He’s not exactly what the Panthers need, but he would be a solid addition and have no problem fitting in with the offensive nature of the club. If Gustafsson is set on testing the market, the price tag for his rental services might be paid in draft pick(s).

The Ottawa Senators – Seriously, the Senators are stacked with three trade chips on the blue line that could be useful in Sunrise. Mark Borowiecki, Ron Hainsey, and Dylan DeMelo are all set to become free agents in July. Borowiecki is currently Ottawa’s captain and probably owns the skill set the Panthers need. He’s about average NHL size, but made his hay in the NHL as a physical presence. This year, he’s enjoying a career offensive season with increased ice time while still doling out hits and blocking tons of shots. His salary hit is a modest $1.2 million. Hainsey is still eating up over 20 minutes a night at age 38. His name is on the Stanley Cup and he’s been a plus-player on a team with a minus-30 goal differential. Hainsey won’t add too much in direct physicality, but he’s experienced in the corners and in front of his own net. DeMelo does a little bit of everything. He gets time on the power play and penalty kill while swallowing 20 minutes a night. He’s not the biggest hitter or shot blocker on the team, but he’ll do some of that while also moving the puck out of the zone. It’s hard to tell what Ottawa is going to do long-term. The Senators have the pieces in the system and on the NHL roster to accelerate a rebuild. In addition to these three defensemen, Mikkel Boedker, Valdislav Namestnikov, Tyler Ennis, and Scott Sabourin are pending UFAs and Chris Tierney, Connor Brown, and Anthony Duclair are arbitration-eligble RFAs. Craig Anderson is also a UFA… more on this later.

Brenden Dillon – Leading the Sharks in hits and providing the size on the back line that many Panthers fans have been pining for, 29-year old Dillon is a physical presence on the ice. He carries a $3.27 million cap hit, but plays 19 minutes a game and kills penalties. He is not a dynamic shot blocker, but the Sharks don’t ask their defenseman to get in the shooting lanes as often as other organizations. He blocked a lot of shots in his first few years in the league with Dallas. San Jose will be looking to re-tool with some younger, NHL-ready players. The ask might be for a legitimate prospect.

Forechecking Bottom Six Winger

The Panthers have a fantastic top-8 set of forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Frank Vatrano, Brett Connolly, Trocheck, and Noel Acciari. Those eight have and will continue to produce most of the goals from the forwards. Pysyk at forward has been a necessary weapon for Quenneville, but if Tallon could shore up the defensive corps. at the deadline, then Florida might also benefit from adding a bottom six winger to contribute on the penalty kill and forecheck. Boyle added some much needed size and experience and Colton Sceviour embodies what a fourth line forward should be on a nightly basis. If Florida can’t or doesn’t add a center and sticks with Toninato, then a logical place to upgrade is on the wing. Denis Malgin isn’t getting the job done and Jayce Hawryluk hasn’t been able to crack the lineup. Who might look good in a Panthers jersey?

Candidates (not in order of preference)

Jesper Fast – The Rangers are a team at a crossroads. Two glue forwards are going to be UFAs at the end of the year: Chris Kreider and Fast. Kreider has been the subject of trade rumors since the draft. He’s a big, powerful forward that can put up 50-plus points and is well on his way to doing that again this year. He’ll be coveted at the deadline and the Rangers will likely get a good offer on him. The Panthers could pursue Kreider too and move Acciari back down a couple notches in the lineup. Connolly, Trocheck, and Kreider would look good together, but the cost is going to be high. Does Tallon risk, say, Borgstrom for 20 or so games of Kreider? This is where a player like Fast becomes much more valuable and affordable to the Panthers. Fast is not nearly the offensive or physical talent that Kreider is, but he is still a really good hockey player. He skates like his name and is a defensive beast in the neutral zone. He plays a true 200-foot game and does enough offensively to play in the middle six. He’s also quite affordable at $1.85 million and he’d be a candidate for the Panthers on the free agent market anyway. It is unclear whether or not the Rangers are going to shop him, but if so, the Cats should be ready to make a strong offer.

Craig Smith – Another bloated contract on the Predators roster only playing about 13 minutes a night, Smith is a prime candidate to be traded with his expiring contract worth $4.25 million. The high salary may limit the pool of teams interested in his services. Smith is a swift-footed forward who plays on Nashville’s skilled fourth line. He’s kind of a tweener when it comes to skill set. He doesn’t play on the penalty kill for the Predators and has produced at a half point per game over his career. Smith is more suited for the top-9, but he would still be a solid piece to add to the Panther forwards for the playoff push.

Kyle Clifford – Think Hawryluk, but at 6’2” and 211 pounds, two Stanley Cups and 55 games of playoff experience. Clifford has been a mainstay on the Kings fourth line for ten years. He can skate, hit, agitate and drop the gloves. He scores just enough to keep a regular spot in the lineup, but you may have to put up with a few penalties. Clifford only comes with a $1.6 million cap hit and might only take a mid-to-low draft pick to pry from Los Angeles.

Derek Grant – A possibility to kill two birds with one stone, Grant is a bottom six center that is excellent in the face-off circle and brings some size to the rink. On a $700,000 league minimum contract, Grant would be very cheap and provide a depth option at center. He’s chipped in 10 goals in 36 games this season and is averaging almost 14 minutes of ice time in Anaheim.

Back-up Goaltender

Chris Driedger has been fantastic this season, but an injury to the lower body is always a concern for a goaltender and can linger throughout the course of a season. The All-Star break should help the Panthers make an evaluation on him. Sam Montembeault is a obviously an option, but if the Cats are really planning on a deep playoff run, Tallon might want to explore the market for a veteran goaltender. Insurance in net is never a bad idea.

Candidates (not in order of preference)

Louis Domingue – After winning 21 games for the Lightning a year ago, Domingue is getting very limited time in New Jersey. His numbers aren’t great, a 3.66 goals against average and an .883 save percentage, but the Devils are reeling defensively and throughout his career he’s posted a .905 save percentage. Domingue counts for $1.15 million against the cap, so his contract is affordable.

Aaron Dell – With Martin Jones scuffling, Dell is on pace to play in a career-high amount of games this season. He’s got solid numbers with a 2.90 GAA and .909 save percentage and a reasonable $1.9 million cap hit. San Jose could be looking to shake things up considerably going into the offseason and goaltenders can usually net a decent draft pick.

Craig Anderson – A more expensive, but familiar option, Anderson comes with a $4.75 million price tag which is a decent chunk of change for a back-up goaltender on a team that is already $10 million in on Bobrovsky. At 39, Anderson is still handling a moderate workload of 22 games and while his numbers aren’t great (3.32/.897) neither are the Senators. His previous tenure in Sunrise might make Anderson think about waiving his modified no-trade clause in order for one last playoff push.

The above candidates are all pending unrestricted free agents. Undoubtedly, there will be other names that surface in the rumor mill and teams will shift between buying and selling right up until the deadline.

The good news is that with this run, the Panthers are firmly entrenched in the race for a playoff position. There shouldn’t be too many rumors about Florida jettisoning players, but definitely expect a few names to be in play.

There appears to be an opening for the Panthers to make a move. It’s now time to see how Tallon can bolster this roster and take the Cats from playoff hopeful to a dangerous match-up for any team in the Eastern Conference.