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Rumor Roundup: Why the Panthers could be primed for major off-season changes

A big off-season spend followed by a disappointing performance could be the catalyst for changes to the core in Florida. Meanwhile, the Islanders could have their eye on another big free agent and the Canadiens could contemplate moving a former prized acquisition.

The Florida Panthers entered 2019-20 considered to be serious playoff contenders. They bolstered their roster last summer by adding goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, defenseman Anton Stralman and winger Brett Connolly via free agency. Led by overlooked stars Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, this season was supposed to be Florida's breakthrough campaign.

But with the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs less than a month away, the Panthers are struggling to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. With just seven wins in 20 games since the all-star break and their bye week, they're hovering just outside the Eastern Conference post-season picture.

The Panthers' difficulties prompted GM Dale Tallon to ship out center Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman wondered if more changes could be in store if they miss the playoffs. With owner Vinnie Viola believed to be unhappy with the on-ice product, Friedman said some rival GMs think the roster core could be shaken up this summer. He didn't indicate which players could be moved under that scenario, but Barkov, Huberdeau and defenseman Aaron Ekblad are part of the Panthers' core.

If Viola feels a shake-up is necessary, perhaps one of them ends up on the trade block. Huberdeau has a full no-movement clause, but Barkov lacks no-trade protection until July 1. Ekblad's trade clause doesn't kick in until next summer.

Less extreme options could include letting winger Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov depart via free agency in July. Defenseman Mike Matheson could become a trade candidate after popping up in media trade chatter prior to the deadline.

The slumping New York Islanders are in danger of tumbling out of the Eastern Conference post-season race. Winless in their past seven contests, they're jostling with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes for a wild-card spot.

On Saturday, Newsday's Andrew Gross opined missing the playoffs would be a wasted opportunity for the Isles after exceeding expectations last season. Citing a lack of offensive pop for the Isles' recent woes, he mused over what GM Lou Lamoriello might do to address that issue in the off-season.

Gross suggested pursuing Taylor Hall as one option, pointing out Lamoriello attempted to woo Artemi Panarin last summer. The Arizona Coyotes left winger is slated to become a UFA on July 1. While his production is down from his 93-point career-high two years ago, the 28-year-old Hall could be a good fit alongside Mathew Barzal on the Isles' top line.

Signing Hall, however, will be expensive. The decline in his stats – likely tied to last year's knee surgery and playing in a more defensive-minded Coyotes system – could dampen his free-agent value, but his camp could seek more than $9 million annually. The Isles, meanwhile, have more than $71 million tied up in 18 players for 2020-21 with Barzal due for a big raise coming off his entry-level contract. Unless Lamoriello sheds salary, landing a big fish like Hall is out of the question.

Nearly three years ago, the Montreal Canadiens shipped defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and a conditional 2018 second-round pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for winger Jonathan Drouin and a conditional sixth in 2018.

The Canadiens hoped Drouin would address their need for a game-breaking scorer. Instead, he struggled through inconsistency and injuries. Sergachev, to the consternation of Habs fans, hasbecome an invaluable part of the Lightning's blueline corps.

Drouin's underwhelming performance prompted TVA Sports' Jean-Charles Lajoie to speculate over the 24-year-old’s future in Montreal. Lajoie suggested shopping the winger this summer for a defenseman such as the Colorado Avalanche's Samuel Girard, pointing out the Avs have promising Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins in their pipeline. Drouin would also be reunited with former Halifax Mooseheads linemate Nathan MacKinnon.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin scouted two Avalanche games before the trade deadline. Given his club's need for a skilled left-side defenseman, he could've had his eye on the 21-year-old Girard.

Drouin, however, probably isn't a fit with the Avalanche. MacKinnon has terrific chemistry with linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. Avs GM Joe Sakic could balk at Drouin's $5.5-million cap hit through 2022-23, especially with Landeskog and rising star Cale Makar due for substantial raises next year.

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