FRIDAY BUZZ COLUMN
With the Panthers hitting the All-Star break, we asked ex-Panthers coach/Delray Beach resident Doug MacLean (an NHL analyst for Canada-based SportsNet) and a high-ranking front-office executive with another top NHL contender to assess the Panthers’ roster and their chances. Some feedback:
### MacLean: “They’ve had three or four rebuilds that turned out to be disasters since I was there. Olli Jokinen and [Roberto] Luongo were the first rebuild; then [Nathan] Horton and [Jay] Bouwmeester. Hopefully this is a real one. The others were fake ones.
“There are lots of good things happening. They can be dominated some nights and still get points. They're a playoff contender. I’m not going to say they’re a Cup contender. The Blackhawks, L.A. Kings, Washington Capitals have a lot more experience and probably depth. That is not a knock on the Panthers. If I was to say today, I would say a Chicago-Washington final makes a lot of sense. But the Panthers are a great story. They have good leadership and youth.”
The executive, who requested his name not be used: “There was a time I thought they may or may not make the playoffs. Now I’m starting to look at them as one of the elite teams. Six to eight teams have a chance to win the Cup, and they are in that group. Depth is my only concern. A lot of success depends on luck. They have a real chance if they go through without a major injury. Dale [Tallon] has done a magnificent job putting that group together.”
### On the defensemen: MacLean: “They are a really big group and they’re skilled. I coached Aaron Ekblad in the Canadian prospects game – I was blown away at that time as an 18-year-old, the level of maturity he had. He has taken it to another level. You get lucky when you find those guys. They wanted to run [Dimitry] Kulikov out of town; [coach] Gerard [Gallant] showed confidence in him. Erik Gubrandson is maybe at best a No. 4 guy, but that’s fine. [Alex] Petrovic has a mean streak. I like the mix they have there.”
The executive: “Ekblad already is legitimately one of the top defensemen in the league. There aren’t very many legitimate No. 1 defensemen. He is one of them. They drafted a guy who will be a top defenseman for 15 years. He will end up playing 25 to 30 minutes on a regular basis, and that’s helpful because it cuts down the minutes of everyone else. Every time I watch him, he continues to get better…
"Brian Campbell is a much better player than people give him credit for. Effortless skater, can play a lot of minutes; he’s going to do high risk things but he does a hell of a lot more good than bad. If he costs you a goal, he will be responsible for three or four….
“Gudbranson adds a physical element. [Willie] Mitchell has done a pretty good job. Petrovic is still earning his stripes. They can go a long way if Kulikov plays at or near optimal level. He is an inconsistent player, so people will always question if he will. But he’s capable of being a top four defenseman.”
### On their centers: MacLean: “I remember [six-time All Star Sergei] Federov came in as a 20-year-old. First practice, Bryan Murray looked at me and said, ‘Can you believe the way this guy plays in all three zones?’ With [Aleksander] Barkov, that’s what people around the league are looking at, the way he plays all three zones. He brings the total package. Gerard told me he’s their best player. [Nick] Bjugstad is going to be a real good player when you’re that big and strong.”
Executive: “They are the best in the league at that position. What’s not to like about Barkov? You love the size, the intelligence, the skill. Not much missing. He wasn’t a consensus No. 2 pick in that  draft; we didn’t have him that high. Now he’s arguably the best player in that draft. That was a brilliant pick.
“Nick Bjugstad is just scratching the surface of what he can be, with his size, speed, his shot. Not only is he a monster, but a monster that can move and make plays. I like [Vincent] Trocheck’s improvement. As a junior, a lot of people liked him but didn’t love him. His game is at a point now where you notice him.”
### Forward: MacLean: “I’m surprised what [Jaromir] Jagr is doing. At 43, I mean, seriously. But he’s just such a natural. Jonathan Huberdeau was a third overall pick, a real good player. People underestimate how smart Reilly Smith is; high hockey IQ.”
Executive: “What Jagr is doing is mind-boggling because of the age. You expect people to slow down [at 43]. The one thing he hasn’t lost is his strength. He’s a handful anytime the puck is in the offensive zone when someone is trying to check him…. Huberdeau is an amazing playmaker. His vision is off the charts. There was a reason he was drafted [third overall in 2011]….
“I was surprised Boston let go of Reilly Smith. He has proven to be a very good player. Not a tremendous skater, but a deceptive skater, and he does so many other things.
“They’ve got enough people who are capable of high-end scoring that if they get any kind of third- and fourth-line scoring, they are probably going to be fine. That’s where Trocheck becomes so important.”
### On goaltender Roberto Luongo: MacLean said he’s surprised how well he is playing considering his age (36). “You’ve got to put him in the top third of goaltenders,” MacLean said. “He’s playing like he deserves to be in the top six. Everyone knew [Florida] is where he wanted to be. And what about Al Montoya? He has won games for them in tough back to backs.”
Executive: “Luongo settles everything down and gives everyone confidence. He’s a driven kid. He wanted to prove a point.”
### With Goran Dragic expected back Friday at Milwaukee, it will be interesting to see if he can achieve his goal to improve the Heat’s pace (Miami is 29th in possessions per game) and if he can play as well with Dwyane Wade alongside as without him.
Consider: The Heat has outscored teams by 62 points in 300 minutes when Dragic plays without Wade, but only by eight in Dragic’s 902 minutes with Wade. For Wade, it’s the opposite: He’s plus eight with Dragic, but minus 50 without him.
### New Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is trying to forge a good relationship with Ndamukmong Suh, who a teammate said had little use for former coordinator Kevin Coyle. And Joseph will grant Suh’s request for input. Suh told Joseph he wants to be involved "in the scheme," and Joseph said “every player is going to have a voice. Whoever puts the work in and brings me ideas, I'll listen.”
### Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said today he wishes Andrew Franks could have gotten more than 16 field goal attempts (he made 13), but "for an undrafted Division III guy that really was not on anybody's radar, I'd have to say that I'm pretty pleased with what he did. Our touchback percentage went up tremendously this year; we ended up being (11th) in the league in touchbacks or touchback percentage.
"I'm a big believer that you have to bring in competition at every position. I think if we sat here last year and if anybody thought that Brandon Fields wasn't going to be the punter in 2015, we all thought he was going to be. But we brought in a guy [Matt Darr] that beat him out. We're always going to be looking to bringing in competition at every position and so I think it'll be the same thing with Andrew. But with that said, I think Andrew did a great job. I really believe this guy can play in the NFL for a long time with his skill set."...
For more on coordinators' availability today: On the home page, check out the Clyde Christensen story by our Adam Beasley, who broke the story of Miami hiring Adam Gase.
### Even though they’re not assuming anything, the Dolphins are open to giving Dion Jordan another shot if he’s reinstated in April, as long as he's clean and has a good attitude.
### UM landed three-star New Jersey-based Jovani Haskins tonight, giving Miami a second tight end in this class (with Michael Irvin Jr.), and a player ranked 29th among all tight ends by Rivals.com.
I love Miami," Haskins told Canesport tonight. "I like watching Miami on TV, the attitude they play with. To be honest, when I play a college football video game I always choose Miami.
"I already had my mind made up so I decided tonight that I might as well go ahead and commit.... [Mark Richt] is a legendary coach. He's as genuine as it gets. He was talking how it's more than just football,... how he cares about his guys, how I'd be used in the offense.... [Richt] said I'm a true hybrid, he would flex me out and put me in the slot, put me in the formation on the line."
### Though Irvin (who, like Haskins, also can play receiver) isn’t the caliber prospect his father was, St. Thomas Aquinas coach Roger Harriott told me the similarities are uncanny.
“He catches the ball the same exact way, which is bizarre to me,” Harriott said. “It’s interesting how genetics work. He has soft hands like his father, the same hand/eye coordination.” Irvin projects as a tight end; his father, of course, was a receiver.
### Defensive tackle Jelani Hamilton, who didn’t fulfill expectations, has left the UM football team. He's the sixth non-senior to leave, following Artie Burns (who turned pro), Gray Crow, Jake O'Donnell, Tyre Brady and Joe Brown. A UM spokesman said nobody else has left.... UM said Jamal Carter and Courtel Jenkins have been reinstated after Sun Bowl suspensions.
### 790 The Ticket morning co-host Joy Taylor informed the station that she has a TV offer to work for Fox in Los Angeles and Ticket GM Doug Abernathy says he assumes she will take the job but that she hasn't given notice yet. Taylor, who isn't commenting, was yanked from the air last week because she has been working for five weeks without a contract and Abernathy was pushing for resolution. Abernathy said he hopes Taylor can still have some role at the station.