|Florida picks up six new Division opponents, including the Detroit Red Wings who head east from the Western Conference. (Getty Images)
The name is the same. The opponents? Not so much.
The Panthers first began playing in the NHL in the Atlantic Division and on Thursday it was announced they would be returning to the same named division. Unlike their first go around (from 1993-98) however, most of their opponents won't be the same.
In 1993, division foes consisted of the Flyers, Devils, Capitals, Rangers, Lightning and Islanders. Fast forward 20 years and the only team that remains is the cross-state rival Lightning. The other teams, who will now reside in the newly named Metropolitan Division will be replaced by the old Northeast teams (Bruins, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Maple Leafs) along with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Cats will face off against some of the oldest teams in the league. Four of them, in fact, are a part of the Original Six in the Bruins, Canadiens, Leafs and Wings. A challenge indeed but for head coach Kevin Dineen, the challenge is always changing no matter what division you're playing in.
"Every year it's different dynamics. You look at Montreal two years ago. You look at Toronto, struggled (for a while) and they had some real positive things happen last year and were able to turn things around in a fairly quick manner," said Dineen to the South Florida media following the release of the 2013-14 schedule. "(Detroit is) going to be very excited getting into the Eastern Conference. It's something they've been looking to do for years and years. Here they are positioned with a lot of quality hockey teams."
The way the schedule is set up, as Dineen points out, one doesn't have to go no further than the road trip to open the season to see the caliber of opponents that Florida is hit with in the opening month.
"For me, I look at the start," said Dineen. "We go Dallas, St Louis, Philadelphia. None of those teams are in our division but you know what. Dallas has gotten better this summer. St Louis who had a really quality regular season last year. Philly has done some things to get better so no matter whether you're in division or not, the road is not easy.
"That's fine. That's our expectations."
That trip, while with it's own challenges is also seen as a blessing for the Panthers bench boss.
"I love the idea of starting on the road. I just think that really the good things for our team," said Dineen. "We're under different circumstances than we were a couple of years ago but still really like the idea that you got a good break between our last exhibition game and our first regular season game. Get out on the road, spend some quality time together and come back home to finish October strong."
82 games; 30 against division opponents, including five against the Wings and reigning Eastern Conference Champion Bruins. It should make for an intense battle as eight teams are battling anywhere from three to five available playoff spots come April.
|Roger Neilson helped influence Dallas Eakins (right) to get into coaching while both were with the Panthers. (Al Messerschmidt)
Named the Edmonton Oilers new head coach on Monday, Dallas Eakins’ Florida roots has helped to shape his career path.
Not only was the Oilers' 12th coach in franchise history born in the state of Florida, living the first seven years of his life in Dade City, which is roughly less than hour north of Tampa, but Eakins attributes his professional choice to some sound advice from the Panthers first head coach in franchise history. See it was there where Roger Neilson put the idea in Eakins' head about life after hockey.
"I would like to thank my great friend Roger Neilson who told me on many occasions that my mark in the NHL would be made as a coach because I wasn't a very good player," quipped Eakins in his opening statement at his introductory press conference.
Eakins was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 10th round (208th overall) in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft but didn't make his NHL debut until the 1992-93 season with Winnipeg, playing in 14 games. He signed as a free agent with Florida on July 14, 1993 and became the only Florida native to play in the NHL [at the time] when he suited up on Nov. 23, 1993, against Hartford.
The defenseman would play 41 of his 120 NHL games with the Panthers, including 18 under the Hockey Hall of Famer, but it was the time spent not playing that truly helped him during the two years with the Panthers.
"Roger Nielson, first and foremost, his work ethic," said Eakins. "We never really saw the game quite the same way but he taught me a ton about the game."
Bouncing around hockey from the time he turned pro in 1988 until retiring following the 2003-04 season, Eakins has made the transition from player to coach (spending the last four years as head coach of AHL’s Toronto Marlies) and he still leans on what he recalls while sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch.
"I played in about 800 different cities," said Eakins. "A lot of times I was a healthy scratch, especially at the NHL level, and I wasn’t just sitting upstairs eating popcorn. I was taking notes."
And that led him to Monday where he could think back to where it all really kicked off.
"I think it's a proud day because I've worked hard at this trade. I think it's something that's come naturally," said Eakins. "I think I knew that Roger was right, that I knew coaching was in my blood."
|Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones are expected to be top picks in the upcoming Draft. (Courtesy: Christopher Mast)
With 20 days left until the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in New Jersey, NHL.com draft experts have unveiled their latest Mock Drafts and are in agreement on who the Panthers will pick at No. 2.
Despite debate by national media about who goes No. 1 to Colorado, the trio of Adam Kimelman, Mike G. Morreale and Steve Hoffner all have the Avalanche taking the Central Scouting's No. 1 ranked North American Skater, Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones. They each follow that up with the No. 2 ranked Central Scouting North American Skater Nathan MacKinnon to the Cats.
After Panthers GM Dale Tallon said he was looking for a player that could contribute right away at the recently completed NHL Combine in Toronto, the NHL.com trio believe that the Halifax Mooseheads center can be the player that can step into the Panthers lineup and form a dynamic duo with Calder finalist Jonathan Huberdeau.
"Dominated the Memorial Cup and proved he can step up at a bigger stage," wrote Hoffner. "A highly competitive star who will be a nice complement to Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida."
"The Panthers want someone who can step right into the lineup," wrote Kimelman in his mock draft. "And this high-end scorer looks ready to do just that."
Setting MacKinnon apart from players like Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov who went three and four in some order to Tampa Bay and Nashville respectively was MacKinnon's season, most particular his Memorial Cup run in which he posted a mind-boggling 13 points, including seven goals in four games as he led Halifax to the championship.
"The most valuable player of the Memorial Cup appears NHL-ready, possessing a spectacular combination of speed and toughness," wrote Morreale. "MacKinnon had 32 goals and 75 points in 44 regular-season games, and seven goals and 13 points in four Memorial Cup games."
The interview process at this year's Combine wasn't just enjoyed by the Panthers brass, but the 2013 potential picks also enjoyed their time with the clubs.
Speaking at a Media Availability on Thursday following being added as Reebok-CCM's newest athletes as they picked up new endorsement deals, the top three North American skaters, Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin all spoke about their week and the interviews with the teams.
"It was obviously a lot of fun going to all those interviews and meeting with a bunch of different teams," said the Portland Winterhawks defenseman, Jones. "Still feels a little surreal that the draft is coming so close now."
"It's been great here in Toronto at the combine," added MacKinnon, the most recent Memorial Cup MVP from the Halifax Mooseheads. "You hear about it every year and it's pretty cool that you can check it off your list of accomplishments. I think the interview process has gone through pretty smoothly. Different teams have different approaches to talking to you but it's gone well."
"I think we're enjoying the interviews and we're liking what we see," said Drouin, the Halifax winger who was the MVP of the QMJHL playoffs. "It's a lot of interviews back-to-back and we don't have a lot of time off but it's been pretty smoothly and we're enjoying it."
While they may have been ranked higher in Central Scouting's final rankings, the third ranked North American skater Drouin had the one up, or even two up as he finished the interview session of the combine, interviewing with 19 NHL teams, two more than Jones or MacKinnon.
"It's not that bad. Obviously there's a lot of possibility, a lot of things that happen," said Drouin. "Down the road, you never know what can happen, you could end up with one of those teams. They just want to get a feel for what kind of person you are."
"I don't know if it was a coincidence but we both had the same number of teams," said MacKinnon of his interview number comparison with Jones' total. "I don't know if it was different teams or what but I think while you're here, it's important to meet teams. You don't know what the future holds...There could be trades or anything like that on draft day. Nice to meet them and got to be prepared for it."
As far as the questioning from the teams? The trio did find some of them that they had to pause and think about.
"One tough question that I got was what kind of hockey player would I be if I couldn't skate," said MacKinnon. "It shook me a little bit because my whole game is around speed and a tough one to answer but little ones like that that put you in the spot and take you a few seconds to answer but it's been good."
"One team asked me and what I did if I didn't have hands, like what kind of player would you be," said Drouin. "It's kind of a hard question to answer. Just chip the puck in and go."
"A lot of tough questions," said Jones. "They try to trick you all the time. I don't know. I can't give you one but there definitely a lot of them."
The Panthers wrapped up the first portion of the scouting combine, finishing four days of draft eligible player interviews Thursday afternoon. It was an extremely enjoyable process for Florida GM Dale Tallon and the rest of the Cats hockey operations staff.
"This year I think it's the best group of kids we've ever interviewed as far as honesty and self evaluation, personality," said Tallon. "It goes with the fact that this is a really deep draft so not only are there good players but we got some great personalities and some great character."
Scouts and numerous draft pundits have claimed this to be an extremely deep draft, one of the deepest in a while. With that, it's no surprise that the players that peeked Florida's interest to warrant an interview have all been up to all of the Panthers questions during the interviews.
What Tallon and the Panthers brass have been equally impressed about has been the player's self awareness on their games and their strengths and weaknesses.
"They've been very, very honest and very good at evaluating themselves," said Tallon. "Very realistic about their abilities so that really helps the process because you don't really have to break them down."
And when you don't have to do that, then the Panthers brass can just focus on who would make a good addition to an already deep prospect pool. The pool that is considered among the top in the league with the likes of forwards Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi along with blueliners Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak and last year's top choice Mike Matheson (23rd overall).
"They already have a good idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are and that really is half the battle," said Tallon. "If they're able to realize it sooner rather than later then it makes it easier for us to make a decision on them whether they fit our profile and fit our needs as far as our depth chart."
Holding four picks in the top 100 of the draft, the Panthers are certainly excited about adding to their deep pipeline. Topping the list of Panthers picks is the No. 2 pick overall, selecting after Colorado is set to kick off the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in New Jersey on June 30th.
With that, the Panthers will keep an extremely watchful eye on top players such as Seth Jones, Nate MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin who are ranked 1, 2 and 3 among North American skaters and Aleksander Barkov and Valeri Nichushkin, the No. 1 and 2 ranked European skaters in the upcoming draft according to Central Scouting's final rankings.
They got their first chance to sit down as a staff with potential draft picks at the NHL Combine in Toronto, held May 27 - June 1 in two separate portions, the interview process the first four days and fitness testing on Friday and Saturday. There, they'll ask the potential soon-to-be Panthers about anything from families, to strengths and weaknesses in their games to what they do in their free time among other topics.
How the players answer will tell a lot to the Florida brass and will help in who they draft when they come on the clock on the late Sunday at the Prudential Center.
Defenseman Mike Weaver has been a model of consistency over the last several years in playing almost every game on the schedule, so when he went down with a lower body injury in Buffalo on Super Bowl Sunday, he didn't think it would take that long to get back. Instead he was sidelined for a month and a half, missing 20 games over that span.
"It was really tough. I don't miss a lot of games," said Weaver after returning to play against Pittsburgh on April 13.
"I remember in Los Angeles I think I was out with a hip flexor for a week or week and a half at most, before that it was back in college days. It was tough."
Returning after such a long time off, Weaver said that the hardest part was getting back into the game mentally.
"Obviously once you get back in shape and everything like that, it's more of a mental game," said Weaver. "You believing that everything is fine. Not letting your mind get in the way of doubting yourself. Sometimes you might get on the ice, go into a battle."
For not playing since Feb. 28, Weaver thought it was a decent first game back.
"Obviously you can't really prepare for in-game battles. I thought I did a lot of work with conditioning and being in the best-case scenario to get back into things," said Weaver who finished with 26 shifts and 22:23 of ice time. "The first couple of shifts I was just kind of getting my legs going. After the first period it usually you just start relaxing, kind of getting into the rhythm of the game. Overall I thought I had a half decent game."
|Panthers forward Marcel Goc wins a draw against Jets forward Olli Jokinen (Getty Images)
The solid hockey that the Panthers had been playing in the last five games didn't carry over into Thursday's game against Winnipeg.
Heading into the game against the Jets, Florida had probably played their best stretch of hockey this season and were rewarded with a 4-1 record as they got timely goals, great goaltending and solid defense. That went out the door as the game started fast with four goals in the first six minutes of the contest and the Jets continued their assault to score three more in the second within a two minute span to hold a 6-2 lead after two periods on their way to the 7-2 victory.
"There’s lots of different things we can point at, I think the whole game didn’t go (well) for us," said head coach Kevin Dineen. "We all have got ownership in this one (tonight), from the net on out."
"Second period I think we started pretty well. We had a couple of good shifts down low," said forward Tomas Fleischmann who had a hand in both of Florida's goals, including netting his ninth of the season to tie the game at two 6:31 into the first. "Then they just turned it on with ten minutes left and scored four goals and that’s it. That was the hockey game."
What had to be a frustrating aspect to the game was that Florida responded to Winnipeg's goals in the first. The second was a different case as the Jets fed off the crowd and attacked Florida in waves.
"It was a seesaw back and forth that game early on, but when the big push came we didn’t have a response for it," said Dineen.
In a long season - this one shorter than usual - one might think of a game like this one as a throwaway. Every team has a clunker now and then but the Panthers will not see it as that as they try to build off their recent strong play and not Thursday's affair.
"We played really good hockey. (Tonight) it just kicks us back," said Fleischmann. "We have to figure it out in the dressing room and stop doing this. That effort in the second, we have to learn from that and make sure we don't do that the next game on Saturday."
"No, this is not one you set aside," said Dineen. "There’s a lot of things that we have to learn from that we got exposed on (tonight) and we’ve got to take steps to keep improving."
|Forward Quinton Howden fights off Sens defenseman Sergei Gonchar to draw a penalty which resulted in the game-winning goal in the third period in Sunday's 2-1 victory.|
Thursday's game in Winnipeg will be something to remember for rookie Quinton Howden.
While for the other Panthers players, the game against the Jets might be just another game on the schedule, for the Winnipeg native Howden it will be of special significance, as he'll have a chance to play in his hometown for the first time in his professional career.
"It's pretty special," said a smiling Howden when asked about the chance to play in front of the "home" crowd. "When I got drafted, obviously the Jets weren't there yet so I never kind of dreamt of that moment.
"But ever since they were there, I've always been thinking about that day that I can put on this (Panthers) jersey and go back home and play in front of my family and friends."
One of three Panthers first round picks in the 2010 NHL Draft (25th overall), Howden said that he'll certainly have a lot of family and friends to support him. What colors they show up in is still a mystery however.
"I don't even know what jersey they're going to be wearing," said Howden. "Hopefully they're wearing our colors but we'll see."
Just talking about the upcoming experience and playing in front of the raucous Jets fans has Howden excited.
"I really haven't been to any," said Howden of attending a Jets game last season, their first season back in the NHL after moving from Atlanta. "I've been around there and I've heard the stories so I'm really looking forward to it."
Still searching for his first NHL goal despite coming close on several different occasions in his first 10 games as a Panther, Howden couldn't think of any better scenario than to doing it in Winnipeg in front of his friends and family.
"That (would) put the cherry on top. It would be a dream come true so I'm working for it," said Howden. "When it happens it happens. I've had some chances but it would be pretty awesome to get that but I'm not going to put any pressure on myself."
In past seasons at the trade deadline, the Panthers had been busy in the trade front.
This season was much different as Florida made a single trade on deadline day, sending center Jerred Smithson to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a 2013 fourth round pick.
"It was an interesting day, we kept calm and kept our patience," said Tallon. "We had a lot of different possible deals on the table, but we felt that we would take our time and do the right thing. Overall, we weren’t as active as we thought we’d be, but yet we weren’t disappointed with the outcome of the day."
In the Smithson trade, it was a tough call to make to the forward about his trade as the forward was heading to the hospital to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.
"They are going to have the baby (today or) tomorrow. That’s the tough part of the business. Dealing with family and friends," said Tallon. "We told him we’d do whatever we possibly could to help him out.
"He’s going to a good franchise and a good group. He’ll help those young guys as well and get a chance to play in the playoffs."
Florida also lost center Mike Santorelli through waivers as the Winnipeg Jets claimed the forward.
"That’s just what it is. We are looking to add (Nick) Bjugstad and (potentially Vincent) Trocheck and we’ve got a lot of assets coming," said Tallon. "Mike I’ve got to give a lot of credit. He went down to the minors and played hard, came back up and played well. But we’ve got other assets we need to make room for."
While teams called to try and make a trade with Florida, it didn't make sense for the Panthers brass to make moves just for the sake of making them.
"We have good core guys and we weren’t going to give up our good players just to band-aid something and add some late picks or whatever it was going to be," said Tallon. "Everyone wants your good players. And they feel that you’re going to sell them all and rebuild.
"But we’re not really in a rebuilding. We are just tweaking a little bit here and there and adding the pieces through the draft, we said we would do."
In the lockout shortened season, it was just better to stay put and rebound going into next season.
"I’m very optimistic about our future, despite what has happened this year," said Tallon. "You can see when the young guys have an opportunity and quality ice time they can get the job done."