|Center Aleksander Barkov (Getty Images)
Rookie center Aleksander Barkov joined the team in Columbus Friday where he practiced with his teammates for the first time since suffering a lower body injury in Buffalo on Jan. 21st. It was a good sign to see the Flying Finn back on the ice with his teammates at Nationwide Arena.
"Our thought process with him really is we have got to make sure, he's 18-years old, he's in good position," said interim head coach Peter Horachek following practice as the team prepared to take on the Blue Jackets Saturday night. "(He'll) skate again tomorrow. I would guess we would be shooting for Tuesday."
Barkov has missed the last four games for the Panthers and despite missing those games is tied for second on the team with 24 points (8-16-24).
"He's cleared to play. First of all I just don't think that's enough time for him," said Horachek on why he will most likely return to the lineup Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the BB&T Center. "I'd like to make sure he's up to speed. (We're) looking after his best interests which is him."
Veteran center Scott Gomez has filled in nicely on the Killer B line with Brad Boyes and Sean Bergenheim during his absence, most recently combining to put Florida up 2-0 in Toronto on Thursday night. Horachek, however, says that Barkov's presence on that line has certainly been missed.
"Barky is a good player all over. He sees the ice really well. He's a bigger body. It's just different players," said Horachek. "I think Barky is at another level, that's why he's had success. The way that line created and I think Bergy and Boysie have something to do with that. They've continued to have a few chances as well."
Sometimes "it's better to be lucky than good." That expression sure can relate to Panthers forward Brad Boyes and when it comes to the shootout.
In a bizarre ending Thursday night, Boyes scored in the bottom of the third round of the shootout to give the Cats a 2-1 victory over Buffalo. The NHL's best active shootout skater, Boyes got some luck in putting the puck off the post and then Jhonas Enroth to give the Panthers the extra point.
It certainly didn't look pretty after one referee waived off the eventual game-deciding goal and the other calling it a goal but in the end it was efficient.
Now with 37 career shootout goals, two more than Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Minnesota's Zach Parise, Boyes had to change up his latest attempt to fool an ex-teammate as Enroth knew where Boyes liked to shoot.
"Shootout as far as it was, being here and going against him in practice a lot, he was showing glove, he was kind of waving it to me," said Boyes who played in Buffalo for a season in a half (2011-12). "I think he was on me, he knows kind of where I go so I tried to change it up a bit. It was good. I have trouble against guys that I go against that I've played with so it was nice to get it on him.
"I liked that one."
With the puck off the post, Enroth and eventually into the net, the Panthers finally got some luck on their side after hitting several posts during the game but not able to find a second goal past Enroth after Boyes tied the game at one midway through the third.
"I know. Irony I guess," said Boyes following the game on the post winner. "Hopefully it was some luck but it kind of went the other way a lot of times but finally the luck started shifting to us a little bit."
But maybe, just maybe, that's exactly how Boyes drew it up for his sixth shootout goal of the season and second game-deciding goal.
"Boysie is a very talented guy. He told me he was going to do that before he did it," joked netminder Tim Thomas. "Maybe not, but we'll take it any way we can get it at this point."
Drawn up or not, it was another big two points for the Panthers provided by the NHL's shootout king.
Panthers interim head coach Peter Horachek put his team through an hour long practice at the Bell Sports Complex on Wednesday before the Cats took to the air to travel to Buffalo for their next game Thursday night.
Following a day off on Tuesday, Horachek was happy with the Cats effort in practice as they look to move past Monday's 2-1 loss to the Canadiens and get back in the win column.
"We had a good talk before the practice and I thought it was pretty good," said Horachek. "You're never going to get a great, great practice when you've been off but they warmed up pretty well and I thought they seemed to have a purpose and a little resolve that they want to be a good team moving forward."
The Killer B line of Sean Bergenheim, young gun rookie Aleksander Barkov and Brad Boyes continued their hot streak of late, combining for the only goal and getting most of the Panthers scoring chances at the Bell Centre but Horachek is hoping the other lines help out.
"In the past and earlier we were getting contributions from all lines and different lines each night," said Horachek. "We're hopefully going to get a little more consistency out of the other lines."
After posting 11 shots in the first two periods, Horachek made a couple of line moves, including moving forward Drew Shore up to Nick Bjugstad's line, and the team responded with 16 shots on Carey Price but couldn't find the equalizer. For Horachek, the tinkering is sometimes necessary but he doesn't like to do it if he doesn't have to.
"You're always trying something," said Horachek. "I'll try different things and different people playing together.
"Right now you don't want to move and change things, or I don't want to move and change things every single game. I want to try and find something that works. Let them work through it, let them talk a little bit…I think that works so we'll just try little things as you call tinkering and we'll see what happens."
Shooting for Olympic gold.
For Panthers forwards Aleksander Barkov (Finland) and Tomas Kopecky (Slovakia) that’s exactly what they’ll be doing come February as they were selected on Tuesday to represent their country at the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
For the Flying Finn, it will be a big honor, as the Panthers young gun will join Finnish great Teemu Selanne, who is suiting up in his sixth Olympics, among others.
At just 18-years old, it is believed that Barkov will be the youngest Finnish hockey player to play in an Olympics since 1952 when Erkki Hytonen played as an 18-year old. Hytonen turned 19 in May following the games in Oslo, Norway.
Barkov has led the way for Florida in his rookie season after being selected second overall in this past summer’s NHL Entry Draft, posting a team-high 22 points (7-15-22). The Finn has posted 12 points in his last 12 games and his current six-game point streak (1-6-7) is tied with Jesse Belanger and Kristian Huselius for the longest in franchise history by a Panthers rookie. The center has competed for Finland at two World Junior Championships in 2012 and 2013.
It will be Kopecky’s second Olympics. He helped lead Slovakia to the bronze medal game in Vancouver in 2010 but the Slovaks fell short in a 5-3 game to Finland.
“Just to see all the athletes, not just the hockey players but any other athletes, figure skaters, all the guys competing for the medal, it's just a great experience,” said Kopecky on Monday morning before finding out he was going.
In his third season with the Panthers since being acquired in a trade from Chicago, Kopecky has recorded 68 points (29-39-68) in 165 games.
Kopecky has competed for Slovakia at two World Championships besides the Olympics in Vancouver, suiting up for the Slovaks in 2010 and 2013.
A game after getting their captain back, the Panthers will see the return of another defenseman as Erik Gudbranson returns from injury when Florida takes on the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre Monday night.
Gudbranson has missed the last five games after having orbital bone surgery after getting hurt on Dec. 20 in Winnipeg.
"I was told it was two-three week recovery. It's two weeks today so I feel ready to go," said Gudbranson following the morning skate at the Bell Centre. "It's fun to play. I'm excited to play."
The young gun will wear a cage as he continues to heal but that doesn't mean he'll change up his game.
"That shouldn't be an issue," said Gudbranson. "There's a couple of blind spots but I've worn it the past week skating so I've gotten pretty used to it."
Gudbranson will be paired with the Cats captain, Ed Jovanovski. The return of the pair of defensemen is only good things for the Cats.
"There's a progress for both of them coming back off an injury," said interim head coach Peter Horachek. "They've been out for a little while. One is going to wear a cage so that's always a little difficult…and Jovo is still coming off his first game so it's all progress. It's good to have them out there and it's good timing too."
"It goes back to my first year. I thought we played extremely well that year and it should be a seamless transition," said Gudbranson of being paired with Jovanovski. "We're both very vocal, we talk well on the ice and we've had that chemistry from that first year so making that transition, starting with him should be good."
|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."