At points throughout the season, it’s looked like all the promise that surrounded the Florida Panthers entering the campaign was going to go unfulfilled, that the injuries and coaching change and off-ice shuffles were going to turn 2016-17 into a lost season. Florida has been on the outside of the playoff picture looking in more often than not this season, and as recently as last week they sat five points out of a wild-card spot, tied with the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils with 58 points.
One week can change things, though. Especially at this time of year.
The Panthers are as much a part of the post-season race as ever before, and now there’s the matter of the Panthers having games in hand on their side. While a minimal margin, Florida enters the final full week of February with two fewer games played than the Atlantic Division’s third-place squad, the Boston Bruins, while sitting only two points back of the divisional playoff spot. Meanwhile, when it comes to the wild card, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a one point advantage on the Panthers, but Florida has one game in hand entering play on Monday.
So, with the playoffs well within reach, Florida’s president of hockey operations Dale Tallon told NHL.com that his team is looking to add with the trade market about to get that much more active with the deadline approaching. It makes sense, too, for Florida to get in on the dealing if they can add a few pieces that put them into the post-season and earn them some valuable experience. The Panthers were two wins away from the second round in 2015-16, and this could be the year they take that small step forward on the road to becoming a perennial contender.
It’s entirely possible, however, that the best acquisition the Panthers will have made going into the deadline won’t even cost them an asset in exchange. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t really an acquisition at all.
Jonathan Huberdeau injured himself with mere days remaining until the start of the season, and the injury to the 23-year-old was quite possibly more impactful than anyone could have imagined. The Panthers offense was struggling mightily through the first 51 games of the season without him, producing just 119 goals in 51 games, good for 2.33 per game. The only teams with less prolific attacks were the Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. That’s four non-playoff teams who have nothing but a prayer of getting into the playoffs.
But things have been different for the Cats since Huberdeau’s return. There was some expectation, of course, that getting Huberdeau back would provide the offense with some sort of boost, but not even the most optimistic of Florida fans would have suggested that the difference in the team’s scoring ability would be so profound once Huberdeau was back in the lineup. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but in the six games that Huberdeau has seen since his return from injury, the Panthers are averaging more than four goals per game and have mustered a couple of doozies, including six- and seven-goal performances. Oh, and Florida has only lost once in the six games since Huberdeau’s been back.
Of course, that the Panthers are producing at such a rate doesn’t necessarily have to point to Huberdeau being the most effective player on the ice, and it could simply be a nice run of play from a team that was underperforming. Sure doesn’t seem like that’s the case, though. Huberdeau has a point in all but one of the six games he’s played in since his return, and he’s picked up four goals and eight points over that span. Included in his totals are two game-winning goals — the game-winner in his first game back and an overtime winner in a thriller against the San Jose Sharks — and all four of his markers have come at even strength.
Again, while it’s a small sample size, one also can’t help but be impressed by the impact Huberdeau has had on Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov since returning. The trio formed the Panthers’ top line for much of the 2015-16 campaign and were reunited upon Huberdeau’s return in early February. Huberdeau has contributed one goal and four points at 5-on-5 playing on the line, while Jagr has two goals and five points and Barkov has lit the lamp four times. Seven goals and 13 points at 5-on-5 across six games is rather impressive output.
Huberdeau has managed all of this while having his minutes limited, too. No one outside of the organization likely knows the extent to which the effects of Huberdeau’s Achilles injury is still bothering him, but the busiest evening he’s had since his return was a 17:30 outing in his season debut. Since then, Huberdeau has only eclipsed the 17-minute mark once and twice skated less than 16 minutes. And it’s a wise decision by Panthers coach Tom Rowe to limit Huberdeau even if the injury isn’t plaguing him all that much. The more well-rested Huberdeau is for the playoffs — should the Panthers sneak in — the better.
Surely, Huberdeau’s return and Florida’s subsequent rise has played into Tallon’s interest in adding at the deadline, and he said he wanted to add some extra punch on the power play. The Panthers are still fighting to get into the post-season, and anything that can help Florida get into either a divisional or wild-card spot is worth picking up, because this is a team whose window is just starting to crack open. The Panthers have the space to do so with more than $9 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and it would be far from shocking to see Florida reach out and nab a veteran who can find the net with the extra man.
No matter who the Panthers acquire, though, it’s going to be hard for the additions to get much better than that of a healthy Huberdeau.
(All advanced statistics via stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)
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