The Panthers and Miami Hurricanes basketball team took their fans on a wonderful joyride last January through March, Florida setting a single-season franchise points record and UM advancing to the Sweet 16. This season has been more of a challenge, with each needing very strong second halves to make the NHL playoffs or NCAA Tournament.
Some buzz on each team, with the Panthers entering the All-Star break after Thursday night’s game against Tampa Bay and UM preparing for a big home game against North Carolina on Saturday:
• Though the season has been a disappointment (Florida entered Thursday three points out of a playoff spot), Panthers GM/interim coach Tom Rowe said it’s unfair to say last summer’s personnel changes and philosophical shift have backfired.
And though firing Gerard Gallant was unwarranted --- the Panthers were 11-10-1 under Gallant this season, 9-9-9 under Rowe entering Thursday -- I agree with Rowe that it’s premature to say the Panthers changes were a mistake because of two reasons:
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1) The players acquired have met or exceeded expectations.
2) It’s impossible to fully judge the merits of the moves because three of Florida’s top scorers have missed significant time: Jonathan Huberdeau (Achilles) has missed all 49 games, Nick Bjugstad has played 22 of 49 and Aleksander Barkov has played 36 and remains out at least two more weeks with a back injury.
Caveat: Before angry Panthers fans accuse me of being sympathetic to the team, let’s be clear: If this team underperforms when healthy or mostly healthy, then you can justifiably question last summer’s moves. But it’s too soon to do it now.
“People can be critical of anything, right?” said Rowe, who would like the coaching job longterm but has no assurances. “But the fact we brought in a more mobile back end to complement our forwards, we would do all over again because that’s where the league is going and the game is going. Our penalty killing has been outstanding, been in top three or four of the league in the last month and a half. If we had defensemen who couldn’t defend, we wouldn’t have good penalty killing.
“The biggest difference has been the injuries, the big injuries. And the offense is down because we haven’t been able to generate or create as much offense without those guys.
“I know people have been critical, but we’re going to stay with [this]. This is a longterm plan. It’s not just for this year.
“It’s a longterm plan. [President of hockey operations] Dale Tallon and I talk about it on a regular basis. Dale and I talk about little things we can do to get better down the road. I know it’s been a tough season. But I think we’ve still got a great team, great players and great ownership. I think this is just a little bump in the road.”
• Among the newcomers, Jonathan Marchessault (13 goals, 17 assists) has been a revelation, and defensemen Keith Yandle (23 points), Jason Demers (19) and Mark Pysyk have been about what the Panthers expected, though Yandle is slightly behind last year’s offensive pace with the Rangers.
“We got Marchessault at $750,000 [two years, $1.5 million] and he’s on pace to score anywhere from 25 to 30 goals,” Rowe said. “That’s a heck of a value. He’s now established himself as a full-time NHL guy for sure. To have him on your third line, the other team will have a hard time dealing with him.
“Yandle has been terrific, doing exactly what we expected him to do and has been one of our best [penalty killing] defensemen.. Demers is scoring a few more goals than we even thought. We always knew he had some offensive ability. Demers shuts teams down. The two of those have been really good additions to the back end, along with Mark Pysyk.”
• That said, the defense hasn’t been as consistently physical as needed, and the group hasn’t always done enough to move opposing players off the puck. Alex Petrovic, who missed 33 games and was due to return Thursday, will help in that regard.
Erik Gudbrandson (a minus 14 in Vancouver) would help with physicality, but the Panthers insist the player they acquired for him – 20-year-old Jared McCann (one goal in 27 games) - will become an effective forward.
The Panthers are 14th in goals against (2.67) after finishing seventh last season (2.44). But the penalty killing is much better than a year ago, thanks to Pysyk, Mike Matheson and others.
• Even high-end defenseman Aaron Ekblad has made too many mental mistakes and is a minus 18 after being a plus 30 his first two seasons, though Rowe said plus/minus is “bull [expletive]. Losing Willie Mitchell, losing Brian Campbell probably hurt him a little bit because he really relied on those guys as older veterans that took him under their wing. Not that Yandle, Demers can’t do that. But they’re still early 30s, late 20s type of guys. Aaron is an elite level defenseman that’s going to be one of the best defensemen in this league for a long time. He’s doing things to help us win games.”
• The bigger problem is scoring, with Florida dropping from eighth last season (2.83 goals per game) to 27th (2.27) despite good work from Marchessault and Vincent Trocheck (18 goals).
Beyond the injuries, Jaromir Jagr has nine goals after scoring 27 last season; Reilly Smith has nine goals and 19 points after 25 and 50 last season; and Jussi Jokinen has four and 11 after 18 and 60 last year. More is needed from all of them.
“Frustrating,” Smith said, refusing to blame the absence of top teammates for his drop off. “The onus falls on the forwards to put the puck in the net.”
• We hear players were unhappy with the coaching change initially, but have now accepted it. Ekblad said some players played “tight” initially because Rowe could get “in your face. Tom demands a lot, holds players accountable to a level that’s fair. [Everybody] sees eye to eye now.”
Said Rowe: “If Aaron thinks I’m in their face now, he should have been in the minors with me five years ago. Ask Vinnie Trochek about in their face, but I’ve been more positive, more supportive because I knew coming in the situation was a delicate one. We weren’t winning a lot. I knew Gerard was popular with the players but I was going to coach to my personality and not anybody else’s.
“Holding guys accountable, not that Gerard didn’t do that, holding guys to a certain standard which is the way we need to play, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll be the first guy to pat people on the back when they make a good play, too.”
• Rowe suggested there’s no need to make trades before the Feb. 28 trade deadline:
“We’ve got the guys coming. Huberdeau is going to be here in March. Barkov is hopefully going to be here in February. Now we’ve got Bjugstad and Petrovic. Those are our trading deadline moves to make us a better team.”
UM HOOPS TALK
• In a transition year, with only two seniors, one junior and four freshmen, this UM team (13-6, 3-4) has the look of an NIT team more than an NCAA Tournament team unless Miami gets hot, beginning Saturday at home against UNC (1 p.m., CBS/Ian Eagle, Bill Raftery).
A few problems contributing to their uneven play, besides lack of depth, according to Jim Larranaga:
“The challenge for us is to reduce our turnovers (260, compared with 229 assists) so we don't give our opponent too many opportunities to get easy baskets off of our own mistakes. Our halfcourt defense has been very respectable. But if you're turning the ball over 12, 15, 18 times and your opponent is scoring 20 to 25 points off of those turnovers, and we don't force a lot of turnovers ourselves, there's a tremendous imbalance.”
Also, “you've got to make your free throws [UM is shooting 69.4 percent].... Halfcourt offense, we need to do a whole lot better. We don't have a lot of jump shooters.”
He said UM could use another Julian Gamble-type player off the bench. “I can't say we like being so young,” Larranaga said. “The young guys have done a great job. My druthers would be to have some older guys. We would much prefer to be the older experienced team.”
Losing Manu Lecomte (Baylor) and DeAndre Burnett (Mississippi) was hurtful.
• In Wednesday’s win against Boston College, Larranaga replaced Dewan Huell with Anthony Lawrence in the starting lineup to give “us an additional ballhandler and three-point threat.”
Forward Kamari Murphy, who has done good work on the boards (8.1 rebounds per game), said Lawrence helps because “you have to guard him so it opens the middle of the floor for drives.”
• Huell, who was rated as Rivals’ 28th best player nationally in this freshman class, has been solid (6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds) but not as dynamic or as impactful as fellow freshman Bruce Brown. But it’s not for lack of effort.
“Dewann Huell has been working on his offensive game since Day 1, diligently before games,” Larranaga said. “Working on shooting, ball-handling, passing skills. He's a very willing student of the game. I've been very impressed with his focus, work ethic, his hunger to want to get better.”
• Freshman Rodney Miller, the 6-11 four-star center, has played only 44 minutes and “needs time to get stronger and in better shape,” Larranaga said. “He has to handle the physicality of the game. He came in bench pressing around 200 pounds but he weighs 250. He needs to be benching 280, 300.”
• Two elite prospects are committed and on the way for next season: Pennsylvania-based guard Lonnie Walker (ESPN’s 18th best player) and 5-7 Washington DC point guard Chris Lykes (ESPN’s 46th best player in this class).
“We think [Lykes] can be a terrific player at the college level,” Larranaga said. “Very fast, very quick. Very athletic and with a lot of basketball skill, plus he's a great competitor and has proven it at the high school level. He probably plays in the toughest high school basketball league in the country.
“[With Walker], his size, athletic, ability, skill set. He can really shoot the ball. Is great in the open court. I love watching him in the open court. I've told him, he's like Usain Bolt. If he catches an outlet pass, it's a race to the rim and you better be able to sprint to try to stop him. He takes off and he's gone. He's like the road runner.”
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