The Panthers had hoped to build on their division title, but missed the playoffs this season. Taking the next step forward might require changes. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets face an important off-season.
A year after winning the Atlantic Division title, the Florida Panthers failed to qualify for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s a bitter disappointment for a club that began this season hoping to build upon their 103-point campaign of 2015-16.
The Panthers’ struggles could result in some significant off-season changes. Aging veterans such as Jaromir Jagr and Thomas Vanek are unrestricted free agents and might not return.
Several players under contract beyond this season, however, could also be on the move. Following the Panthers 4-2 loss on Monday to the Buffalo Sabres, GM and interim head coach Tom Rowe said some underachievers on long-term contracts could be playing elsewhere next season.
Rowe didn’t single anyone out. There are 10 players – forwards Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Huberdeau, defensemen Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Jason Demers and goaltenders Roberto Luongo and James Reimer – carrying lengthy deals.
Of these, half (Barkov, Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Ekblad and Luongo) were hampered or sidelined for long periods by injuries this season. Trocheck, who skated for Team North America at last fall’s World Cup of Hockey, is their scoring leader (53 points) and among the few notable Panthers to remain healthy and reasonably consistent in their production.
Smith, 25, saw his production drop this season. After tallying 25 goals and 50 points in 2015-16, he has only 15 goals and 35 points in 75 games.
Yandle (40 points) and Demers (27 points) were brought in to stabilize the blueline. While they’ve put up good offensive numbers, the Panthers are among this season’s worst defensive clubs.
Reimer was seen as Luongo’s eventual successor, but he’s also struggled with consistency. The 29-year-old won only 16 of 36 starts, with a 2.60 goals-against average and a save percentage of .917. Luongo, of course, won’t be going anywhere. There will be few takers for a 37-year-old goalie carrying an annual salary-cap hit of over $4.5 million through 2020-21.
It seems unlikely that Rowe will move out one of his younger core players such as Barkov, Bjugstad or Huberdeau. Still, if he and his staff feel the Panthers need a shakeup for 2017-18, perhaps one of them will be dealt for a more consistent and healthier forward.
IMPORTANT OFF-SEASON AHEAD FOR JETS
The Winnipeg Jets are also experiencing a disappointing end to a promising season. Despite the addition of rookie sensation Patrik Laine, center Mark Scheifele’s rise to prominence as an offensive star, Nikolaj Ehlers impressive sophomore performance and the reliability of power forward Blake Wheeler, the Jets are outside the playoff picture for the fifth time in six seasons.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces what the Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen considers his most critical off-season. Friesen notes the Jets possess “a talented top-six forward group, a black hole in goal and a razor-thin defense.”
Goaltending’s been the Jets weakness under Cheveldayoff. Former starter Ondrej Pavelec spent most of this season banished to the minors. Promising Connor Hellebuyck was inconsistent, winning 24 games and posting a 2.94 GAA and .905 SP. He clearly isn’t ready yet to be their full-time starter. Backup Michael Hutchinson (2.96 GAA, .902 SP) had a season to forget.
Cheveldayoff cannot ignore this ongoing problem. He must find a suitable starting goaltender via free agency or the trade market.
Free-agent options could include Ben Bishop of the Los Angeles Kings or Scott Darling of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Pittsburgh Penguins could try to move veteran Marc-Andre Fleury in order to protect Matt Murray in the expansion draft. Antti Raanta of the New York Rangers and Philipp Grubauer of the Washington Capitals could also hit the trade block this summer.
Cheveldayoff could also look toward a trade or a free-agent signing to buttress his blueline. He could also face a decision regarding defenseman Jacob Trouba’s future with the club. The 23-year-old is signed through 2017-18 and Cheveldayoff said he sees him as a key part of the Jets future.
Despite missing time to a contract holdout, a suspension and an upper-body injury, Trouba is still having a solid season. But before re-signing his current two-year deal with the Jets, he staged that holdout last fall in hopes of forcing a trade.
Trouba could revisit that option this summer. If he does, Cheveldayoff could face another standoff or try shopping him for a decent return.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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