It's been seven months since Joel Quenneville was hired as coach of the Florida Panthers, and he thinks he has a pretty good sense of his new market.
"If we win, the place will be full," Quenneville said. "But we've got to win."
It isn't exactly an easy task -- especially considering how hard it is to break through in the top-heavy Atlantic Division -- but after a quarter of the 2019-20 season, Quenneville's Panthers are in decent shape. Twenty games in, Florida is 10-5-5 and holding on to the third Atlantic Division playoff spot (thanks, in part, to the slow-starting Tampa Bay Lightning and slumping Toronto Maple Leafs).
The Panthers' offense is clicking; they're fifth in the league at 3.55 goals per game. But despite Quenneville's making improvements with his signature defensive system -- which predicates on simplicity -- the blue line could clean things up a bit. That said, the Panthers have made it this far by getting subpar goaltending from their $70 million man, Sergei Bobrovsky (Charting Hockey puts Bobrovsky's goals saved above average at -12.66, the worst mark in the league).
"I think he expects more, and he's in a situation with a magnifying glass all over him," Quenneville said. "But he's got a pretty good idea of the situation, and we know he's not happy and expects more, too."
If Florida can maintain its 102.5-point pace the rest of the season and Bobrovsky reverts back to form, Quenneville is right: Fans will take notice.
"There's a lot of hockey fans down here," the coach said. "It's been quiet for a while, but it's a big building, too, so it might not look full. The seating capacity is huge. Either way, we know we will have big crowds, and it's going to be a fun place to play if we win."
In Quenneville's 11-year tenure as Blackhawks coach, he never had to worry about things such as filling seats or generating awareness. Chicago, which won three Stanley Cups under Quenneville, ranked No. 1 in NHL attendance from the 2008-09 season until the coach was fired in November 2018. The Blackhawks routinely hit 100% capacity and averaged more than 21,000 fans. It helped that they had household names such as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and that championships were consistently within reach.
The BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, meanwhile, finished last season averaging 13,261 fans per game, the second-worst mark in the league, at a 78.2% capacity, the third-worst mark in the league. The Panthers missed the playoffs for the third straight season, and despite a young core heralded around the league as one of the most undervalued (highlighted by perennially underrated No. 1 center Aleksander Barkov, one of the best two-way forwards in the game), the team couldn't make it over the hump.
Florida GM Dale Tallon spent the offseason adding winning pedigree. Besides hiring Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, the Panthers supplemented their roster with experience. In free agency, Florida added Bobrovsky (a two-time Vezina Trophy winner), defenseman Anton Stralman (103 games of playoff experience), middle-six winger Brett Connolly (a Stanley Cup champion with the Capitals) and defensively minded forward Noel Acciari (coming off a run to the Stanley Cup Final with the Bruins last spring).
"The younger guys are the guys the team is built around, and we need these guys to take a big part of the responsibility," Quenneville said. "But we added guys that bring either playoff pedigree or experience playing in big games and on big stages. We're looking forward to that experience as we get to the playoff challenge down the stretch. There is nothing more important to our organization than making the playoffs. The real core group of young guys are what this team is all about, and as a team and as an organization, we need to find a way to get these guys in the playoffs. After the last couple years, being close isn't good enough."
Three weeks into the season, the Panthers made another addition: 34-year-old Brian Boyle, who has 114 games of playoff experience. Boyle was a beloved teammate on his previous six teams and was a leaguewide inspiration when he returned to the Devils in 2017, less than two months after receiving a cancer diagnosis. A year later, Boyle announced that his chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of bone marrow cancer, was in remission.
Quenneville likes Boyle's defensive game, as well as his ability to play center or wing, his net-front presence on the power play and his capabilities in killing penalties.
"He's been a tremendous addition," Quenneville said. "His story -- as far as what he's had to battle and fight through to be where he is today -- is inspirational, and he brings a lot of intangibles, with some great playoff runs. I couldn't believe how quick he's meshed with our team. He's a real nice personality to add to the locker room."
On offense, so much is predicated on 24-year-old Barkov, who averages more than 20 minutes per game. The captain had a slow start to the season as he battled an undisclosed upper-body injury. "Not every guy is going to be 100 percent, but he had a little something he had to take care of," Quenneville said. "He wasn't able to take faceoffs on either side for a while, then he was taking them on one side, and now all of a sudden, he's back to being Barky, and it's been really fun watching him dominate."
The big question right now is Bobrovsky. The team has been steadfast in defending the former Blue Jackets netminder and has fended off any goaltending controversy, even as 23-year-old Samuel Montembeault has emerged as a viable second option. Montembeault was a catalyst for the Panthers' best win this season -- and biggest comeback in franchise history -- when he came in in relief for Bobrovsky in the third period last week against the Bruins. Montembeault made 15 saves in the third and overtime as Florida stormed from a 4-0 deficit to win in a shootout.
Regarding Bobrovsky, Quenneville said: "The support as an organization is tremendous, and his teammates as well. They're thinking, let's be neater and cleaner around him, and let's get that predictability in the net."
Quenneville has been impressed by how Bobrovsky has conducted himself through the tough stretch.
"He's a quiet guy," Quenneville said. "How he goes about his business is unique, but he's got a good attitude. I think he has a great rapport with [goaltending coach] Robbie Talas, and with Lu [former Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo] in the organization as well, we have plenty of goalie know-how. As coaches, we always give the goalie coach the freedom to work with the goalies and have that relationship as well. Not knowing him any different than the way he is, it's a tough read. I think everyone has high expectations, and I think he's doing everything he can to be his best that next game or the next day."
As for Quenneville? He called me on his way home from morning skate on Saturday -- a sunny day in Florida -- and relished it a bit when I reported on how cold it was in Chicago. He's glad to be back from his hiatus of nearly a year off from coaching but didn't take the time away to reinvent himself.
"The one thing is you still gotta be you," Quenneville said. "It's a different situation here. New conference, new division, palm trees, new staff, new players. But how we technically approach the game is something we focus on a lot. I haven't made too many changes. ... And it's the same goal for me. I want to win."
Emptying the notebook
The Blackhawks have been rolling lately, going 5-0-1 in their past six to jump over .500 and into the playoff bubble. This week included huge wins against the Vegas Golden Knights (Chicago was the last team in the league to record a win against Vegas) and the Nashville Predators, both of which came on the road. It's hard not to pinpoint goaltending as a huge improvement driving this team's success. The Blackhawks went from 25th in save percentage last season to fourth thus far this season.
What's different this season? The Blackhawks signed Robin Lehner, who has the third-best save percentage in the league (.936) after stopping 39 of 41 shots against the Preds on Saturday.
So far, it has been a 50-50 split in goal with Corey Crawford, with both goalies making 10 starts, though Lehner has often outplayed the incumbent starter. Last week, I asked GM Stan Bowman for an update on the goaltending situation.
Bowman said that when they talked to Lehner in free agency, they never discussed the number of games he would start. "We were upfront with Robin," Bowman said. "I said, 'I can't guarantee you how many games, but I can tell you that the last two years, Corey was not here for large parts of the season, so we need to have two goalies we have confidence in. That's the one thing we learned over the last two seasons.' Robin said, 'This is the way it was for me last year. [The Islanders] didn't rotate game by game, but it wasn't like one guy played the majority.' He said, 'I'm fine with that, I want to win, and I know if I play well and I'm helping you win, I'm going to play.' I said, 'That's true.'"
Bowman said the Blackhawks have not laid out a plan for how they will divide starts moving forward. "The coaches have an idea of how they want to use them," Bowman said. "They're both going to play is the answer. Part of it is how our team plays, part of it is how they play, and part of it will be just managing the schedule."
I asked Bowman whether he thinks Lehner has earned more starts. "He's played great, for sure," Bowman said. "He certainly has earned his case."
When are we going to find out the name of the NHL's newest franchise in Seattle? There was a report that the name could come before the NHL All-Star Game. Before you ask (and I did), no, they aren't going to make the announcement at All-Star Weekend festivities in St. Louis the last week in January. The latest I was told this week: The announcement will be in the first quarter of 2020, and it might be after All-Star Weekend.
NHL general managers are meeting in Toronto this week. Among the topics they will discuss: new offsides proposals, an update on player and puck tracking, a report on new rules and officiating, and the Seattle expansion draft.
What we liked this week
There's a good chance this guy just doesn't want to take a selfie while sitting at a hockey game. I wouldn't blame him. But there's also a good chance that his lack of enthusiasm stems from his Maple Leafs' being in a free fall, with just two regulation wins in their past 14 games.
Tough scene out here 😂 pic.twitter.com/N5E3Nj8sLK— ESPN (@espn) November 17, 2019
Ron MacLean directly addressed the viewers on "Hockey Night in Canada" on Saturday after Don Cherry was fired earlier in the week. I found MacLean's comments to be raw, humble and most of all honest. The quote that resonated: "I'm disappointed in me."
Ron MacLean addresses the Don Cherry situation and the end of Coach's Corner pic.twitter.com/4D9MVjD6zb— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) November 17, 2019
Dog on skates? Dog on skates!
Somehow, McSavior is still finding ways to impress us. The Oilers captain had his first career six-point night against the Avalanche and did all of the damage in the first two periods.
Eight points in three games for the Florida defenseman. Not too bad. Yandle tallied a goal and two assists in the Panthers' four-goal, third-period comeback against the Bruins on Tuesday.
The Avs keep winning despite injuries to key players, and that's because MacKinnon is back in MVP mode. He recorded four goals and seven points in three games this week.
What we didn't like this week
The way the Ilya Kovalchuk situation is playing out in Los Angeles feels icky. There's decent -- and well-founded -- speculation that Kovalchuk's time with the Kings is finished; he has been scratched the past three games. Los Angeles signed Kovalchuk (now 36) to a three-year, $18.75 million contract last summer -- after a five-year NHL hiatus -- and it hasn't been a great fit. Kovalchuk has tallied 19 goals and 43 points (with a glaring minus-36) in 81 games with the Kings. Los Angeles is foundering and ready to turn it over to the kids. Remember, the Kings do have a vaunted prospect system.
Nonetheless, it sucks that it didn't work out, and it's unfortunate if the end is this unceremonious. The Kings were wrong to sign Kovalchuk, and it's time to move on. What comes next is a little trickier. Kovalchuk has a no-move clause, so he has some control over his future. He's also due his next bonus -- worth $2.65 million -- on Dec. 15, and it's likely he'll be on the Kings' roster until then because no other team will want to pay that. After the bonus is paid, perhaps somebody will take a flier on the former Rocket Richard winner. But again, Kovalchuk would have to approve the move.
A scary situation played out during the Avalanche-Canucks game on Saturday. Avalanche winger Matt Calvert blocked a shot from Vancouver's Elias Pettersson with the back of his head. Calvert fell to the ice and was clearly in discomfort. Pettersson, who was closest to Calvert, kept looking down at him and appeared to try to wave to the officials for help. But the officials did not stop play, even as Calvert was clearly in significant pain and blood dripped onto the ice. Calvert tried to stand up but couldn't and folded back to the ice, holding his head. Vancouver maintained possession and scored.
This is honestly terrible pic.twitter.com/WUXN79tawo— DNVR Avalanche (@DNVR_Avalanche) November 17, 2019
After the game, Avalanche players were furious -- and rightfully so.
"It's a f---ing joke," Erik Johnson said, according to Ryan Clark of The Athletic. "You want to protect a guy? Guy's got a family at home, he's laying there bleeding out of his head, and you don't blow the whistle? It's a complete joke. An absolute joke. They should be ashamed of themselves."
Said Nathan MacKinnon (quote also via Ryan Clark): "I just can't imagine another sport letting that happen. A guy's bleeding out the side of his head, laying there, not moving, to not blow [the whistle] ... I know it's a big-time [moment] in the game. It's not the ref's fault. It's the league's fault. If you see blood, if you see any contact to someone's face or head, I think it's dangerous, and obviously, it's just made it worse that they scored."
The NHL rulebook states that "when a player is injured so that he cannot continue to play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player's team has secured control of the puck."
My take: Safety needs to take precedence. Calvert needed urgent attention. As soon as Pettersson waved the refs down, they should have whistled the play dead. Full stop.
Sid on the mend. The NHL is better when Sidney Crosby is playing in it. Respect to Crosby for trying to avoid surgery -- especially considering how many injuries the Penguins have had to endure this season -- but it clearly became too much. Crosby will be out until after Christmas after what the team calls "a successful core muscle injury repair."
Games of the week
Tuesday, Nov. 19 New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins (ESPN+)
The Islanders are making a case that they're the best team in hockey; the Caps have five more points but have played four more games. The Penguins, meanwhile, are adjusting to life without Crosby for a while.
Thursday, Nov. 21 San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights (ESPN+)
Any time these two teams play, it's must-watch television. The NHL's hottest and most emotional rivalry takes the stage yet again, as the Sharks are bouncing back from a terrible start by winning six straight and the Golden Knights have been slumping.
Saturday, Nov. 23 Chicago Blackhawks at Dallas Stars
If the Blackhawks are going to make a run, they'll need to make up ground in the Central Division. The Stars are quietly stringing together wins, going 8-1-1 in their past 10.
Quote of the week
"I need to be fire. I will be fire."