Mitch Linsley The Hockey Writers
Panthers’ Playoff Chances in a Tough Atlantic Division
The 2019 offseason saw the Florida Panthers make about as much noise as any team in the National Hockey League. Although they missed out on signing Artemi Panarin, Florida still made a huge splash by reeling in two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as three-time Stanley Cup champion coach Joel Quenneville, who were widely considered two of the biggest names on the market.
Adding such pieces to a young core featuring Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau combined with veteran leadership in Keith Yandle and Mike Hoffman was sure to propel the middling Panthers to the ranks of the elites in the Eastern Conference.
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One not-so-flashy pick-up has been former Boston Bruin Noel Acciari, who has already potted a career-high 20 goals this season. Despite these additions, the Panthers’ 2019-20 campaign hasn’t panned out as envisioned; the Panthers find themselves 11th in the Eastern Conference in points, with 73, and they currently sit five points out of a playoff spot.
The race for the final playoff spot in the East is tight and some win-now, pay-later type of moves could make all the difference in who grabs the coveted wild-card spots. The Panthers did just the opposite, and to say general manager Dale Tallon didn’t do much to immediately bolster the lineup is an understatement. Although it’s clear Tallon’s putting together a roster that will have a chance to remain competitive for years to come, the deadline moves did no justice in helping the team make a late playoff push.
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Tallon’s first move was shipping defensemen Emil Djuse to Dallas for a 2020 sixth-round pick, clearing $925,000 of the salary cap. On deadline day, the Panthers sent first-line center Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for centers Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark alongside prospects Eetu Luostarinen and Florida native Chase Priskie. Trocheck, a former 31-goal scorer, finds himself in the midst of a second consecutive 10-goal campaign and is hoping to find a better fit in Carolina. Haula and Wallmark can easily replace Trochek’s productivity, having notched 22 and 23 points this season, respectively.
Although he’s had better seasons from a production standpoint, Haula plays a complete, 200-foot game, has the ability to win key faceoffs, and can shut down an opponent’s top line. Playing alongside guys like Hoffman and Frank Vatrano could help Haula in producing at the level he’s capable of. Although he’s most known for his roles in Vegas’ and Carolina’s recent playoff runs, his best performances came during his time with Minnesota in the 2014 playoffs against Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks. Coach Q’s familiarity with Haula likely played a major part in the deal.
Considering the depth of the Eastern Conference, Florida’s current pace won’t propel them to the postseason unless the Toronto Maple Leafs completely fall off, which is panning out to be entirely possible. The East is top-heavy – the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals have established themselves as Conference Final contenders while the next six or seven teams have to grind it out for the last five playoff spots.
The way the East shakes out right now, five teams are separated by just five points headed down the stretch, meaning the conference is seeing meaningful games pretty much every night. To qualify for the postseason, the Panthers will have to leapfrog the New York Rangers, Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Islanders just to squeeze into the eighth spot. This task could prove daunting considering they only have one game against the Rangers down the stretch and won’t meet Columbus or Carolina for the rest of the season, meaning they hardly control their own destiny.
The Panthers were presented with a huge opportunity the other night against Toronto to hop into the third spot in the Atlantic but blew one and two-goal leads in what was likely the biggest game of their season. Florida saw a 3-1 first period lead evaporate thanks to heroics from Leafs center Auston Matthews. The home crowd didn’t offer much support as it seemed on the broadcast that Leafs fans far outnumbered the Panthers’ faithful.
The Panthers have since followed that performance with losses to the Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks. The club won’t play again until March 5, when they host the top-seeded Bruins, allowing the Rangers and Blue Jackets to make up some ground in the standings after coming off losses themselves.
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