The Florida Panthers face off against the New York Rangers tonight a 7 PM. As you have probably heard, there is a playoff race going on and the Rangers happen to be in the thick of it. New York is tied with the Winnipeg Jets with 46 points, the Rangers having played one less game hold the 8th and final playoff spot but their grasp is certainly tenuous.
The prevailing talking points the last few Panthers games have all been about Florida’s opportunity to play the spoiler role against teams fighting for the playoffs. While this is interesting, it puts all of the focus on the opposing teams and their respective playoff battle and quite frankly, I am sick about talking about other teams’ playoff chances. In an attempt to bring some of the focus back on the Panthers, I have detailed below five Florida Panther story lines that will be unfolding tonight and throughout the rest of the season.
1) Jonathan Huberdeau and the rookie scoring title:
As it stands right now, Huberdeau has 27 points and a one point lead over Cory Conacher. Nail Yakupov has heated up recently tallying nine points in his last eight games giving him 25 on the year. The race for the Calder Memorial Trophy given to the NHL Rookie of the Year is somewhat muddled but if Huberdeau can hold onto the scoring lead, he may be the best candidate for the award.
Huby could virtually assure himself the Rookie of the Year award if can lead all rookies in goals as well as points. He is currently tied with Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher with 13 but Huberdeau has stalled recently failing to record a goal in his last seven games.
It would be nice to see Jonathan Huberdeau heat up in these last six games and emphatically stake his claim to the scoring title and in doing so stake his claim to the Calder Memorial Trophy. Whether or not he does that remains to be seen.
2) Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden
For the past year or so Quinton Howden and Nick Bjugstad have been mentioned among the names of talented Panther prospects who, upon their arrival, will help take the team to the next level. Well, they have arrived, will they take the Panthers to the next level? Howden and Bjugstad are just 21 and 20 years old respectively and both have made their NHL debut this season. Howden has played in 13 games and has not recorded a point while averaging 9:29 of ice time per game. Bjugstad, who also has not recorded a point, has gotten a little more time in his five games with the Panthers averaging 14:00 per game.
Both players are extremely young and both have a long way to go in their development. These last few games of the season will give Panther fans a brief glimpse of what the future holds.
The biggest question surrounding the Panthers going forward is: “Is Jacob Markstrom ready to be a number one NHL goaltender?” At times it has looked like he is ready and at other times it looks like he has a long way to go. This is indicative of the biggest aspect Markstrom is missing from his game, consistency. In his 18 games this season Markstrom has gone through stretches of outstanding play (i.e. March 19-24, a three game stretch were Markstrom put up a .974 SV% stopping 111-114 shots faced) but he has also gone through stretches like the last three games where he has been pulled twice while allowing 13 goals on 62 shots.
These next six games are huge for Markstrom and the Panthers organization. If he steps up his play, Markstrom can go a long way towards solidifying for himself next year’s number one goalie position.
4) 2013 Draft
A sub-plot to the remaining games on the Panthers’ schedule will be the “race” for last place in the NHL. The Panthers sit three points behind the 29th place Avalanche and it appears that the only other player for last place will be the Carolina Hurricanes who are currently four points ahead of Florida. Finishing last won’t necessarily guarantee the Panthers the number one pick but it will certainly help. The NHL Draft Lottery on April 29th looms in the distance, the details of which I detailed yesterday in a draft preview post.
If the Panthers do finish last and get the first pick in the draft, they will almost certainly pick defenseman Seth Jones who has been garnering comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom. Not a bad reward for enduring such a miserable season.
5) The Other Guys
As the season comes to a close, a lot of the focus will be on the young players that the Panthers have locked up for the next couple of years i.e. Markstrom, Huberdeau, Gudbranson, Shore, Bjugstad, and Howden but there are a lot of questions regarding a number of other players on the Panthers roster. These last six games are a sort of tryout. The Panthers’ front office will be looking at these games when they make the decisions regarding which players fit their “blueprint” and are worth keeping, and which players can be let go or traded in the off-season.
Players like Peter Mueller, Jack Skille and Shawn Matthias will be restricted free agents at the end of the season who will the Panthers re-sign? Will they try to lock Matthias up long term or will they instead focus on resigning veteran unrestricted free agent Stephen Weiss? On the defensive side of things, Tyson Strachan will be an unrestricted free agent at the years end and T.J. Brennan will be a restricted free agent. Both have played well with the Panthers and it will be interesting to see who is back next year.
Although the Panthers are not gearing up for a playoff run as the season comes to a close, they remain a fascinating team that seems to be in a perpetual state of flux. What the team looks like at the beginning of next season is anybody’s guess but what happens in these last six games will play an important role in the decisions that are sure to come this off-season.
What story lines are you most interested these last few weeks? Do you think Huberdeau is a shoo-in for Rookie of the year? If you were the GM who would you make a priority of resigning?