Thoughts: Bjugstad glimmers, Barkov shines bright, and the Panthers can’t score

New things are awesome, and that’s why we’re here to bring you something new, a compilation of some random thoughts on the Panthers from the last little while.

1. So the Panthers won 2-1 on Wednesday night against the Maple Leafs, giving fans something to be thankful for in a season that hasn’t started out all that great, although things are getting better.

One of the things getting better is the play of Nick Bjugstad, or at least it looks like it.

He scored a wacky goal, his fifth of the season and third in the last six games, by chopping the puck from behind the goal line and catching goaltender Frederik Andersen sleeping in the crease.

He also drew two penalties in the game.

“I saw it in the back of the net and I was laughing,” Bjugstad said. “I was trying to get it to the front of the net. I think [Henrik] Haapala was in front of the net. I tried to feed it to him.”

That put the Panthers up 1-0 in the second period but a Toronto goal in the third forced a shootout. Bjugstad scored the eventual game-winner in the shootout by out-waiting Andersen and avoiding a poke-check.

It was Bjugstad’s first shootout attempt in almost a year, and interestingly enough, that one also came against the Leafs and Andersen on December 28, 2016.

He’s seemed noticeably more confident in the last couple of weeks, but you can’t help but wonder if he’ll always leave us wanting just a little bit more.

“I think he’s another guy that, as the seasons going, I think he’s getting better and better,” said head coach Bob Boughner.

“I think he’s been pretty good for the last little while and he’s starting to get his bounces now.”

2. Speaking of shootout goals, Barkov pulled yet another trick out of his bottomless bag on Wednesday. For the second time in his career, he managed to lift a one-handed shot into the net during the game-deciding skills competition.

He last did it on December 22, 2014 against Marc-Andre Fleury, then of the Penguins, and we’ve all basically been waiting for him to do it again.

So he did. And it worked.

He now has 14 goals in his last 19 shootout attempts (73.7%) over the past three seasons and is 15 for 29 (51.7%) in his career.

And among all players with at least 20 career shootout attempts, he has the third-best percentage.

To have the hand strength to be able to elevate the puck over a goaltender’s pad and to have the poise and confidence to do it in an actual game is really insane.

Unfortunately, since the shootout rules changed at the start of the 2014-15 season, we won’t be able to see him attempt the reverse Datsyuk move.

Instead of pulling the puck back with his backhand and shooting it into a virtually empty net, Barkov turns to face the right-wing boards, fakes the goalie out by pulling the puck back with his forehand, and backhands it into the net.

He did it in Finland before being drafted by the Panthers, and attempted it back in 2013 during the Panthers’ 20-round shootout with the Capitals, but it was poke-checked away by Philipp Grubauer.

Now, players must keep the puck moving in a forward motion, so this move is off the table for Barkov.


3. Nick Bjugstad slotted in on a (yet another) tweaked second line combination on Wednesday.

Henrik Haapala made his NHL debut on the left wing with Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck, and even though he only logged 13:58 of ice time, he earned his first NHL point and looked pretty good.

He’s the 19th player in Panthers history to record a point in his NHL debut.

Rob Niedermayer was the first to do it back in 1993 and Jonathan Huberdeau had the best debut of any Panther with three points in his first game in 2013.

“I thought he made some good wall plays, I thought for a smaller guy he protected the puck well,” said Boughner.

“That line had a good game, it was nice to see.”

After playing just about his entire career thus far in Europe, Haapala had to adjust to not only the smaller rink in North America, but also a faster game and all of the off-ice aspects of living in a new country.

“Like everything,” said Haapala when asked what’s been different about playing in North America versus Europe. “I speak OK English, it’s a different country, Finland is so much smaller and everything is different.”

“It’s so much smaller ice, you have to move and skate all the time.”

Fortunately for Haapala, he’ll be around one of his best friends as long as he’s with the big club: Aleksander Barkov.

The two played junior hockey on the same team in Finland – Tappara – from 2009 until 2012, and then both moved up to the pro club in Liiga where they played for two seasons until Barkov was drafted in 2013.

“I don’t want to play with him,” joked Haapala when asked if skating on a line with Barkov was a possibility.

The Panthers have been searching for help on the second line and have gone through a ton of wingers to find two that can get something going with Trocheck.

While it’s still too early to say if this new combination of Haapala, Trocheck, and Bjugstad will work any better than the others, things didn’t look too bad to start.

4. Haapala became the fifth player to make his NHL debut with the Panthers this season (as well as the 11th Finnish-born player in franchise history), joining Owen Tippett, Chase Balisy, Dryden Hunt, and Curtis Valk.

The latter three and Haapala have all played for the Springfield Thunderbirds this season, meaning they’ve all been coached by Geordie Kinnear.

Balisy, Hunt, Valk, and Haapala haven’t dominated with the Panthers (yet) and Valk had less than four minutes of ice time in his debut, but they’ve all played really well away from the puck.

Balisy has been really good on the penalty kill, especially on Wednesday when he logged 1:31 of shorthanded ice time during Toronto’s three power plays.

You can also throw in Jared McCann who made the Panthers’ roster out of camp and attributes his development over the last while to Kinnear.

Denis Malgin is adjusting nicely to the AHL game and hasn’t looked too out-of-place during his time with the Panthers either. Ian McCoshen and MacKenzie Weegar have seen their play carry over to the NHL as well.

“Geordie helped me out a lot with confidence,” McCann said during the preseason. “He brought me in the room pretty much everyday, we worked on video. On the ice, worked on my shot, just kept working at it and in the end it paid off.”

“I feel like the coach gave me the opportunity to play well.”

The Panthers’ brass is high on Kinnear as coach, and it seems like this might be why.

“Process over outcome defines the minors….right now playing in Florida: Balisy, McCann, Weegar, McCoshen,” wrote Eric Joyce, the Panthers’ assistant general manager, on Twitter recently.

“Geordie and his staff are the best at developing NHL players. Kids will learn and get better.”

5. …but, sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.

The Springfield Thunderbirds have some interesting line combinations that make you wonder if the minors are truly defined by the process.

For the past few weeks, Bobby Farnham, a noted tough guy with 840 penalty minutes in just 281 AHL games (that’s an average of nearly four penalty minutes per game), has played on the top line.

Denis Malgin? He’s been tossed around the bottom-9 with subpar linemates, although he has been deployed well.

Jayce Hawryluk? He’s been playing low even-strength minutes, mostly on the third and fourth lines with even worse linemates than Malgin.

Perhaps Kinnear and his coaching staff are attempting to balance their lineup.

After watching some of Springfield’s games recently, I can tell you Farnham hasn’t been the dumpster fire you’d expect him to be.

However, it is the minors after all and developing the organization’s top prospects should be part of the process and a major priority. Even if they’re not playing well, being put in a position to succeed is important.

It seems to have worked with Jared McCann, and Dryden Hunt got the same chances as well.

6. Well it looks like Jonathan Marchessault is up to a solid 15 points in 17 games after a 1 goal, 2 assist game on Wednesday.

That is, after he became the Panthers’ first 30-goal scorer in seven years last season, finished third in team scoring with 52 points and was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft.

Yep, that Jonathan Marchessault.

It would certainly be nice to have a player performing at nearly a point-per-game for less than $1 million (although he’ll surely command more at the season’s end, which is fine), and it seems as though Bob Boughner wouldn’t be opposed to that either.

“We’re not as deep as other teams and that’s why we need everybody,” admitted Boughner a few weeks ago following an 8-5 loss to the Lightning.

The Panthers have now scored just 3 goals on their last 119 shots, which is good for a shooting percentage of 2%.

That’s not a typo, meaning that’s really bad.

Oh yeah, and there’s also Reilly Smith, who has 17 points in 20 games for the Golden Knights.

He’s making a bit more money, but surely he’d come in handy in the middle-6, or at the very least on the Panthers’26th-ranked power play or 30th-ranked penalty kill.

7. One more thing from Wednesday.

If you somehow missed the Panthers’ game against the Maple Leafs, you’ll want to at least watch this.

Aleksander Barkov was mic’d up for the entire game, meaning the Fox Sports Florida crew managed to catch some pretty interesting and hilarious stuff from the Panthers’ top center.

Raise your hand if you expected three minutes and 24 seconds of pure silence.

The best part is the mic actually caught some good stuff from other players interacting with Barkov.

Mike Matheson, who logged the second-highest regular season ice time total of his career at 27:05: “Thank you for being my teammate.”

Jamie McGinn: “SportsCenter Top 10.”

Vincent Trocheck: “That was nasty.”

Keith Yandle: “Hey, is this game even fun for you?”

Well Keith, if it isn’t fun for him, it’s at least fun for us (to watch).


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