So you’re telling me there’s a chance …
That’s a famous movie line (Dumb and Dumber), and it’s also an apt description of the Florida Panthers’ playoff chances with 20 games remaining.
The Panthers (28-25-9), who visit the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, have just a 5.4-percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Hockey Reference.com.
Following Florida’s 4-3 shootout loss at the Arizona Coyotes late Tuesday night, the Panthers stood nine points out of playoff position. They would have to leap Buffalo, Philadelphia and Columbus just to get to Pittsburgh, the team that currently holds the eighth and final Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot.
The Panthers, who finished one point short of the playoffs last season despite making an incredibly strong run the final two-plus months, are hot once again, putting together a 5-1-1 record in their past seven games. That includes a 4-3 overtime win at the Colorado Avalanche on Monday.
“I can’t say enough about our guys battling and competing,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said.
Still, while the Panthers players and coaches grind against steep odds, management is making plans for the 2019 NHL Draft June 21-22 in Vancouver and then the possibility of signing free agents this summer.
The Panthers weren’t major players in the lead-up to this past Monday’s NHL trade deadline, but they did send Derick Brassard and a conditional sixth-round 2020 draft pick to Colorado for a third-rounder that same year. If Brassard re-signs with Colorado, Florida would keep the sixth-rounder.
However, going back a bit further — to the Dec. 29 trade that sent third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson to Toronto — the Panthers this season have acquired seven draft picks and three prospects.
The Panthers also kept two of their top three scorers who had been rumored to be on the trading block — Mike Hoffman and Jonanthan Huberdeau. In addition, another forward, Frank Vatrano, who is fourth on the team with 20 goals during a breakout season, re--signed with the Panthers for three more years.
“We’ve had a good month,” Florida general manager Dale Tallon told Panthers.com. “We accumulated draft picks. We freed up some money for free agency this summer, and we didn’t disrupt the core of our team.”
Earlier this season, Tallon traded Alex Petrovic to Edmonton, and, closer to the deadline, sent Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to Pittsburgh and Bogdan Kiselevich to Winnipeg.
Trading Bjugstad and McCann created $5.4 million in cap room, and the Panthers could have a total of about $13 million coming off the books due to those trades as well as expiring contracts of players currently on the roster.
Two of the prospects acquired by the Panthers were right winger Cliff Pu, 20, and center Jean-Sebastian Dea, 25. Both of them will report to Florida’s American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, and Pu reportedly has high-end speed and skill.
Another player to watch is veteran Riley Sheahan, acquired by the Panthers on Feb. 1 from Pittsburgh.
Sheahan has been stellar on the penalty-kill for the Panthers, and it’s possible he could re-sign with Florida this summer.
“I’m really happy with Riley,” Tallon said. “He can play up and down the lineup. His physicality, size, speed and skills are things we missed in the first part of the year. We would like to keep [Sheahan]).”
The Panthers have nine picks in the 2019 draft and eight in 2020, including two first-rounders in the latter selection process.
But whether it’s the draft or free agency, it’s still up to Tallon and his staff to make the right choices on players.
“We’re going to be very aggressive after the season,” Tallon said. “We have a lot of (salary-cap) room. We have lots of draft picks.
“We’ll turn this into a positive thing.”