Panthers willing to be patient with newcomer Jared McCann

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The 2016 off-season was a roller coaster ride for the NHL’s southern-most team. To many, it came as a surprise that the Panthers made as many changes as they did on and off the ice after what was a very successful season. 

“We sat down early in the offseason and made a plan to extend, sign, and trade for players we believed would help us compete both next season and beyond,” said assistant GM Steve Werier in an interview with FloridaPanthers.com. “We presented that plan to Vinnie, Doug, Dale and Tom, and once it was approved, we acted on it.”

The ink from adding the franchise-best 103-point season into the team’s history books hardly had a chance to dry before the front office made its first and arguably most polarizing move of the summer.

Erik Gudbranson was a fan-favorite known for his crushing body checks and willingness to stick up for teammates. He was also well-liked by now former head coach Gerard Gallant, but the team sent the 2010 3rd-overall pick packing after swinging a deal with Vancouver on May 25th.

He went with a 2016 5th-round pick in exchange for what some viewed as a low return in 20-year old Jared McCann, as well as the 33rd- and 94th-overall picks in June’s draft. Lacking a 2nd-rounder in the draft before the trade, the Panthers packaged the 33rd overall pick with Dmitry Kulikov and struck a deal with Buffalo for Mark Pysyk, the 38th pick (5 slots down from what they got out of Vancouver), and the 89th pick.

They went on to select Adam Mascherin, a pure sniper from the OHL, at 38th overall, and Jonathan Ang, a speedy and offensive 2-way forward, with the 94th pick. When everything was said and done, they Panthers got way more than they bargained for.

The 24-year old Gudbranson was viewed as a stalwart defender thanks to his physical play and “stay-at-home” label, but the Panthers felt differently. As a result of the front office’s shift towards using advanced stats as one of several ways of evaluating performance on an individual and team level, the Panthers were able to compliment the eye-test with additional data that didn’t support the notion that Gudbranson was an effective defender.

Not only that, but prior to the trade, Gudbranson had no contract as his previous deal worth $5 million over 2 years expired at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season. The Panthers proceeded to sign him to a 1-year deal at $3.5 million on May 9th, but despite Gudbranson’s publicly-expressed desires to remain with the team into the future, the Panthers had other plans.

Giving him a contract increased his value on the trade market exponentially which in itself was viewed as being significantly higher than his value on the ice. And given his role on the team as a penalty-killer and as a player able to log significant minutes – for better or for worse – there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was going to want a hefty raise on a new contract, whether that was a short- or long-term one.

Even though there were marginal improvements in his overall play – and less than that offensively – Gudbranson went from making $2.5 million per year on his 2-year deal signed in 2014 to $3.5 million on the most recent deal. The Panthers wished to have the funds necessary to sign free-agents, their young core, and add other players when necessary, and their data – which includes, but is not limited to, inputs such as scouts and statistics – suggested that moving Gudbranson while he still had value in the league would be beneficial for the team now and in the future.

The trade with Vancouver was really the first where the front office’s new plan to acquire more skilled players came into focus, especially considering Gudbranson was widely expected to become the Panthers’ captain and remain a part of their future plans.

The Panthers prefer players that can make plays, think the game quickly, and contribute on the ice in a way that is favorable with regard to winning games. And to that point, how those wins are achieved is just as important as the wins themselves.

So, it should come as no surprise that fans of the Panthers, as well as media analysts and other outsiders, scratched their heads and sat pensive a bit longer than normal in late-May when the deal was made. However, in his time with the Canucks, Gudbranson’s performance has been far less than satisfactory.

With over 500 minutes of even-strength ice time this season, he owns the 6th-worst goals against per 60 mark in the entire league among defensemen, and his shot suppression numbers are the worst amongst Vancouver defensemen, averaging 55.86 shot attempts against per 60 minutes.

Not only that, but he’s been on the ice for the 2nd-most goals-against on the Canucks despite having the 6th-most offensive zone starts. He was nearly a healthy scratch a couple of weeks ago before curiously undergoing surgery for an apparent wrist injury.

Alas, the Panthers were not fleeced and there was indeed another player on the other side of the deal: McCann, a native of Stratford, Ontario, and the 24th-overall pick at the 2014 Draft. Cam Lawrence and Josh Weissbock, “Canucks Army” writers turned prospect analysts for the Panthers, had hands in the trading process due to their knowledge of McCann and the Canucks organization.

With Gudbranson playing an “old school” game compared to the quicker, puck-moving style of today’s NHL, Vancouver GM Jim Benning’s interest in players with skill-sets fitting the former, and his desire for a supposed top-4 defenseman, a deal involving his team and Florida seemed natural.

Lawrence and Weissbock knew that.

“It was a steep price to pay from our end,” admitted Canucks general manager Jim Benning to TSN 1040 Radio. “We really like Jared McCann as a player, but we have been taking a lot of phone calls the last couple of weeks, and to add a top-four defenseman to our group wasn’t going to be something that was going to be easy.”

In addition to Gudbranson, several former draft picks of the Panthers, including Quinton Howden, Garrett Wilson, John McFarland, Rocco Grimaldi, and Logan Shaw, among others, would eventually leave the team as free agents and in trades in the weeks and months ahead. As a result, the Panthers knew they’d have to essentially rebuild their prospect pool on the fly.

With the signings of free-agent junior forward Dryden Hunt and 23-year old Swedish Hockey League defenseman Linus Hultstrom before the end of the season, the Panthers had already begun filling in some holes on the organizational depth chart.

The Panthers’ lack of success at the draft has been well documented, and we’ve tried our hand at running through the talent-evaluating failures in a recent article. This culminated recently when the Panthers chose Lawson Crouse with the 11th overall pick in front of a home crowd at the BB&T Center in 2015.

Crouse was the final major pick made with Scott Luce at the helm of the team’s scouting department before he was promoted to Director of Player Personnel weeks later and fired days before the trade with Vancouver this off-season.

When McCann was acquired, the Panthers’ front office already had countless viewings of Crouse under their belt, including 2 development camps, and knew what they’d be getting in him more-so than when he was drafted a year earlier. Consequently, the Panthers moved Crouse to the Coyotes near the end of August in order to sweeten a deal which also included Dave Bolland’s unearned and undeserved contract.

While many felt Crouse was the team’s top prospect at the time, the Panthers certainly didn’t feel that way, and have viewed McCann as having that honor from the moment they acquired him. A prolific offensive performer in Midget AAA hockey, McCann went on to spend 3 seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

During his time there, the Greyhounds were one of the most forward-thinking teams around with Kyle Dubas, who’s now the 30-year old assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, as their GM.

Dubas and the rest of the Greyhounds’ front office intensely tracked the team’s advanced metrics, such as shot attempts and zone entries, and used them to make lineup and system decisions, propelling McCann’s team to 2 second-place finishes and a 1st-overall finish in his 3rd and final OHL season.

In an in-depth interview (and a highly recommended read for more on McCann) with Canucks Army in 2014 – which can be found here – Dubas raved about McCann’s junior hockey performance and was incredibly optimistic about his pro potential.

After posting a career-best 34 goals and 47 assists in 56 games with the Greyhounds as their top line center, McCann did not return for his 4th and final junior season. Instead, he spent the 2014-15 campaign with the Canucks often centering the 4th line with the likes of Derek Dorsett and Alex Burrows.

By the end of the season, McCann finished with 9 goals and 9 assists in 69 games as 1 of only 14 nineteen-year olds in the NHL last season. The Canucks felt that McCann would fit Benning’s player mold better and benefit his own play by adding size and strength. Therefore, when he arrived at the Panthers’ development camp in July, he wasn’t nearly in the proper shape to play the fast, skilled game that the organization wants out of its players.

McCann wasn’t necessarily a lock to make the Panthers’ roster out of camp, but preseason injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad forced the front office’s hand just as they did with rookie center Denis Malgin.

He made a good first impression on the team by voluntarily attending development camp, typically geared towards players with little-to-no pro hockey experience, over the summer before having a solid showing at training camp and during the preseason games.

“Jared McCann […] is a young player our scouts and analysts were very high on, especially with respect to his offensive upside,” said Werier during the off-season.

The second-year center and first-time Panther started the season on the 3rd-line left wing with Malgin in the middle and free-agent pickup Colton Sceviour on the right side.

Although McCann did record a goal and 2 primary assists and performed admirably when it came to shot attempt numbers, the Panthers knew that averaging 10 minutes of ice time in the bottom-6 and being scratched twice would not allow him to become the middle- to top-6 player they want and believe he can become. He also totaled just 6 minutes on the power play in 17 total games despite the Panthers struggling on the man-advantage for just about the entire season.

On November 21st, the Panthers assigned McCann to the team’s AHL affiliate Springfield Thunderbirds to accommodate Nick Bjugstad who was activated off the injured reserve.

McCann played in his first career AHL game on November 25th before tallying his first goal the next day against the Hershey Bears. After some early struggles, Springfield head coach Geordie Kinnear sat down with McCann a few weeks ago to talk to him about the Panthers’ intentions.

And what exactly are those intentions?

To do solely what’s best for Jared McCann. Kinnear explained to him that the team wants to lay a foundation of playing the right way and have him gain confidence, so that once the Panthers feel he’s ready, he doesn’t have to return. Shuttling a young player back and forth between the NHL and AHL doesn’t help the cause mentally and isn’t an approach the Panthers want to take with someone who they feel can make an impact in the big leagues sooner rather than later.

Since then, the coaching staff has been impressed with the efforts they’ve seen out of McCann. He’s been getting top minutes on a nightly basis, centers the team’s first power play unit, averages 2.36 shots per game, and has totaled 4 goals and 2 assists in 14 games. With injuries plaguing the Thunderbirds for several months now, McCann’s been with a rotating cast of wingers since joining the team.

He was arguably the Thunderbirds’ best player on Friday when he was on a line with Anthony Greco and Tim Bozon. His confidence with the puck was noticeable in the way he carried it around all 3 zones and engaged himself defensively; he could’ve easily had more than the lone point – a breakaway goal – that he did. Recently, McCann stepped in to fight Connor Jones who leveled teammate Jayce Hawryluk with a blatant head shot in the neutral zone, and he also went at it with Islanders prospect Michael Dal Colle.

Remember, playing in the AHL is not a bad thing, especially for a 20-year old. Ideally, McCann should’ve returned to the OHL for a 4th season before turning pro, but the Canucks opted to waste him on their sub-par roster. Sure, it was probably valuable experience, but young players with high ceilings like McCann need as much quality ice time as they can get, and playing on the 4th line of a team not performing well isn’t the best situation.

There’s no doubt that Jared McCann is already a good player, and most would agree that he’s going to be even better in time. The Panthers don’t want his development to take a backseat to the success of the NHL club, so they’ve made the conscious decision to let him round out his game into the player he’s capable of becoming rather than worrying about living up to expectations. Prospects have been rushed to the show many times before in this organization’s history, and they’re not about to continue that tradition with McCann.

The consensus is that McCann will be helping the Panthers win hockey games in the not-too-distant future, and for it now, it just seems to be a question of how soon that will happen.

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