David J. Neal

David J. Neal: For a change, talent-laden Florida Panthers can stand pat at trade deadline

The Florida Panthers have been buoyed by young talented players such as center Vincent Trocheck, shown depositing St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz over the boards during the third period Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla.
The Florida Panthers have been buoyed by young talented players such as center Vincent Trocheck, shown depositing St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz over the boards during the third period Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. AP

The annual NHL trade deadline comes this year on the quadrennial Feb. 29. For once, the Florida Panthers can be something other than carrion for the living and hungry to circle.

So how enthusiastically should Panthers general manager Dale Tallon look for a deal at the deadline? How many general manager cellphones should he blow up looking to improve his division-leading team? What should Tallon do?

This: nothing.

Oh, if they can get some organizational depth on the cheap, OK. Or if another team gets stupid and makes the Panthers an offer they can’t refuse, take the deal and the cannoli.

But, otherwise? Nothing.

Not that this team’s 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens complete (translation from Puckhead for you new on the bandwagon: “’72 Dolphins perfect”). Like most teams, they could use another 15- to 20-goal winger who can bang around the boards and the slot. Or a Mike Sillinger with speed and hands to win faceoffs and pot (yes) 15 to 20 goals, the type of player a team trades for one year and trades the next as the Panthers did with Sillinger in 2000 and 2001.

But that’s like saying you could use an extra grand in the next paycheck. Who couldn’t?

No, the Panthers should stand pat because, as Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko said, the most valuable commodity is information. This spring should bring file cabinets of information, both for the front office and the locker room.

Forget Friday’s 5-3 loss to St. Louis at BB&T Center. A disappointing defeat, yes, for the NHL’s second-best defensive team to a team struggling to score. Over 82 games, these nights happen.

A David Backus goal off the rush that should have come with ice cream truck music to announce Mr. Softee; defenseman Brian Campbell retreating far too deep on a rush, then taking neither the shooter nor the forward driving the net for a rebound; a pass caroming fortunately off a defenseman’s skate. Hey, it’s just a loss. No. 17 of the season, still second fewest in the Eastern Conference, tied with St. Louis for third fewest in the league. It’s one February night meaning little in the long term.

Panthers players Jaromir Jagr, Brandon Pirri and Jonathan Huberdeau talk about a 5-3 loss to the Blues on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in the first of six consecutive home games. Video by David J. Neal.

SOLID YOUNG CORE

The Panthers hockey operations department believes it has collected one of the best young cores in the NHL, if not the best: defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Erik Gudbranson; forwards Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri, all at or under 24 years old. The standings say that’s accurate despite some key players who might already know where Walgreens keeps the Just For Men.

Veterans handle the Panthers net. No. 1 goalie Roberto Luongo can now apply for a midlife crisis. Backup Al Montoya turns 31 Saturday. Right wing eternal manchild — he’s always played a man strong game with the joy of a child — Jaromir Jagr will expire in a year or three.

But this team runs mainly on youth unfamiliar with the NHL playoff kiln. In that heat, some melt. Some harden. Some harden and change shape like those kiddie art projects. The Panthers hockey ops folks think they know what they see, but it’s just a hypothesis until the playoffs metamorphose that team picture from an abstract painting to a digital photo.

That’s when you can make the best decisions about what you have, what you need, who might help you win a Stanley Cup and who might get you bounced a round or two before you expect.

Similarly, the Panthers young core needs to find out what the NHL playoffs are all about and how ready they are for them, mentally and physically. They need to feel the never-ending electric ripples of an NHL-sized packed house, feel the angry crunch of a finished check over and over from the same opponents, feel the fatigue settle over their shoulders like a coat each round.

Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant speaks before his team kicks off a six game homestand Friday against St. Louis.

PLAYOFF PRESSURE

Cliché though it is, the NHL playoffs make each player answer, “How bad do you want it?” Nobody can answer with full honesty and knowledge before all that is the playoffs demands an answer.

That’s why NHL teams don’t do what the 1999 St. Louis Rams did in the NFL, go from out of the playoffs to championship in one season (the 1993-94 Rangers did, but that was a playoff-experienced team that had a plane crash of a 1992-93 season after a 100-point 1991-92 season).

That’s why it’s not disrespect to say despite their record, the Panthers aren’t a Stanley Cup-winning team.

So, let’s sit back and let April and maybe May tell us — and them — how far they are from being that which they seem on track to be someday.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal

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