Futures mailbag: Ryan Pulock, Panther pride and more

Ryan Pulock (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s about that time again. For all of you who love prospects or just want to know what your NHL team has in the pipeline, the THN Futures mailbag is here for you. If you have any questions relating to the next generation of stars, hit me up on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy and use the hashtag #thnfutures to make sure I see it.

Let’s get to this week’s questions.

Read more

With no NHL deal, two-time Stanley Cup winner Tomas Kopecky signs in Czech Republic

Jared Clinton
Tomas Kopecky (Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

If you asked Tomas Kopecky, he would likely admit his past couple of seasons weren’t the best of his NHL career, but it’s unlikely the 33-year-old saw himself out of a gig in North America this season. Kopecky is, though, and has signed a one-year deal with the HC Ocelari Trinec in the Czech Extraliga.

Over 113 games with the Florida in the past two seasons, Kopecky, a two-time 15 goal scorer, notched just six goals and 20 points. He saw his average ice time dip significantly from nearly 18 minutes per game during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened campaign to a mere 13 minutes in 2014-15. On several occasions, Kopecky was a healthy scratch in Florida.

The veteran winger did get another shot at the NHL during the off-season, though, as the Chicago Blackhawks, who he played with in 2009-10 and 2010-11, brought him to camp on a professional tryout. However, before camp was through, Kopecky was again looking for a job as the Blackhawks cut him. Read more

From Ovechkin to Jagr, 10 NHL milestones to watch for this season

Jaromir Jagr (Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images)

Highly touted rookies such as Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, Max Domi and Nikolaj Ehlers have already notched their first NHL goals, earning their first major milestone. But while rookies build their careers from the ground up, a number of wily veterans are chasing some big-time career marks.

Already this season, Steven Stamkos and Tomas Plekanec have reached the coveted 500-point mark for their careers. Both reached the milestone with goals within the last week, but there are a few players who can reach even greater heights this season — we’re talking Hall of Fame-calibre milestones.

Take Jaromir Jagr, for instance. The 43-year-old ageless wonder is already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, but he has six points in his first four games with the Florida Panthers this season and continues to inch ever-closer to the top of the all-time scoring list. Jagr’s teammate, goaltender Roberto Luongo, is also moving up the ladder when it comes to all-time marks for netminders and should be able to reach a couple in 2015-16.

Here are the top 10 milestones to watch this season: Read more

Prospect Need to Know: Kieffer Bellows is living up to his last name

Kieffer Bellows (photo courtesy Rena Laverty/USA Hockey)

Welcome back to the new iteration of The Hot List, now known as Prospect Need to Know. The NCAA season kicked off in earnest on the weekend and though I’d like a bit more of a sample size before handing out accolades, let it be known that Arizona prospect Maxim Letunov had a hat trick in his first game with UConn. And yes, Calgary Flames fans, Mark Jankowski is off to a hot start with Providence. There’s a lot of goodness to cover off this week, so let’s get right to it:

Read more

Jaromir Jagr’s mullet is making a glorious comeback

Jared Clinton
jagr cheeks

Nothing says hockey in the 1990s quite like mullets, and when he wasn’t winning scoring titles, Jaromir Jagr was combing what was one of the most majestic manes in all of sport. And though Jagr has been back in the NHL since 2011, his mullet has yet to make its presence felt. Until now, that is.

According to The Miami Herald’s George Richards, Jagr is growing his hair out, and with each passing day we get that much closer to once again laying eyes on the most glorious mullet the NHL has ever seen.

Read more

THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

The Hockey News
Jaromir Jagr (Eliot J. Schechter/NHL)

2014-15 Record: 38-29-15 (91 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 5th, Atlantic Division

What To Expect: The long, slow rebuild orchestrated by GM Dale Tallon began bearing fruit last season. After two straight basement finishes, the Panthers took a major step forward, finishing within arm’s length of a playoff spot.

They added Jaromir Jagr, who meshed well with young guns Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov on the top line. Jagr, 43, signed on for another season in Sunrise. Centered by Nick Bjugstad, who broke out with 24 goals, the second line could feature Brandon Pirri and newcomer Reilly Smith.

Sensational teenager Aaron Ekblad is already the team’s MVP. He played with the poise of a veteran, scoring 39 points and winning the Calder Trophy. The Panthers believe their young core of Ekblad, Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau will propel them to the playoffs. They might not quite make it this season, but the CAts are on the rise, and it won’t be long before they contend for an Atlantic Division title.

A low goal total and pitiful power play cost the Panthers a playoff spot, as they were bottom 10 in both. The natural progression of top youngsters will help on those fronts, as will a full year of Jagr, who clicked in the season’s final weeks. The bottom six doesn’t have much offense. Greater output from Vincent Trocheck or a rookie surge from Rocco Grimaldi will help secondary scoring.

It’s hard to imagine Ekblad doesn’t up his point total to the mid-40 range. His contributions and a better power play will rescue Florida’s offense. Tallon searched for a sniper this off-season but couldn’t acquire one. Defense parirings of Ekblad and Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov and Willie Mitchell were steady. Kulikov enjoyed his best season since his 2009 rookie year.

As expected, Roberto Luongo solidified the crease. He posted his best numbers since 2010-11. He’ll maintain his career standard of dependable play.

If Florida defies projections and makes the playoffs, it will need to get both special teams units out of the basement. The Panthers have the personnel to be middle-tier on both fronts.

Florida Panthers Depth Chart Team Preview

Best-Case Scenario: The Panthers were much closer to becoming a playoff team in 2014-15 than anyone could have expected, so it’s not beyond reason to believe this team can get close again in 2015-16. The roster hasn’t changed much and they’ll continue to have good goaltending from Luongo. They’ll play a lot of close games, but could surprise some people.

Worst-Case Scenario: Finishing just a few points out of a playoff spot would be awful for the Panthers. The team is making strides on-ice and could use the post-season to build a stronger fanbase. Finishing close to the playoffs but not quite in likely puts them out of the running for a top-five draft talent. The Panthers could use the playoffs or a good shot at the top selection. The space in between doesn’t help the franchise now or in the future.

Who To Watch: Eklbad’s rookie campaign was a thing of beauty and the pressure will be on for the 19-year-old to have another great season in 2015-16. He is likely to stay paired with Campbell, whose veteran presence helped usher Ekblad into the big league, and Ekblad could even see bigger minutes this season than the nearly 22 minutes he played per outing in 2014-15.

The big thing for Ekblad, though, will be continuing to build his defensive game on top of his already stellar offensive ability. No one has ever questioned his talent with the puck on his stick, but if he improves his play away from the puck and in his own end he could become an all-star in Year 2. There will be talk of a dreaded sophomore slump, but Ekblad has all the tools to buck the down year.

What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 3.39.37 PM

Click here for more detail on these predictions.

The Panthers are on the cusp of something very good, but they’re not quite there yet and this doesn’t look like it’ll be the year they realize it. The chances they make the playoffs this season are about 1-in-5, which isn’t very reassuring for a team that has only made it once in the new millennium. Still, the young talent on the team looks capable of getting there very soon.

As mentioned above, the forward depth is a bit suspect, but it takes a major hit from two players alone. Dave Bolland and Shawn Thornton hurt the Panthers every time they hit the ice and they’re dragging the team down as a result. Say what you want about grit and toughness or whatever, but those intangibles are better served when the on-ice results aren’t actively hurting the team. Outside of those two, the top nine doesn’t look that bad.

The defense is around average for the most part, thanks mostly to the play of Ekblad. Brian Campbell’s steady play as a partner was the perfect fit for Ekblad who exceeded all expectations during his rookie season. He’ll only get better too. On the other end of the blueline depth chart is a former highly touted D prospect in Erik Gudbranson. It’s not too late for him to turn it around, but his play so far hasn’t lived up to the high draft billing.

The biggest concern for the Panthers this season will be goaltending. Luongo has had a resurgence since coming to Florida, but there are some worrying signs of aging over the past few years. Even if everything goes right for the Panthers skaters this season, it won’t matter if Luongo starts to fade. At 36, it looks like a likely scenario.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 8.23.23 PM

THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.

Jaromir Jagr blackmailed with photo, could not care less about it

Matt Larkin
Jaromir Jagr

Jaromir Jagr, 43, has reached that fun stage of his career where he’s as much myth as he is man. He’s rapidly ascending the all-time scoring ranks thanks to a massive library of highlight-reel offensive plays over the past two-and-a-half decades. He has a real chance to pass Gordie Howe for third in points this season. And yet, Jagr isn’t the old dog we patronize with standing ovations during a bittersweet farewell tour. He remains a relevant NHLer with enough bounce left in his step to land him on a solid first line in Florida with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

The “man” side of Jagr remains a legit force, but he continues to add to the “myth” side, too. He’s inspired a line of peanut butter and a Czech musical. He’s named himself as his own favorite player. He’s made this outfit look cool. And, for his latest trick, he’s taking down blackmailers.

Read more

Inside Jonathan Huberdeau’s two-year “prove it” contract

Matt Larkin
Jonathan Huberdeau (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Wasn’t P.K. Subban’s contract last summer, paying him $9 million annually, supposed to be a cautionary tale about bridge deals?

The Montreal Canadiens didn’t lock him down as a restricted free agent in 2012, opting for a two-year extension. He ended up winning the Norris Trophy in 2012-13 and, boom, the bridge deal didn’t look so good anymore. The Ottawa Senators, on the other hand, nabbed Erik Karlsson on a seven-year extension that same summer after his entry-level deal and have him for four more seasons at $6.5 million per, which is a steal. Drew Doughty walked out of his ELC into an eight-year contract with a $7-million cap hit. He’s a steal, too, for four more seasons. John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews all signed long extensions for their second deals that turned out to be massive bargains.

The Habs went the short-term route with Subban on his second contract, and he now makes more money per year than all but four NHLers on his third contract, with seven years left on an eight-year deal. You’d think it would scare teams into avoiding the bridge, but that hasn’t really happened. Ryan Johansen has just two years left on his deal after last summer’s arduous negotiation. And this summer has been rife with bridge contracts, from Mika Zibanejad’s to Elias Lindholm’s to Mikael Granlund’s to Alex Galchenyuk’s to Brock Nelson’s and, most recently, Jonathan Huberdeau’s.

The Panthers have inked their first-line left winger, a restricted free agent, to a two-year, $6.5-million contract carrying a $3.25-million cap hit. It’s a bridge deal if there ever was one.

Read more