WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN
With the Florida Panthers reaching the midpoint of its season on Tuesday, we solicited perspective on where they stand, position by position, from general manager Dale Tallon and Delray Beach-based Doug MacLean, who guided the Panthers to their only Stanley Cup Finals and now works as an NHL studio analyst on Rogers SportsNet in Canada.
Tonight's 8-2 setback at Winnipeg was among the Panthers' most lopsided losses of the season. But overall, the first half has been a success: 20-12-9 and 49 points, which leaves them three points behind Boston and the Rangers (who are tied for seventh/eighth) for the final playoff spot, but also with games in hand on most teams in the top eight (but not the Rangers). In the East, the top three teams in the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions make the playoffs, as well as two wild card teams.
The season has “exceeded [my expectations] a little bit,” Tallon said. “It has jelled a little quicker than we anticipated. We have solid pros that really care and good leaders that have helped push our young guys along. We are right where we need to be. We’re knocking on the door and now we have to push in.”
The Panthers entered Tuesday 25th of 30 teams in goals per game (2.38) and 29th in power play percentage (13.1), but trading for another scorer “is not my mindset,” Tallon said.
“The big star scorer is the one thing we all strive to get in this league, but they’re hard to find," Tallon said. "We’ll build from within. We’ll get a lot of picks this year; we have good kids in the minors now.”
As far as completion of Tallon’s master plan is concerned, “we’re halfway to 60 percent there,” he said. “This is the second phase of the young guys. We’re in great position cap wise. [Owner] Vinnie Viola has said we can go get whatever we need.”
Tallon would consider pursuing a top free agent scorer eventually “if you need that one guy to put you over the top… Right now, we’ll draft and mentor and develop and see where it takes us.”
MacLean’s take: “Guys who don't compete and don't play hard --- that's been a problem here, but not this year. These guys are playing different than they have the past couple years. The Gerard Gallant/Roberto Luongo combo has re-energized that group. There were terrible vibes about the organization in the past. Now there are good vibes. Vinnie Viola has helped that. There will be two, three points separating the bottom three playoff teams. Do they get in? I hope so. Everything is positive and trending up.”
Assessing the roster by position:
### Tallon: He likes the upside here, with still-developing Nick Bjugstad (15 goals, 25 points/new six-year contract) --- “Nick has size, speed, skill, desire” --- and Aleksander Barkov (3 goals, 8 points) – “we haven’t seen the best of Barkov. They will have some inconsistencies at their age, but [we have] two big, strong center-men.” And “we’re deep up the middle, with [Vincent] Trocheck, Dave Bolland and Derek McKenzie.”
### MacLean: “You don’t know if Bjugstad is polished enough to be another Eric Staal [the Carolina Hurricanes star], but he might slide in right under those top guys. Maybe a top five to 10 center down the road. No. 1 center men are hard to find, and he’s a legitimate one. And Barkov has a huge upside. Has a chance to be a real good player. If you have Bjugstad and Barkov up in the middle, you’re in good shape.”
### Tallon: “Very solid group moving forward. [Rookie] Aaron Ekblad (24 points, team-best plus-12 plus/minus) has just been terrific. He has had very few bad games, unbelievably steady offensively and defensively. Amazing maturity. Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell have had really solid years. Dimitri Kulikov is coming into his own. Dylan Olsen and Erik Gudbranson are a great pairing. And we have a great crew of young guys on the farm and in colleges and juniors.”
### MacLean: “Ekblad has been a major surprise with what he has brought offensively. They put him with Brian Campbell and you wondered is that the right move to play him with a guy as loose offensively as Brian. But he’s been great with Brian. I’ve been surprised how much Ekblad can create. I coached him in the prospects game in Calgary and marveled at how polished and mature he was. I would have said he would be very good No. 2-3 defenseman. Now, listening to Denis Potvin, I am thinking he might be a No. 1.”…
“Willie Mitchell was a really good signing. He’s a battler, high quality guy and has the smarts to make up for deterioration [in skill]…. I like what Campbell is doing. He’s had to change his game. He’s been good with the kids. You don’t like the $7 million [salary] but you like him on your team….
"Dmitri Kulikov is an erratic player, not as tough as Robert Svelha was, but you don’t give up on those guys. I kept hearing Kulikov would be traded. But he’s still a kid and you don’t trade young kids. I like Gudbranson better than Kulikov; he’s meaner and tougher. He can someday be a Willie Mitchell type of guy. I don’t know if he has the leadership of a Mitchell but he could be a much better player than Mitchell.”
### Tallon: Luongo (ninth in goals against average at 2.23) “has been fantastic. World class guy on and off the ice, how professional and classy he is.”
### MacLean: “He might not be in the top 10 [among NHL goaltenders anymore], but he's playing like he's in the top 10.” And MacLean loves what Luongo has done to change the culture.
### Tallon: Jonathan Huberdeau has three goals in his past four games to push his season total to seven and “it’s very encouraging to see him come back to his old form. Jimmy Hayes had 13 goals; that has been a real bonus for us. Jussi Jokinen [third on the team with 23 points] has been terrific. Brandon Pirri will score for us in the second half.”
### MacLean: “You want Huberdeau to take a step because in juniors it looked like he would be a superstar. Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Brad Boyes, Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland are veteran guys that have to play their role. You will not see them get better than what they are.”
MacLean likes the upside of Hayes, though “he isn’t the same [caliber] talent as Bjugstad.”
Everyone knows another established scorer would help, but MacLean said he wouldn’t trade one of Panthers’ high-end young players to acquire one.
“Fight for the 6th, 7th, 8th seed and keep your young guys,” MacLean said.
“If Ekblad and Bjugstad and Huberdeau and Barkov become stars, then unrestricted [free agent] wingers will say, ‘I have a chance to play with those guys,’ and then it becomes an attractive place for them. Then people want to come there.”
### Tallon: “I felt [Gallant] was the right guy, from his ability to deal with young guys and veterans and his overall way about him. He’s passionate and very knowledgeable but keeps it very simple. Doesn’t overcomplicate the situation and utilizes everyone.”
### MacLean: “I coached Gerard in juniors, taught him in high school and coached him in the NHL. I had to fire him in Columbus, because my owner made me fire him. That was the worst day of my life. Gerard knew that and we remained great friends. He's learned a lot.
“Technically, he's fine. It's the ability to manage the group, manage the people around you and Gerard is really good at that. The players respect him and like him; he's honest with them. He's a straight shooter.”
### Samson Satele, aware Mike Pouncey wants to resume playing center, said he hopes the Dolphins re-sign him and give him consideration at guard. But he hasn’t played guard in an NFL game.
### We hear defensive tackle Jared Odrick --- who was fined $15,000 by the Dolphins for yelling at a coach during the Baltimore game --- will be high on the list of targets for a few teams. Miami hasn’t told him if he’s wanted back. That doesn't mean they don't want him back. But Dennis Hickey is being very deliberate in evaluating free agents.
### ESPN's Adam Kaplan says well-regarded defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers is a "probable" target of new Jets coach Todd Bowles for New York's defensive coordinator job. They previously worked together with the Dolphins.
### New Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum has said previously in his NFL Network analyst role that in a division with Tom Brady, cornerback must be a priority for Miami. Expect that message to be conveyed to Dennis Hickey. Incidentally, Jamar Taylor underwent shoulder surgery for a torn labrum but expects to be fine for OTAs.
### Thoroughly impressive 90-74 UM win tonight at No. 4 Duke, snapping the Blue Devils' 41-game home winning streak, which had been the nation's longest. As is often the case, UM (12-4, 2-1) did it with terrific guard play: Angel Rodriguez had 24 points, five steals and five assists; Manu Lecomte 23 points and Sheldon McClellan 14 points.
And center Tonye Jekiri, who is vastly improved, had a double-double (10 points, 10 boards).
"If there was any team I felt confident in beating, it was them," Rodriguez told ESPN. "We match up great with them."
Said Jim Larranaga: "I didn't know how we would respond. When a team extends their defense like Duke does, it opens up driving lanes if you have guards good enough to get by the pressure."
### FSU coach Jimbo Fisher says the Seminoles’ indoor football practice facility gives them a big advantage in recruiting, and UM athletic director Blake James said he’s exploring building one.
More than 15 practices were disrupted by lightning or rain last August and September. “Everyone realizes it’s a necessity, and we’ll continue working on it,” James said. “Florida State’s cost $15 million. It would probably be in that range.”
But James said it won’t be a bubble because of hurricane codes.
### One reason Al Golden chose to observe Cowboys camp is because he has been friends with Cowboys coach Jason Garrett for many years… Bovada.com put UM’s odds at 75 to 1 to win the national title next season --- 35th-best in the country and tied with Michigan, Penn State, Utah, Washington and West Virginia. Ohio State is first (5 to 1), TCU second (15 to 2), FSU seventh (16 to 1) and Florida tied for 14th (33 to 1).
### Not only did Hassan Whiteside enter Tuesday's game against the Lakers having scored twice as many points in his past four games as he did in his entire first two NBA seasons with Sacramento (58 to 29), but consider this: When Whiteside is in the game, Heat opponents shoot only 50 percent on shots within five feet of the basket (ranking Whiteside third among all centers). When Whiteside is on the bench, opponents make more than 62 percent of those shots, among the worst in the league.
[1 a.m. update: Whiteside had 15 points, 9 boards and 5 blocks in tonight's 78-75 Heat win at the Lakers, which moved Miami (17-21) to within 1.5 games of Cleveland (19-20) for sixth in the East. Dwyane Wade left in the first half with a strained hamstring.]
### The representative for arbitration-eligible Marlins closer Steve Cishek (39 for 43 in saves in 2014) broached the idea of multiyear deal, but the Marlins prefer to go year-to-year with him. He’s a free agent after 2017.
### Though the Marlins made a multiyear offer in an attempt to get Jose Fernandez under contract past 2018 (when he becomes eligible for free agency), they were left with the strong impression that agent Scott Boras prefers to take his clients into free agency.