Panthers midseason report: Poised for postseason push?

Through Jan. 6, 2014, Aleksander Barkov shares the rookie lead in assists with 15 and is tied for sixth among rookies with 22 points.

Terry Renna

Is it possible a deviation in plan led to a slow start for the Florida Panthers?

Florida entered training camp with the intent of having its young talent carrying the squad moving forward. But in the last week of the preseason, New York businessman Vinnie Viola took ownership of the franchise and provided general manager Dale Tallon with a much-needed influx of cash for payroll.

How could Tallon not take advantage of the opportunity?

The Panthers signed five veterans — Tim Thomas, Brad Boyes, Tom Gilbert, Scott Gomez and Ryan Whitney — days before the season opener. The moves worked in some regard.

Thomas has limited opponents to three or fewer goals in all but six of his 24 starts. Boyes leads the team with 11 goals and has become a clutch sniper in shootouts. Gilbert ranks second among the team’s defensemen in points and has emerged as a solid partner for offensively minded Brian Campbell.

Jovo is back

Meanwhile, Scott Gomez has been a scratch for 22 games. Florida shuffled its defense several times, rotating in Whitney, Matt Gilroy and Mike Mottau to solidify the backend. Whitney and Gilroy never panned out and both are now with the team’s minor league affiliate in San Anontio. Mottau, although beneficial in the Cats locker room for his experience and leadership, has seen action in just seven games.

Florida’s youth and veterans struggled to click and the definition of roles became murky under coach Kevin Dineen. Losses mounted. Sixteen games into the season and near the bottom of the league with a 3-9-4 record, Tallon fired Dineen.

The Panthers have slowly righted the situation under interim coach Peter Horachek by shifting back to its youthful foundation. Even with the occasional mistake due to inexperience, it is Florida’s youngsters like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Erik Gudbranson and newcomer Dylan Olsen who have emerged as integral parts of Florida’s turnaround.

The question now is whether the kids’ fast-track growth will be enough to return the Panthers to the postseason.

MIDSEASON MVP

Scottie Upshall

The winger is not Florida’s leading score and his production has tailed off since early December. But his on- and off-ice efforts during a transitional period in which Horachek took over as head coach helped stop Florida’s downward spiral.

What a Finn

Upshall, who had played for the new head coach in Milwaukee (AHL) and Nashville, took it upon himself to act as a liason between the new bench boss and dressing room. The winger explained he felt it was his duty to help his teammates understand where Horachek was coming from and get them to buy into his system. It worked. While Upshall persuaded the Cats off-ice, he registered 12 points (four goals, eight assists) during an 11-game stretch. The effort earned him the role of alternate captain for a brief period. As Upshall’s production cooled, the Panthers soared, winning seven of eight. Sometimes it is the attributes unseen by many that cannot be overlooked.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The emergence of the Gudbranson-Olsen defensive pairing

From the moment Gudbranson and Olsen stepped on the ice together on Nov. 25 versus the Philadelphia Flyers, something clicked. Olsen picked up his second career point, while Gudbranson snapped a 100-game goal drought and finished with a multi-point effort in the 3-1 win. It did not stop there.

Five games later, Olsen registered his first NHL goal, while Gudbranson picked up another two-point game. Olsen, who had just one NHL point to his credit before joining Florida, continued to produce offensively, with points in five straight games. Defensively, the pair has been solid against top opposing lines. Tallon has estimated it takes young defensemen around 300 games before they master their craft. If the Panthers GM was aiming to develop a pairing to grow together in a way similar to Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in Chicago, it is apparent he has found it.

BEST MOMENT

Florida’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 11.

Billed as Stephen Weiss’ return, fans’ opportunity to reminisce was quickly overtaken by an eye-opening look into Florida’s future through rookies Bjugstad and Barkov. And a quirky moment only added to the memory.

With the Panthers trailing 2-1 midway through the third period, Bjugstad cracked a piece of glass behind the Red Wings net. When the arena maintenance staff went to fix it, the replacement pane broke on the way to the ice. Rather than delay the game 20 minutes, the crew put up a panel with the protective covering still in place. Bjugstad capped Florida’s rally by manhandling future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk along the boards, charging to the net and scoring top shelf to force overtime.

The arena crew replaced the opaque board with a new piece of glass before the extra period, and the timing couldn’t have been better. In the eventual shootout, Barkov dazzled with a one-handed backhand before Boyes — the NHL’s all-time shootout leader — fired a hard shot past goalie Jimmy Howard for the victory.

TOP ROOKIE

Aleksander Barkov

The Panthers had little doubt Barkov was NHL-ready when they drafted him second overall in 2013. But it is unlikely they projected the quiet Finn to be the team’s leading scorer by midseason and an Olympian to boot. Barkov became the youngest player to score in the NHL’s post-expansion era, tallying his first goal at the age of 18 years and 31 days against the Dallas Stars on opening night.

He shares the rookie lead in assists with 15 and is tied for sixth among rookies with 22 points. In the last 12 games, he has recorded three goals and 10 assists and is currently riding a six-game point streak. Barkov has emerged as the team’s top pivot, logging an average of just under 17 minutes per game. And he’s garnered kudos for his two-way effort as well.

Barkov’s work in the faceoff circle is at times erratic, but he’s averaged a 49.9 win percentage on his draws so far. Given the maturity and hockey sense Barkov displays on-ice, it’s all too easy to forget he is only 18. He has more than enough time to grow and improve. And yet it is still possible Barkov could become Florida’s second straight Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s top rookie behind last year’s recipient, Jonathan Huberdeau.

OLYMPIC IMPACT

Panthers representatives

Florida will not be well-represented at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia as only Barkov (Finland) and Tomas Kopecky (Slovakia) earned invites.

That may actually benefit the Panthers in the long run. Although Florida has managed to remain healthy for the first half of the season, the NHL’s two-week shutdown gives players time to nurse nagging injuries and get a mental break before a taxing stretch run. Beginning March 7, Florida will play every other day until April 1. That stretch includes two sets of back-to-back games. After a two-day break in early April, the Panthers will wrap up with five games in nine days.

KEEP AN EYE ON…

March 5, the trade deadline

Whether the Panthers are in the playoff race or not, this year’s deadline could be a very active one for Florida. The Panthers currently boast the lowest salary cap in the NHL, and with a new owner willing to commit the finances to forge on-ice success, Tallon could be in a position to pick up big ticket, impact players not just for a stretch run, but for the long term.

Additionally, the Panthers have plenty of veteran assets to move, with 10 players due to become unrestricted free agents in July. Moving even one or two of those players could fetch a decent return in terms of youth, talent or draft picks while opening up opportunities for Florida’s younger players who have excelled in the minors this year.

SECOND-HALF PROJECTION

Historically, mid-season coaching changes have never benefited the Panthers. Every bench boss brought in to correct a downward-trending situation ended up with a points percentage below .500. That’s not the case since Horachek took over, as the Panthers have a .538 points percentage since Nov. 9. With 39 games remaining, Florida trails eighth-place Toronto by nine points in the Eastern Conference wild card race. The Panthers are 16 points behind third-place Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division.

Those numbers are daunting.

But Florida has been on the up swing since December. Captain Ed Jovanovski returned to the lineup after missing close to a season and a half with a hip ailment. Florida’s youngsters continue to mature — and at times — exceed expectations. Thomas, when healthy, has been a stable presence in net. There are a lot more positives going for Florida then there were in the first two months of the season. But early losses may prove too difficult to overcome, especially with a grueling schedule in March and April. If the Panthers do rejoin the playoff race, clinching a spot will not come before the last couple games of the season.