The Panthers are looking to add some scoring punch by the deadline, but they’ve already gotten plenty out of Jonathan Huberdeau in the six games since his return to action.
At points throughout the season, it’s looked like all the promise that surrounded the Florida Panthers entering the campaign was going to go unfulfilled, that the injuries and coaching change and off-ice shuffles were going to turn 2016-17 into a lost season. Florida has been on the outside of the playoff picture looking in more often than not this season, and as recently as last week they sat five points out of a wild-card spot, tied with the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils with 58 points.
One week can change things, though. Especially at this time of year.
The Panthers are as much a part of the post-season race as ever before, and now there’s the matter of the Panthers having games in hand on their side. While a minimal margin, Florida enters the final full week of February with two fewer games played than the Atlantic Division’s third-place squad, the Boston Bruins, while sitting only two points back of the divisional playoff spot. Meanwhile, when it comes to the wild card, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a one point advantage on the Panthers, but Florida has one game in hand entering play on Monday.
So, with the playoffs well within reach, Florida’s president of hockey operations Dale Tallon told NHL.com that his team is looking to add with the trade market about to get that much more active with the deadline approaching. It makes sense, too, for Florida to get in on the dealing if they can add a few pieces that put them into the post-season and earn them some valuable experience. The Panthers were two wins away from the second round in 2015-16, and this could be the year they take that small step forward on the road to becoming a perennial contender.
It’s entirely possible, however, that the best acquisition the Panthers will have made going into the deadline won’t even cost them an asset in exchange. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t really an acquisition at all.
Jonathan Huberdeau injured himself with mere days remaining until the start of the season, and the injury to the 23-year-old was quite possibly more impactful than anyone could have imagined. The Panthers offense was struggling mightily through the first 51 games of the season without him, producing just 119 goals in 51 games, good for 2.33 per game. The only teams with less prolific attacks were the Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. That’s four non-playoff teams who have nothing but a prayer of getting into the playoffs.
But things have been different for the Cats since Huberdeau’s return. There was some expectation, of course, that getting Huberdeau back would provide the offense with some sort of boost, but not even the most optimistic of Florida fans would have suggested that the difference in the team’s scoring ability would be so profound once Huberdeau was back in the lineup. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but in the six games that Huberdeau has seen since his return from injury, the Panthers are averaging more than four goals per game and have mustered a couple of doozies, including six- and seven-goal performances. Oh, and Florida has only lost once in the six games since Huberdeau’s been back.
Of course, that the Panthers are producing at such a rate doesn’t necessarily have to point to Huberdeau being the most effective player on the ice, and it could simply be a nice run of play from a team that was underperforming. Sure doesn’t seem like that’s the case, though. Huberdeau has a point in all but one of the six games he’s played in since his return, and he’s picked up four goals and eight points over that span. Included in his totals are two game-winning goals — the game-winner in his first game back and an overtime winner in a thriller against the San Jose Sharks — and all four of his markers have come at even strength.
Again, while it’s a small sample size, one also can’t help but be impressed by the impact Huberdeau has had on Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov since returning. The trio formed the Panthers’ top line for much of the 2015-16 campaign and were reunited upon Huberdeau’s return in early February. Huberdeau has contributed one goal and four points at 5-on-5 playing on the line, while Jagr has two goals and five points and Barkov has lit the lamp four times. Seven goals and 13 points at 5-on-5 across six games is rather impressive output.
Huberdeau has managed all of this while having his minutes limited, too. No one outside of the organization likely knows the extent to which the effects of Huberdeau’s Achilles injury is still bothering him, but the busiest evening he’s had since his return was a 17:30 outing in his season debut. Since then, Huberdeau has only eclipsed the 17-minute mark once and twice skated less than 16 minutes. And it’s a wise decision by Panthers coach Tom Rowe to limit Huberdeau even if the injury isn’t plaguing him all that much. The more well-rested Huberdeau is for the playoffs — should the Panthers sneak in — the better.
Surely, Huberdeau’s return and Florida’s subsequent rise has played into Tallon’s interest in adding at the deadline, and he said he wanted to add some extra punch on the power play. The Panthers are still fighting to get into the post-season, and anything that can help Florida get into either a divisional or wild-card spot is worth picking up, because this is a team whose window is just starting to crack open. The Panthers have the space to do so with more than $9 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and it would be far from shocking to see Florida reach out and nab a veteran who can find the net with the extra man.
No matter who the Panthers acquire, though, it’s going to be hard for the additions to get much better than that of a healthy Huberdeau.
There's no "generational talent" at the top of the draft this season, but there is a nice battle for the top spot between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
It’s time for draft rankings, people, and it’s getting very interesting out there.
The 2017 draft class has already been pilloried quite a bit this season, but I think we just have to appreciate it for what it is: a chance for teams to get better. We’ve been spoiled by “generational” talents such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews lately, but that can’t happen every year. Instead, we have a nice little battle shaping up at the top between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier. And don’t be surprised to see even more movement as time goes on.
I have Timothy Liljegren third, but I’m kinda conservative when it comes to moving top players down. Recognize that he may slide as other blueliners make their cases, or if it appears we’ll have another run on centers at the top this summer in Chicago. Whatever happens, here’s the first round as I see it right now.
1. Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon (WHL): Back from injury and from all appearances, not suffering. Patrick has the size, skill and all-around game to be an instant NHLer
2. Nico Hischier, C, Halifax (QMJHL): The high-end skills and smarts are so tantalizing. Hischier is certainly giving Patrick a run for his money and surpassing the Wheat King is not out of the question.
3. Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SHL): Liljegren seems to be back on track after illness and a loan to Timra. His skating and offensive instincts are excellent and he’s getting some nice responsibility with Rogle.
4. Gabe Vilardi, C, Windsor (OHL): Skating is the knock, but scouts are already downplaying it by hyping up his other skills. Vilardi is big, smart and talented and really, the speed isn’t that bad right now.
5. Owen Tippett, RW, Mississauga (OHL): A weaponized winger with size, speed and a big-time shot, Tippett doesn’t have the versatility of Vilardi, but the physical tools are beguiling.
6. Klim Kostin, RW, MVD (Rus.): Surgery ended his nightmare season, but Kostin is enough of a known quantity thanks to earlier international duty. He’s a big, powerful kid with loads of talent.
7. Casey Mittelstadt, C, Eden Prairie (Minn. HS): The Minnesota commit wanted one more shot at a state title, so Mittelstadt is currently laying waste to high schoolers with Eden Prairie. Tons of skill and he put up numbers in the USHL, too.
8. Michael Rasmussen, C, Tri-City (WHL): Starting off with his nearly 6-foot-6 frame, there’s a lot to like about Rasmussen. Naturally his reach is good, but his hands are also pretty sweet and he can play with an edge.
9. Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City (USHL): A wicked shot in a smaller package. The Boston College recruit is a pure goal-scorer and draws penalties with his skill. Mixed opinions out there on his feistiness.
10. Miro Heiskainen, D, HIFK (Fin.): Smooth-skating defensemen are in and Heiskanen may even challenge Liljegren for draft stock. Some scouts thought he was Finland’s best blueliner at the world juniors.
The Maple Leafs suddenly have as much as $15 million to work with at the trade deadline which they could use to make a big deal; Avalanche stars could stay put.
The rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs are among this season's most-improved clubs. After finishing at the bottom of the standings last season, the Leafs are jockeying for a post-season berth in the Eastern Conference.
Despite this improvement, the Leafs still have some roster weaknesses to address. Their most-pressing need is a skilled puck-moving defenseman. With the playoffs in sight, perhaps the Leafs could address that need by the trade deadline.
That possibility increased when Sportsnet's Chris Johnston last week reported the Leafs quietly placed injured players Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injured reserve. The moves give the Leafs flexibility in the form of an additional $15 million in salary-cap space.
With that kind of space, the Leafs have room to pursue a big-name player at the trade deadline. They've been linked in recent weeks to St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Despite the Blues' recent resurgence, TSN's Darren Dreger claims the 28-year-old Shattenkirk remains in play.
The asking price for Shattenkirk is thought to be at least a first-round pick and a top prospect. While the Leafs have the depth to meet that return, they could be unwilling to do so unless Shattenkirk, who's eligible in July for unrestricted free agency, is willing to sign a long-term extension.
If Shattenkirk proves too costly for the Leafs, more affordable options include Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and New Jersey Devils rearguard Kyle Quincey. If they want additional depth at forward, Johnston suggests Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Brian Boyle, Dallas Stars right winger Patrick Sharp or Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal.
DUCHENE, LANDESKOG COULD STAY PUT IN COLORADO AFTER DEADLINE
The Colorado Avalanche reportedly continue to entertain offers for Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. While the notion of one or both moving before the March 1 trade deadline provides a much-needed spark to the trade-rumor mill, they could still be with the Avalanche when the deadline passes.
It's not as though there isn't any interest in the pair. For several weeks, the 26-year-old Duchene was linked to the Montreal Canadiens. Reports out of Boston earlier this month suggested the Bruins could make a push for the 24-year-old Landeskog. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports there's talk the Senators kicked tires on both players.
As always, the issue is the asking price. It's believed the Avs seek a good young defenseman, a first-round pick and a top prospect for either guy.
In a recent mailbag segment, CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty said the Bruins shouldn't give up a promising young blueliner such as Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy for Landeskog. TSN's Bob McKenzie reports Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has no intention of sacrificing his future. His colleague Pierre LeBrun believes the Sens interest in Duchene is pretty much dead unless the asking price is reduced.
LeBrun suggests the Carolina Hurricanes possess considerable depth in young blueliners and need a scoring center. However, he's not convinced Hurricanes GM Ron Francis will pony up for Duchene. LeBrun suggests Francis try to tempt the Toronto Maple Leafs into parting with William Nylander.
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic apparently isn't under pressure to move Duchene or Landeskog before the deadline. It's expected he'll wait for the off-season, when general managers usually have more salary-cap room and a willingness to deal.
FLAMES COULD LOOK AT GOALIES AGAIN
Prior to the 2016 NHL draft, the Calgary Flames created a stir when it was reported they contacted the Pittsburgh Penguins about goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The discussion apparently ended when the Pens asked for the Flames first-round pick (sixth overall). Calgary used that pick to select left winger Matthew Tkachuk.
The Flames eventually acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues, but he's failed to play up to expectations as a starting goaltender. With Chad Johnson also struggling of late, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reports the Flames could revisit their interest in the 32-year-old Fleury, who's lost his starter's job to rookie Matt Murray.
Earlier this month, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said he's open to dealing Fleury but prefers retaining him as insurance for the playoffs. Unless Fleury, who carries a modified no-trade clause, asks to be dealt, he could finish the season in Pittsburgh.
The Flames also nearly had a deal in place last June to acquire Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning. If they can't pry Fleury out of Pittsburgh, maybe they can once again look into the 30-year-old Bishop's trade status.
Bishop's an unrestricted free agent this summer and isn't expected to be re-signed. If the Lightning put Bishop on the block, they could seek a young defenseman in return. It's doubtful, however, the Flames meet that price unless they get assurances that Bishop will re-sign with them.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
Matt Walilko had a playoff game to remember, recording six goals and five assists. It wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime game since he had a 10-point game earlier this year.
In the dying minutes of his Jr. C playoff game Tuesday night, Matt Walilko of the Midland Flyers had his stick broken in two by a slash. A dastardly deed to be sure, but you can kind of see his opponent’s reasoning. It was the probably same thought process Bobby Clarke had when he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series.
“The guy was telling me that my stick was way too hot and he had to break it,” Walilko said. “He just axed the stick right in half and said it had too many points in it. We were laughing about it after the game.”
Considering that stick – along with the 17-year-old using it - was responsible for six goals and five assists in a 12-3 rout over the Huntsville Otters, you can understand why the opponent would rather see that one propping up tomato plants than demolishing his team’s playoff hopes. So when his team hits the ice for Game 6 of their playoff series Friday night, Walilko will be using new lumber, but riding the confidence of a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Or was it? Earlier this season, the Grade 12 high school student registered a 10-point game with five goals and five assists en route to scoring 80 points in 39 games and being named rookie of the year in Ontario's Provincial Junior Hockey League. Walilko is just 17, playing in a league where there are players as old as 22. He was easily the youngest player among the league’s top 10 scorers this season and one of only two teenagers. In what should come as no surprise, Walilko’s night vaulted him into the league’s playoff scoring lead with 10 goals and 20 points in five games. “It makes it look like I’ve been lighting it up every night,” Walilko said, “but I only had nine points in four games before that one.”
Back to the game, Walilko attributed his good fortune to being in the right place at the right time. He said a couple of key players were out with injuries and school commitments, so he knew he would have to step up. One of his linemates had seven points in the game and the other linemate had six. Walilko said that, as was the case in his 10-point night earlier this season, he went into the game knowing he was facing the opponent’s backup goalie.
“You kind of do your research, right?” Walilko said. “You see the backup is starting and you try to put a lot of pucks on net.”
What makes the feat even more impressive is that it gave Walilko’s team a 3-2 series lead with a chance to win it in Game 6. The Flyers had dug themselves into a 2-0 hole in the series, but have stormed back and clearly have some momentum on their side, not to mention a confident young man leading the attack.
Which begs the question: What is a young man this good doing playing this far down the junior hockey ladder? Well, Walilko played AAA midget last season in Barrie and rather than play on the third or fourth line for a Jr. B or Jr. A team this season, he thought it would be better for his development if he were a prime time player at a lower level. He has his sights set on earning a scholarship, something he hopes to do in a year or so. Walilko plans to take next season off school and hopes to play next season for the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He plans to write his SATs in the hope of attracting interest from U.S. schools.
Flyers president and GM Gerry Asselin said Walilko is so focused on getting a scholarship that he turned down a chance to practice, and perhaps even play, with the struggling Barrie Colts this season. The Flyers are affiliated with the Colts, who are struggling and in last place this season. Asselin said he recently had a conversation with Colts GM Jason Ford, in which Ford asked him to suggest a couple of players the Colts might have a look at down the stretch. Asselin said when he approached Walilko, he was flatly turned down.
“He’s a smart kid,” Asselin said. “He has his head screwed on right.”
A student at a Catholic high school in Barrie, Walilko said he can’t take all the credit for his success. His personal motto comes from the Bible passage Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I’ve put it on every stick I’ve bought since I was a young kid,” Walilko said. “I grew up in a religious family and every time I’m on the ice and having a tough time, I’ll just look down at that and kind of re-motivate myself. It kind of applies to me in everything I do, not just hockey.”
Walilko will be looking to continue making a big contribution in the playoffs, but is another double-digit performance in the future?
“I don’t know if any of my backup sticks have that many points in them, but I’ll try.”