Optimistic Panthers anxious to bounce back after disappointing season

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

As the Panthers strolled out of the locker room at the BB&T Center one by one over the course of a few hours, things just didn’t seem right.

With the playoffs getting underway this week, the season was supposed to be just starting for – at least on paper – looked to be an improved Panthers squad.

“I wish the season started next week,” said Vincent Trocheck.

There was a renewed sense of hope and optimism surrounding the team after a franchise-record, 103-point, division championship season that ended with a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the New York Islanders nearly a year ago.

Four of the Panthers’ core, young players – Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, and Aaron Ekblad – signed long-term extensions, while several high-profile free-agents were secured to replace and improve upon the handful of players that were no longer with the team.

“If you look at the season before [last], after we were eliminated we felt that were one or two pieces away from being contender,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo. “I think [now] we’re kind of in that same spot.”

Instead of preparing for the post-season, they wore street clothes as they completed their exit meetings and stood in front of the media to discuss the long, winding road that was the 2016-17 season.

Every single one of the whys, hows, and ifs were touched on.

All the while, the ice that they skated on to the third-worst home record in the NHL was in the process of being removed as yet another season came to an end far too early.

For the Panthers, it was a season filled with twists, turns, and obstacles every step of the way.

The results haven’t been easy to swallow.

A 23rd-place finish. Sixth-place in the Atlantic Division.

In an effort to turn things around, Dale Tallon was reinstated as the team’s General Manager on Monday, a move that seemed to immediately restore everyone’s faith and assuage the fears of fans and outsiders.

“We’re moving forward with a singular voice under my leadership in hockey operations,” Tallon said on Monday. “We’re going to have one agenda and one agenda only, and that is winning.”

The Panthers were eaten alive by the media following their announcement last May that Tallon would be “promoted” from the General Manager position – a post which he held for nearly 6 years prior – to “President of Hockey Operations.”

Tallon admitted on Wednesday that he did take “a bit of a back-seat” over the last year.

“Once I figured it out what they were trying to do, I was OK with it,” said Tallon on 560 WQAM. “I really like [owner] Vinnie Viola a lot, and he’s gonna let me do my job and I think we’re gonna have fun.”

It was one of the many changes made up and down the organization which quickly became known for its shift from an old-school thought process to a more forward-thinking, analytical approach.

The front office would soon earn the nickname “Computer Boys.”

Just over 6 months later, they’d fire their head coach, Gerard Gallant, after an underwhelming 11-10-1 start.

The 2015-16 Jack Adams award finalist was well-liked by players, but because of the photos that showed him wheeling luggage on the side of the street while waiting for a cab following the firing, it sent everyone into a frenzy.

Tom Rowe, the Panthers’ General Manager at the time, stepped in to serve as the interim head coach at the end of November

Rowe guided the Panthers to a 24-26-10 record the rest of the way even after getting key players back from injury about halfway through his stint.

It was yet another pair of moves that put the Panthers in the spotlight.

Things weren’t exactly easy for the Panthers who were without Nick Bjugstad for the first month-and-a-half of the season and Jonathan Huberdeau for 4 months.

Jussi Jokinen also missed time in the early going – with what he explained on Monday to be an MCL injury – and Alex Petrovic sat out with a broken ankle from mid-November until late-January, leaving the Panthers without a veteran winger and a tough, shut-down defenseman who was coming into his own.

“I learned a lot about handling a lot of different situations,” said third-year defenseman Aaron Ekblad on the year’s struggles. “Having a coach fired mid-season, that’s not an easy thing to come back from, but I think we did show grace with it at points and I think there’s a lot of positives to take away from it.”

The 20-year old Ekblad was one of the many Panthers players whose overall performance saw a noticeable drop compared to last season.

He was forced to play without Brian Campbell for the first time in his career after the veteran defenseman signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as an unrestricted free-agent.

“I had sat in Dale Tallon’s office,” said Ekblad as he recounted his strugles. “We had a long chat about a lot of things, more or less just how I was playing, how I was feeling mentally. I talked with Derek Anderson, our psychologist, and was able to work through all of that. And within probably two games, I noticed a difference.”

Although it doesn’t kick in until next season, Ekblad also inked an 8-year, $7.5 million contract over the summer and nearly began the season on the shelf after suffering a neck injury at the World Cup.

He was dealt another concussion on March 11th – his third in just over a year – and returned to the lineup as part of a questionable decision 10 days later before being shut down immediately thereafter.

Ekblad finished with just 21 points in 68 games played which is a much lower point pace than his first two seasons.

Reilly Smith, a key for the Panthers last season, was yet another victim of regression.

The 26-year old tallied a career-high 25 goals a year ago at a shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, but he managed just 15 goals this year.

Jokinen, Smith’s winger for much of the past two years, managed just 28 points, which is 32 less than his total of 60 a season ago.

And Bjugstad, a 24-goal scorer two years ago, was only able to total 7 goals and 7 assists in 54 games. His struggles were well-documented throughout the season and hardly had time to get on track after breaking his hand in the pre-season and missing several weeks in January with a groin injury.

“It wasn’t the season I wanted,” said Bjugstad. “I felt I could’ve done a lot more to help the team, but I’m gonna try to stay positive  and do my best to come back and help this team in whatever way I can.”

Bjugstad was moved back and forth between center and wing in an attempt to kick-start his offense but nothing appeared to work as anyone would’ve hoped. He also had a host of different line-mates in the bottom-6 while playing very limited minutes at times.

“I think I was a little more comfortable at center, but there’s learning periods for everything, so we’ll see where I end up,” Bjugstad said.

In the end, the Panthers finished with 210 goals compared to their 6th-best mark of 239 of last season.

The Panthers realized just how much they missed Huberdeau when he made his season debut on February 3rd. He returned alongside Aleksander Barkov who missed a full month of hockey before that with an upper-body injury.

“Barkov and Huberdeau, they’re just 2 huge pieces of the puzzle,” said first-year captain Derek MacKenzie. “When you lose someone like that, it just ripples down through the whole lineup. When guys are injured, you’re put in situations you’re not used to.”

Huberdeau went on to tally 26 points in 31 games while Barkov recorded 25 points in 25 games before being shut down at the end of March with his injury still lingering.

“It was tough to come back, but I think I worked hard with the trainers to get my strength back so that I could play in a game,” said Huberdeau.

“We had injuries but that’s no excuse for this year.”

The two helped propel the Panthers onto the first sweep of a 5-game road trip in team history in the middle of February.

Unexplainably, they would return home to drop 17 of their remaining 25 games, 14 of which were at home.

“It looked like we were turning it around after the long road trip,” said Tallon at the end of last month. “We had a fantastic road trip, and then we came home and I don’t know what happened.”

The Panthers were able to remain in the playoff conversation prior to the 5-game winning streak thanks to the performances of Vincent Trocheck and first-year Panther Jonathan Marchessault.

Trocheck was relied on heavily by the Panthers for most of the season, and at times, he carried the team.

One of only five players on the team to play in all 82 games, Trocheck led the way with a career-high 54 points. His 31 assists also bested his total of 28 the year before and helped earn him an All-Star Game nod in January.

Even after signing a 6-year deal worth $28.5 million in July and going on to have the solid season that he did, Trocheck wasn’t satisfied.

“You look back at everything that happened for me individually and it just doesn’t feel like anything special,” the 23-year old said. “It just doesn’t seem like a great year all around no matter how you look at it. Obviously everybody wants to win and that’s the number-one priority.”

And he wasn’t the only player that made the most of an increase in opportunity.

Jonathan Marchessault became the Panthers’ first 30-goal scorer since David Booth in 2009 as part of an impressive breakout year.

The Panthers signed the 26-year old to a bargain-bin deal worth $750,000 over 2 years with the thinking that he underutilized in his years with Tampa and had more to give.

More to give he did as he stepped into the Panthers’ top-6 when Huberdeau went down with an injury, and he eventually carved out a spot on the top power play unit.

Coming into the season, Marchessault had just 8 NHL goals and 19 points in 49 career games. He demolished both marks, finishing with 51 points on the season, only 3 behind Trocheck for the team lead.

“I think I proved that I can play in the NHL and that’s a big plus for me,” said Marchessault, who scored his first NHL hat-trick during a 7-0 rout of the Blackhawks on March 25th.

“It’s my first one-way [contract] and I just wanted to be an NHL player. I said I need to come ready and be in really good shape and that’s what I was.”

Marchessault was tied for the team-lead in power play points and power play goals with 18 and 8 respectively, although once again, the Panthers didn’t see as much success with the man-advantage as they would’ve liked.

The Panthers finished with the 7th-worst power play percentage in the league at 17.0 percent, but it wasn’t helped by the fact that Huberdeau missed the first half of the season.

The power play clicked at 20.2 percent in the 31 games Huberdeau played in, a mark that was good for 13th in the league.

Keith Yandle, whose negotiating rights were acquired from the New York Rangers on June 20th, led the Panthers with 36 assists was tied with Marchessault with 18 points on the power play.

It was Yandle’s fourth-consecutive season with at least 40 points and seventh in his entire NHL career. That extra offense from the backend was exactly what the Panthers signed up for when they locked him up with a 7-year deal.

“[He taught me] a lot of things,” said Ekblad, who spent most of his time this season paired with Yandle. “Ultimately to be as positive as physically possible every day; that guy’s never got a frown on his face.”

The other side of the Panthers’ special teams, their penalty kill, ended up as one of the few bright spots this season.

The Panthers were near the top of the league all season long when tasked with killing penalties, and they finished second with an 85.3 percent success rate, a mark that ranks as the 4th-best in franchise history.

Another first-year Panther, Colton Sceviour, had a huge hand in the success of the penalty kill, leading the team with 3 shorthanded goals.

“I started killing a little bit last year [with Dallas] and to come in here and be able to contribute the way I did and play a fairly important role in that was exciting,” said Sceviour of the penalty kill.

Sceviour recorded the first hat-trick and 4-point game of his NHL career on October 30th when he scored on the power play, while shorthanded, and at even strength.

It was the Panthers’ first hat-trick since Tomas Kopecky scored three times way back in 2013.

Mark Pysyk and Jason Demers, two other defensemen acquired by the Panthers in the off-season, helped out on the penalty kill as well.

Pysyk was easily the Panthers’ best defensive defenseman all season long.

The fact that he was paired with Ian McCoshen and Mackenzie Weegar when they made their NHL debuts in the final week of the season was only a testament to his solid defensive play.

Demers’ career-high 9 goals brought more offense to the Panthers’ defensive core, something they didn’t get much of the season before.

In total, the Panthers iced five new defensemen at once for much of the season, and some have argued that a lack of chemistry contributed to them allowing 31 more goals than they did before the off-season changes.

Mike Matheson also played in his first full NHL season after making his debut last February before playing in the 2016 playoffs.

He recorded 7 goals and 10 assists while improving dramatically as the season wore on.

“We had a lot of new guys on defense, but I don’t think that was an issue as far as chemistry is concerned,” countered Luongo.

“Listen, we can point to 100 different things I think the problem is it wasn’t just one thing, it was a lot of things put together. Everybody plays the same way. Guys get to know each other, we’re together all the time. I don’t think that was an issue.”

Even Luongo himself struggled at times, posting a stat line worse than his career numbers.

He formed what was expected to be a high-end “1A-1B” tandem with free-agent signing James Reimer.

The 29-year old would eventually take over between the pipes when Luongo, who underwent off-season hip surgery, went down with more lower-body complications.

Reimer’s 43 appearances and 39 starts were career-highs and he ended up as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL statistically over the past several months.

“Going into last summer, it was important to have a guy that was basically a starter in the NHL that can come in and do the job,” said Luongo. “[Reimer] did an unbelievable job for our team and carried us and gave us a chance to win every night.”

Fortunately for the Panthers, they were able to end the season on high note – relative to the rest of the season, that is – by shutting out the Sabres and the Capitals in the final two games.

Now, it’s about turning the page and recognizing that no matter what happened this season, the pieces necessary to be successful are just as in place as they were before.

“Whether it was injuries, or the coaching situation, or any number of other things, it was definitely hard,” said Ekblad. “But through it all, a lot of smiles on everybody’s face in the dressing room.”

And it was only fitting that perhaps one of the most positive players in the league – James Reimer – was the final interview of the day.

“It’s a great bunch of guys, I’m getting excited for next year already,” said Reimer. “We’ve got a lot of potential. I believe in this squad.”

Expansion draft looms

With the NHL regular season now over for the Panthers, their attention quickly turns to the expansion draft as the Las Vegas Golden Knights get set to join the NHL as the 31st team at the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

Each team will lose one player to the Golden Knights, and that means there’s already been a ton of speculation with regard to who the Panthers could be forced to give up.

On the defensive side of things, the Panthers will protect 3 of their blue-liners. Keith Yandle has a no-movement clause in his contract, therefore the Panthers are forced to protect him.

Aaron Ekblad is widely regarded as one of the best young defenseman in the NHL, and considering he was just signed to a long-term contract, it’ll be a no-brainer for the Panthers to protect him from the Golden Knights.

The tough decision for the Panthers will be which defenseman to protect with the final slot.

Despite the fact that all three performed well in different ways this season, Alex Petrovic, Mark Pysyk, and Jason Demers seem to have most of the expansion discussion centered around them.

“Whatever happens this summer, whichever direction I go, I’m gonna give it my all, give it 100 percent,” said Petrovic. “I’d love to be here. I’m really excited for this off-season. I just hope everything turns out the right way.”

The Panthers will also have to protect a goaltender, and with Roberto Luongo not being the young player he once was, there’s certainly a possibility that he’s left exposed for the Golden Knights to take.

Luongo is aware of that possibility, but he doesn’t seem too worried.

“I’m old as dirt, they don’t want me,” joked Luongo, who turned 38 just over a week ago. “No matter what happens, it’s understandable. Listen, I’ve been through a lot of situations as you all know, it’s all good. I’m sure everything’s gonna work out.”

The expansion draft is scheduled to take place from June 18th through June 20th, and the selections made by the Golden Knights will be announced on June 21st.

The NHL is expected to make the list of players protected by each team public on June 18th.

The NHL Draft Lottery is slated to be held on April 29th. The Panthers will have the 9th-best odds to land the number-1 selection while the Golden Knights hold the 3rd-best odds.

Jagr, Panthers mulling over new contract

Jaromir Jagr is set to become an unrestricted free-agent once again on July 1st.

That is, if he doesn’t sign another contract with the Panthers beforehand.

The 45-year old winger managed to record 16 goals and 30 games this season without the services of his young line-mates Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau most of the year.

Even more remarkably, the veteran played in all 82 games for the Panthers.

Since being acquired from the Devils at the 2015 trade deadline, Jagr has had a massive influence on the Panthers’ young core, especially the aforementioned Barkov and Jagr.

He nearly hit the 30-goal mark last season when he netted 27 on the Panthers’ top line, and this year, his production only dropped slightly despite the team’s offense packing less of a punch.

“He a great hockey player,” said Vincent Trocheck. “He’s got a lot of hockey IQ. He’s been in the league for a long time and he knows the game better than anyone so he’s definitely a big help for a young guy like myself.”

It’s only natural that the Panthers would want him back considering the fact that he’s still capable of producing offensively and has a wealth of knowledge and experience.

“He wants to come back, and we’ll see what we can do as far as if it make sense financially for both of us,” said Dale Tallon on Monday.

Jagr wasn’t as open about whether or not he’d be back next season when asked on Monday at the team’s exit meetings.

“[Dale and I] talked a little bit, but I don’t want to go into any details,” Jagr said. “We’ll let you know, whatever happens.”

If there is in fact mutual interest in a return, the next question would be where he fits into the lineup next season. Tallon has stated on multiple occasions in the past several weeks that he believes the team will be even younger next season.

Tallon also said he wants the Panthers to be faster.

Some have speculated that Jagr is holding back his line-mates, so it’s certainly possible – should he return – that he is moved down in the lineup to make way for a speedier player.

It’s something that could make the bottom-6 more effective than it has been over the past couple of seasons.

There’s no doubt he’s still a useful player, but it has to be the right fit moving forward.

Four Panthers headed to Worlds

This season, four Panthers players will represent their respective countries at the 2017 World Championship in Germany and France.

Mike Matheson will be representing Team Canada for the second straight year after winning a gold medal at last year’s tournament.

The 23-year old was also named the tournament’s best defenseman and made the World Championship All-Star Team after recording 6 points in 10 games played.

Jason Demers will also represent Canada in his first appearance at the World Championship.

“There’s a couple of things I let slip from my game over the last couple of years that I’m gonna go try and find and work on,” said Demers. [I want to] hopefully win obviously and get that feeling and start my summer on the right foot.”

Nick Bjugstad will play for Team USA in his second career World Championship nod. The last time Bjugstad participated in the tournament was in 2013 after playing in his first 11 NHL games.

“I’m definitely honored and lucky to be doing that,” said Bjugstad. “I obviously didn’t have a full season so I’ll get some more games in and maybe find my confidence a little.”

“Looking forward to it, it should be fun.”

He recorded just 2 assists in 10 games as Team USA won a bronze medal.

Denis Malgin is set to represent Team Switzerland in the tournament for the first time in his career.

Malgin led Switzerland in scoring the past two years at the World Junior Championship with 7 and 9 points respectively. He is expected to be one of the youngest players on the team at just 20 years old.

Vincent Trocheck, Jussi Jokinen, and Aleksander Barkov will not participate in the tournament this year as all three are rehabbing injuries suffered during the regular season.

Jonathan Huberdeau was also invited to Team Canada, but he did not confirm if he’d be participating.

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