NHL.com is sitting down with newsmakers leading up to the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. ET. Today, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon discusses Florida's need for help on defense and talks about the key roles being played by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, defenseman Aaron Ekblad and coach Joel Quenneville in the Panthers' quest to lock up a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
TORONTO -- The Florida Panthers are in the market to add an experienced defenseman to pair with Aaron Ekblad before the NHL Trade Deadline, general manager Dale Tallon said.
"I'd like to acquire a veteran D if I could to play with Ekblad and settle things down a bit back there," Tallon said. "We need to be more consistent on the blue line."
Ekblad, in his sixth NHL season, has 29 points (five goals, 24 assists) in 49 games this season. The 23-year-old is considered a steadying force for a group of Panthers defensemen Tallon said he feels has question marks. The Panthers are allowing 3.27 goals per game, which is 25th in the NHL.
"(Riley) Stillman's been really good," he said. "(Mike) Matheson has been good some nights, not so good other nights. We need to have less ups and downs back there."
Tallon said that the Panthers (29-17-5), who enter their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, FS-F, NHL.TV) third in the Atlantic Division, are also in the market for forward help, although that is not as much a priority.
"A steadying influence probably up front as well," he said.
You've addressed a desire to be active on the trade market, with a veteran defenseman on the top of your list. How difficult will it be to pull off a deal with so many teams still alive in the playoff races? Doesn't there seem to be more buyers than sellers right now?
"Everybody's got a chance. And that's the hard part. Moving forward, you ask yourself if there are any hockey deals out there. That's what you have to figure out. Most everybody is probably well [NHL salary] cap-stressed and not sure what to do about that. Rent-a-player deals, well, sometimes we've seen those just don't work. So you have to be careful what you are going to give up."
You are third in the Atlantic Division with 63 points and are one of six teams in the Eastern Conference within two points of each other after your 5-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday. What does this team have to do down the stretch to be successful, whether you add at the deadline or not?
"We've put ourselves in a position to be successful. Now we have to take it to the next level. We have to win. We have to believe in it. We have to battle and play playoff hockey the rest of the way. That's something our guys have to learn how to do."
What specifically do they need to do better?
"Consistency. This is a good team. We have to stay healthy, obviously. We haven't had everything go together yet. That's a credit to Joel and his staff for keeping us in there because we've been inconsistent. At one end, if our goals-against is down, we don't score a lot. And when we do score a lot we give up too many. If our power play is good our penalty killing isn't. And vice versa. So we haven't had everything going at once yet. We're showing glimpses of it now. We had a six-game winning streak before the [All-Star] break. I regret we had that break, but that's the way it is. We've got to figure out what to do from here on in. We need a healthy Aleksander Barkov, we need great goaltending which we are starting to get, and we need our young D to start believing in themselves and tighten up defensively.
Video: FLA@MIN: Barkov buries beautiful breakaway on Stalock
Barkov (54 points; 16 goals, 38 assists) missed the game against the Maple Leafs with a lower-body injury, and may not play against Columbus, but the MRI results were described as promising. The forward is listed as day to day. How key is he to your team and how does his injury effect what you are trying to do on the trade market?
"Obviously we miss him. Hopefully he gets back sooner than later. He looks OK. He's a guy who can not only score but can also shut down other guys. So it's important that we get him back in the lineup so we can have better options as far as matchups are concerned. When you're playing a team like Toronto, for example, and they have two top end centers like Auston Matthews and John Tavares, having him in there to match up against one of them is a big boost."
Bobrovsky has rebounded from a shaky start to win six of his past eight outings after signing a seven-year contract with the Panthers on July 1. What differences do you see in his game that might explain his turnaround?
"He's been more relaxed. He's probably been trying to do too much, trying to justify his deal I guess. He was a little too aggressive maybe. Now he's being more patient. That's where I see the difference."
You were critical of Ekblad during the preseason, calling for him to elevate his game. Have you seen that?
"Yes, definitely. He's had a good year. He's starting to play real solidly. He's becoming a man right in front of our eyes. It takes time at that position. So we're happy with his development. He's got a bright future."
Video: FLA@CAR: Ekblad dekes and scores backhand goal
Finally, you mentioned that coach Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach, is trying to teach your players how to win in crunch time. How much have they learned from him?
"He's trying to explain and show them what it takes. There's a special effort you have to use to get better and to compete and to raise your level of compete. Your level of passion, of compete, your work ethic, all those things have to increase. And it takes practice and experience to do it."