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10 Questions For The Stretch Run

by "Hockey Pat" McGrath / Florida Panthers

The articles and opinions expressed by "Hockey Pat" McGrath, a lifelong Cats fan who previously wrote for the Florida Panthers themed blog “TheRatTrick”, are solely those of Hockey Pat and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Florida Panthers or Sunrise Sports & Entertainment LLC. Having said that, if you find yourself laughing or smiling as you read his articles, feel free to thank us. We accept thank you notes, tweets and ticket purchases.

The NHL’s Sochi Olympic break gave us 19 days without Florida Panthers hockey. During that time, this humble Panthers scribe spent his days in a dark room meditating on what has been and what is to come over the next month and a half of hockey in the league’s southernmost locale. The net result of this exercise was ten questions that should be answered over the next 24 games. Here now, the questions:

Center Nick Bjugstad scores a goal in Toronto before the Olympic break (Getty Images)

1. Who will step up in place of the injured Panthers?

Like most of you, I was riveted by the excitement of our 18-year old rookie Sasha Barkov skating on a line with his idol Teemu Selanne on the Olympic stage. And while it was thrilling to watch the Finns surprise everyone once again (seriously, when does this stop becoming a so-called surprise (cc: Gonzaga Men’s Basketball) and capture bronze, seeing Barkov suffer an injury in Finland’s second game that will sideline him for the immediate future was no fun. And Thomas Kopecky’s injury wasn’t any better. These injuries raise our first major question: Who will step up?

Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore are my best bets. Drew Shore has been called up from the San Antonio Rampage after a torrid streak with the AHL team in which he posted six points in nine games. Shore was playing well with the Panthers before being sent back to San Antonio to get some playing time during the Olympic break and with the recent injuries he will see an increase in ice-time.

It looks like Big Bjugstad will be jumping up to center the top line in place of Barkov. This move is due largely to Bjugstad’s steady play all season but we all really know that the move was made because the Panthers obviously had to keep the Killer B’s alive. Bjugstad should fit in nicely with new line mates Brad Boyes and Sean Bergenheim. Speaking of Bjugy…

2. How will Nick Bjugstad hold up the rest of the way?

The Panthers have been thrilled with the play of their 21-year-old rookie, who could one day find himself on Team USA in future Olympics if the NHL allows it’s players to participate. In his three college seasons with the University of Minnesota, Bjugstad never played more than 40 games, which begs the question of how well he can keep up his great play over the stretch run of his first 82-game campaign?

Bjugstad is 52 games into the season and so far he has shown no signs of slowing down. The Olympic break will certainly help and consider this: Last season, Bjugstad played 40 games with Minnesota, 11 games with the Panthers and 10 games in the World Championships so it is not like he has never handled a heavy workload. Also, he is 6’6 and really strong, so heavy workloads are probably ok.

3. How will the trade deadline play out?

The March 5th trade deadline is fast approaching. General Manager Dale Tallon has been given the green light by new owner Vinnie Viola to spend to the salary cap next season so any moves Tallon makes in the coming week will probably be made with that in mind. There are a number of big names on the market such as Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Callahan, all of whom are in the last year of their current contracts and thus may be acquired for the rest of the season as “rentals” as opposed to long-term acquisitions. As the price for a rental like this likely includes young players and draft picks, my uneducated guess is the Panthers save any big splash for the off-season and don’t mortgage their future in the coming weeks. There is a time and place for everything.

4. When will the power play get going?

The Cats have only converted 9.0% of their man-advantage opportunities so far this season, but those struggles have already been hashed and re-hashed too many times so rather than pile on, let’s look ahead. Coming off the Olympic break is akin to a fresh start so whatever the Panthers did with their power plays through the first 58 games is in the past.

With offensively capable defensemen such as Dmitry Kulikov, Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert and a stable of talented young forwards, it is a pretty safe bet that we will see a much improved power play take ice during the final month and a half of the season. Stat geeks call turnarounds like that “regression”.

5. Who will lead the team in scoring?

Looking at the list of Panthers’ scoring leaders is like looking at the lineup at your favorite surf spot on a Saturday afternoon…. it’s crowded. Scottie Upshall leads the team with 27 points but there are nine Panthers with at least 19 points so really it’s anybody’s race to win. Aaaannnnddd that’s a total cop out for an answer…sorry…deal with it.

6. Will a future Young Gun make his Panthers debut this season?

Wait, you’re not familiar with Vince Trocheck? You obviously weren’t one of the 150 or so people to watch this thrilling youtube clip:

While Trocheck obviously has some skills, he has yet to reach that viral-youtube-tipping-point. His NHL tipping-point however may be on the horizon. The 20-year-old Trocheck was impressive with the Panthers in training camp and has carried that momentum over to his first season of professional hockey. Playing with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, Trocheck currently leads his team in points with 37 (15 goals, 22 assists) while playing in 51 games. The Panthers do not want to rush their young prospect into the NHL but as the regular season approaches its end, there may arise an opportunity for Trocheck to get his feet wet in the big leagues, a la Bjugstad last season. Time will tell.

7. Can the San Antonio Rampage complete their incredible playoff push?

It’s amazing what a rodeo at your home stadium and a month on the road can do for your playoff chances. Displaced for the entire month of February, the San Antonio Rampage rattled off a six-game winning streak to get within four spots of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With 22 games left in the season, the Rampage are primed for an exciting playoff push. A trip to the playoffs would be an excellent experience for the legion of Panthers prospects currently in Texas.

Winger Sean Bergenheim celebrates a goal against the Nashville Predators (Getty Images)

8. Is It BergenTime?

Sean Bergenheim has finally made a healthy return to the ice after a tumultuous series of injuries and surgeries that kept him out all of last season and part of this one. With 13 goals in 43 games this year, Bergenheim is back and making a big impact for the Panthers. The 30-year-old winger displayed his commitment to his team and his health when he declined a late invite to join the Finnish Olympic squad that had been beset by injuries. On his decision to skip the Olympics in favor of extra rest, Bergenheim had this to say:

"I had to make a decision with my best interests in mind. I really feel I need to the break. I'm happy with how far I have come, but I could take a real step forward after the break.''

While skipping the Olympics is a tough decision for any player, Bergenheim has not put himself in a position to have a strong finish to his season as he continues his climb back to full health.

9. Ed Jovanovski’s amazing comeback

Okay, not technically a question but it is worth noting how impressive Ed Jovanovski’s return to the ice has been. The 37-year-old-defenseman became the first player in the four major professional sports to make a comeback after undergoing the cutting edge hip resurfacing surgery that Jovo had done. The Panthers captain has looked spry in his 17 games this season but the real test will be how he holds up over the rest of the season.

10. Five At The Finish

The Cats end the season with five straight games at home in April. Will they be in contention for a playoff spot then? If so, it could make for a riveting run at the BB&T Center. Stay tuned!

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