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."
|Minnesota forward Nick Bjustad (University of Minnesota)
It was a tough weekend for the Panthers prospects that were looking to win an NCAA National Championship.
Seven Panthers prospects had a chance to do so but by Saturday, their dreams of winning that title came to an end and the upstart Yale Bulldogs were the cause for four of them.
Seeded fourth in the West Region and 15th overall in the tournament, they took out two of the NCAA's most prestigious programs in back-to-back days and will have a chance to play for a National Championship if they beat UMass-Lowell in the semis on April 11.
First it was Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau and the second ranked University of Minnesota that were shocked by the Bulldogs. The underdogs held a 2-0 lead after two periods before Minnesota tied it up with two third period goals (Rau assisting on the first). It didn't take Yale long to rebound in overtime as they forced a turnover behind the net and scored just nine seconds in to send the Gophers home.
"This is one of the best years of my life, one of the best group of guys I’ve ever been with," said Bjugstad to the media following the game. Florida's first round pick (19th overall) in the 2010 draft had one of Minnesota's best chances in the first 40 minutes, sending a backhanded shot from a sharp angle off the goaltender and off the post, wide. Having made the decision to return to chase a title, he was asked about his future. "I don’t even want to think about it right now. I get choked up thinking about it."
North Dakota scored two third period goals to come back and defeat Niagara in their first round and looked good through forty minutes as Hobey Baker finalist Corban Knight gave them a 1-0 lead less than eight minutes in against the Bulldogs. Yale would not be deterred as they exploded for four third period goals in a 4-1 victory to win the region and spoil Knight and Rocco Grimaldi's chances at a title.
In the East, defending champs Boston College along with 2012 first round pick and freshman defenseman Mike Matheson were no match for Union College, falling 5-1. Wisconsin (Ed Wittchow) fell to UMass-Lowell 6-1 in their opening game Friday while Denver and Sam Brittain fell 5-2 to New Hampshire in the same region, although Brittain did not see any action for the Pioneers.
The Frozen Four will see two four seeds, Yale and St Cloud St. (who beat Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) by a combined 9-2) face-off against two top seeds in UMass-Lowell and Quinnipiac respectively with the winners facing off in the Championship Game on April 13.
|Panthers forwards Shawn Matthias and Peter Mueller celebrate Matthias' third period goal to tie the game at three against Buffalo (Getty Images).
Looking for a spark to fire up the Panthers offense, head coach Kevin Dineen put the Panthers hottest scorer of late (Shawn Matthias, seven goals in 14 games entering Thursday night) along with two other players looking to get back on track (Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller) and the line combo worked to perfection.
The trio found chemistry early as Matthias scored 3:28 into the game off a rebound as Huberdeau picked up the second helper. Mueller would get in on the action later as he beautifully fed Matthias to tie the game at three then Huberdeau to tie the game at four in the third period. As a line, the three combined to record six (3-3) of the Panthers 11 points.
"The Matthias line popped last night," said Dineen following an optional practice on Friday. "Those guys got some points. They were for the most part responsible on D."
What really seemed to impress Dineen was that they did it against the opponent's best. They combined for 15 shots on the night while averaging over 17 minutes of ice time.
"(That's) the line that's recognized by their opponent (as the top line)," said Dineen. "So they're playing against some top pairings but obviously they're off to a good start. That was a good showing by them last night."
Game 2 against New Jersey figures to be a much tougher task Saturday night with the Devils employing a notoriously tough trap system.
|Defenseman Ed Jovanovski (Getty Images)|
Named the team's captain at the beginning of the season, Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski really didn't get a chance to lead on the ice as he faced a nagging hip ailment throughout.
That injury will cost him the rest of the season as the team announced that he'll undergo season-ending hip surgery on April 5th.
For Jovanovski, he was only able to play six games before deciding to undergo surgery. He played five games to begin the season before leaving the game in Tampa Bay January 29 after an open ice hit. He missed 22 games before coming back to play on March 16 against the Islanders. He attempted to skate in several different sessions but after not getting any better, he decided to go through with surgery.
“Over the last few weeks, I would imagine, discussions with doctors and the team trainers and all of us together," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon when asked about the surgery decision. "Obviously, it’s Jovo’s decision. He’s the one that has to make the final call on that. Nobody knows his body better than he does.”
For Florida, it's been a tough season as Jovanovski is the fourth player to have season ending surgery. That list includes Sean Bergenheim who has missed all season with a lower body injury, Stephen Weiss (wrist surgery, missed last 13 games) and Kris Versteeg (knee surgery, missed last eight games). Tallon can only joke about the situation in front of them.
“Yeah, it’d be nice to be a surgeon," said Tallon. "It’s never easy. It’s been a tough year for all of us, but we’ll get through it and we’ll look forward to moving on and getting better.”
Despite the season-ending surgery and Jovanovski's age (36), Tallon truly believes that the warrior that the defenseman is, he'll be back next season and leading the Panthers once again.
“I know Jovo will do everything in his power to get back to playing," said Tallon. "That’s what he’s all about. I hope it all works out for him. It’s never easy, but if anybody can do it, it’ll be Jovo.”
Finally home. After playing a season-high five-game road trip in which the Panthers won the first two games before falling short in their final three, Florida returns home as they host the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night.
While in the game up until the very end against New Jersey (2-1), NY Islanders (3-0 with two late empty net goals) and Toronto (3-2), the Panthers will look to continue their play from the road. Just finish in the win column.
"It didn't finish the way we wanted the road trip to," said Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen following Florida's morning skate at the BB&T Center. "We played some solid hockey for stretches out there and we want to bring that home. That's important for us."
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom figures to get the start as he was the first one off the ice and Dineen was quick on words to describe the goaltender's play of late. The 23-year old has stopped 139 of 145 shots (.959 SV%) in the four games he played on the recent road trip.
"You can say a lot of things," said Dineen about Markstrom when asked about his play. "He's given us a chance to win every night."
Also in the lineup will be fellow 23-year old, TJ Brennan, who was a healthy scratch in the last game against Toronto. The blueliner will get a chance to skate against the team that he was drafted by and played with up until being traded to the Panthers on March 15.
"TJ's been fine. He's got a heavy shot," said Dineen. "We're having discussions on the way we play in certain situations but TJ's everything we expected that he would come in and be able to fill a roll.
"He's in a situation where we have seven D and we have a decision to make. He was a healthy scratch but he'll be in against his old team."
One injured player that is close to returning is enforcer George Parros (upper body). He missed the entire road trip but skated with the team Thursday.
"He won't play tonight but we're hopeful that he'll be fit enough to play Saturday," said Dineen.
Projected Lines vs Sabres
Projected D Pairs vs Sabres
Projected Goaltenders vs Sabres
|Forward Jon Rheault scores his second of the game against the Grand Rapids Griffins on Nov. 2, tying the score at two. San Antonio went on to win the game 3-2 to start their four-game home stand (San Antonio Rampage)
Everyone that spoke following the games over the weekend discussed how important it is to get off to a fast start.
Obviously it didn't happen the first couple of games this season as San Antonio was 2-4-1 but two games into their home stand, winning games the right way (defensively stifling opponents and getting team efforts), hopefully has the Rampage on the right track.
For head coach Chuck Weber, this story seems to be a recurring theme. One that he hopes his team is past this season.
"We talked about this last year. For some reason it takes a little while for the system to sink in," said Weber. "I don't know why. It's part of my coaching career that way. Most teams I've been with, we've been .500 to start the year and kind of go from there."
With veterans like captain Nolan Yonkman and fellow blueliner Tyson Strachan along with forwards Greg Rallo, Andre Deveaux and JF Jacques among others, Weber sees that the team seems to be grasping the system a little earlier this season.
"I think we're doing a better job in the offensive end as well (besides the defensive end)," said Weber. "Close support on pucks. Taking away time and space and playing with our sticks on the ice all over the ice which is creating turnovers and opportunities."
A slow start last season that went deep into November almost cost the Rampage a chance at the playoffs as they had to play lights out just to play catch up and then earn the sixth seed on the last day of the regular season. They're hoping they don't have to do that this season.
"We need to get the points," said forward Eric Selleck who netted the game-winner late in the third period on Friday against Grand Rapids. "We got off to a bad start last year and we couldn't do it again."
"Two points every game (are) on the line," said goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris following the Rampage's most recent game, a 2-0 win over division rival Oklahoma City. "We need those points."