Florida Panthers sign D Aaron Ekblad to entry-level deal

Today the Florida Panthers announced the signing of D Aaron Ekblad to a three-year Entry Level Contract. Ekblad, 18 was selected first overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft back in June.

“We are very pleased to have signed Aaron,” said Panthers GM Dale Tallon in a release courtesy of the team’s website. “He is a talented, strong, smart and hardworking defenseman who is ready to take the next step in his professional career. We look forward to watching him compete and develop at our prospects camp, throughout our main training camp and in preseason competition.”

One of the most highly touted prospects in recent years, Ekblad holds the distinction of being the first defenseman taken first overall since the St.Louis Blues selected Erik Johnson first in 2006. Only the  second player to earn exceptional player status in major junior hockey and the first ever defenseman to earn this honor, Ekblad joined the Barrie Colts of the OHL as a 15-year old. Taken first overall in the 2011 OHL draft by Barrie, Ekblad arrived with very high expectations, and exceeded them all.

Ekblad was an All-Star, a Rookie of the year, represented Team Canada on two occasions including winning a Gold Medal at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament  and being the youngest defenseman on Canada’s 2014 World Juniors team. Ekblad most recently won defenseman of the year in the OHL while captaining the Colts. His resume on paper is quite impressive to say the least, but it’s his versatility and maturity as a player that puts him on an elite talent level.

His 6’3″ 216 lb frame make him an intimidating figure, but his ability to use that frame to his advantage is what made him one of the most sought after defenseman to come along in years. Finishing with a plus-31 rating in his junior career, tells the tale of his defensive responsibility, but his outstanding 116 points (40-76-116) in 175 games shows that he can be a force offensively as well. Ekblad exploded in what could be his final season in juniors. Posting 53 points (23-30-53) in 58 games, Ekblad began showing his capability to quarterback a power play, and rush the puck as well. Ekblad’s 23 goals made him the league leader in goals scored by a defenseman.

San Antonio Rampage Re-Sign C Wade Megan and F Tony Turgeon

Today the San Antonio Rampage announced the re-signing of C Wade Megan and F Tony Turgeon. Each of the young forwards signed one-year AHL deals.

Megan, 24 was a key player during his college days at Boston University where he posted 83 points (49-34-83) for the Terriers in 151 career games. Taken in the fifth round (138th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers, Megan spent four seasons at the college level before signing an ATO with the Rampage in 2012-13.  Last season, Megan played his first full professional year of hockey splitting time between the Rampage and the Panthers’ ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones. The 6’1″, 190 lb, centerman played in 43 games for San Antonio notching 17 points (11-6-17) and was a big part of the Cyclones run to the Kelly Cup finals where he posted 13 points (10-3-13) in 22 postseason games.

Turgeon, 24 is an intimidator with his 6’4″, 220 lb frame. Known more for his rough-and-tumble style and physical presence, Turgeon played three seasons at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and posted 169 PIMs in 62 games. The undrafted UN-O defenseman made the transition to forward as he played in his first pro season in 2013-14 with both the Rampage and the Cyclones. Turgeon played 5 games for San Antonio posting 21 PIMs and 13 games for Cincinnati, posting two points (0-2-2) and 59 PIMs.

 

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Tom Rowe to Return as Rampage Head Coach

The Florida Panthers announced today that Tom Rowe, will return as the head coach for the Florida PanthersAHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage for the 2014-15 season.

Rowe  became the head coach of the Rampage on Nov. 8, 2013 when bench boss, Peter Horachek was abruptly called to duty as head coach of the Panthers replacing former coach, Kevin Dineen. Coaching a group of youngsters in San Antonio, the Rampage went 26-31-3-5 under Rowe. The team showed promise as they jumped into the playoff race in Feb. when they went on a 7-2-0-1 tear and set a new franchise record for road trip success in the process.

Rowe, 58 most notably took over coaching duties for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the KHL in 2012 (leading the team to a 34-18-0 record) and was also an assistant coach for the 2008-09 Carolina Hurricanes  under current Nashville Predators coach, Peter Laviolette. The Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference finals that season fighting through the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in the process in two back-to-back seven game series.

Joining Rowe behind the bench is Scott Allen. Allen, has history with San Antonio as he was a part of the coaching staff during their inaugural season. Allen, 48 spent two years with the Rampage (2002-04) and helped San Antonio reach their first playoff berth. Allen has journeyed through the AHL as an assistant coach for several teams and spent four years as an assistant coach for the New York Islanders (2009-12).

Allen and Rowe are no strangers to one another. Allen served as an assistant coach to Rowe during his time as coaching the Lowell Lock Monsters during the 2004-05 season.

In a release, courtesy of FloridaPanthers.com, Panthers GM, Dale Tallon spoke about the hiring,

“We are pleased to have Tom and Scott behind the bench leading our prospects in San Antonio next season,” said Tallon. “Both Tom and Scott have worked together before and we are confident that they will create a winning and positive culture for our prospects to grow and develop.”

With a team next year that is built around youth, these two veteran coaches will bring a wealth of experience at all levels of professional hockey to help mold them into a team that will not only look to compete for a Calder Cup as soon as possible but to create a cohesive unit for the future of the Panthers as well.

 

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Shawn Thornton: “I never thought I’d play in the NHL, let alone win a Cup.”

On July, 1 2014 F Shawn Thornton shipped out of Boston and set his sights on South Florida, signing a two-year, $2.4 million contract. Thornton has been a well-known enforcer within the NHL for over a decade and has not only a wealth of experience that he’s gained through the years, but two Stanley Cup rings to boot. The 6’2″ 217 lb, bruiser spent seven seasons with the Boston Bruins and his leadership and hard work on and off the ice, as well as his intimidation factor were revered in the city of Boston.

Like in the summer of 2011, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon swam a couple of  laps in the Free Agency pool looking for the right pieces to the Florida puzzle during this summer, and made a splash signing six new players, including Thornton. A familiar face for Tallon, Thornton was a part of the Chicago Blackhawks during Tallon’s tenure in the Windy City. Looking for experience and toughness on a young Panthers team, Thornton and Tallon working out a deal seemed like a no-brainer.

“Florida was my first choice.” said Thornton, “I like where the team is going. He (Tallon) was talking about the moves he was going to make in the offseason. I obviously know Dale from Chicago. (We) Love the area. I’ve already been down a couple of times checking it out with the wife, and we’re really excited to be a part of it.”

Thornton, 37 is an elder statesman on a Panthers team whose core players are just reaching, or are barely at legal drinking age yet. The veteran winger knows his role within the team and sees the talent that this team possesses, some of whom he’s taken notice of since playing against them in the past.

“The skill level is obviously second to none. I was actually asking Tuukka (Rask) about (Aleksander) Barkov last year because I didn’t know much about him, but playing against him you definitely notice him. Playing against (Erik) Gudbranson the last couple years, he was extremely hard to play against. I knew every time I went into the corner there was going to be a rough one coming out. These guys are starting to come into their own, their young kids are starting to play the game the right way.”

A humble man, Thornton looks to be an approachable member of the team for the young guys, willing to instill his wisdom whenever need be.

“I never thought I’d play in the NHL, let alone win a Cup. I’m very fortunate where my career has taken me. (Willie) Mitchell and (Dave) Bolland have both won twice. We aren’t going to come into the locker room and say ‘this is how I did it’, ‘this is how I did it’ and ‘this is how I did it’. Kids ask questions, and they’d like to know what it’s about and some things that I may have picked up along the way. Any type of advice and experience I am more than happy to share.”

Off the ice, Thornton created the Shawn Thornton Foundation . Started up in 2013, Thornton’s foundation is dedicated to helping find cures for Parkinson’s disease and cancer. A proponent of a strong community presence, Thornton looks forward to getting involved in South Florida as he has done in the past with his previous teams.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always tried to embrace the community. I think you get a better feel for people in the area when you’re out and about doing most things. I think we’re very, very fortunate to do what we do for a living. To take an hour out of our day a few times a month to put some smiles on faces is the least we can do.”

The enforcer from Oshawa, Ontario will be continuing his offseason training with a trip on Tuesday to Los Angeles, California where he will work with legendary Boxing Trainer, Freddie Roach. A Six-time Boxing Trainer of the year, Roach has worked with countless boxers including Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins and Miguel Cotto as well as several Mixed Martial Artists including Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Tito Ortiz and Jose Aldo.

Although seen as a fighter on the ice, Thornton isn’t training for just fighting, but for the conditioning aspect that Roach instills in his program. Thornton views fights on the ice versus the ring as “a different animal”.

Thornton will bring a much-needed edge to the Panthers this season, and with his willingness to drop the gloves with anyone brave enough to return the favor, he could be a fan favorite in Sunrise just as he was in Boston.

 

 

 

Justin Ullestad: Jimmy Hayes Not Yet Worth Seven Figures

(Editor’s Note:) This article was written by Justin Ullestad, former intern of the Florida Panthers and founder to Bigplayz.com

Don’t get me wrong; I really like Florida Panther’s forward Jimmy Hayes. He’s a big (6’6”, 220), physical presence on the ice and is willing to do the dirty work in front of the net. But with fewer than 100 games played in the NHL over 3 seasons, it’s hard to make a case for Hayes deserving seven figures in arbitration.

Hayes, who was traded from Chicago to Florida in mid-November, saw his first 50+ game NHL season last year in a Panthers uniform, and managed to record 18 points. However, with a closer look at his production, over half of the points came in the month of February (6-4-10) after both Shawn Matthias and Marcel Goc were traded, and injuries to Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Tomas Kopecky, Jesse Winchester moved Hayes into a larger role in coach Horachek’s system. But keep in mind, he spent most of the season on the 4th line with limited power play minutes, and was passed over by AHL call ups Quinton Howden and Brandon Pirri late in the year. 18 points in 53 games is hardly enough to garner “budding star” bridge deal money, but there are other factors aside from his on-ice production that should drive down the price the Panthers are willing to pay Hayes.

With the addition of veterans Derek MacKenzie, Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, and Shawn Thornton, Hayes’ ice time is likely to be cut down from last season when the Panthers needed him to play out of necessity through stretches of the schedule. With theses quality players coming in (ok…that may be a stretch for Thornton at this point), Hayes’ opportunities to sit in front of the goalie offensively, his spot of value for the Panthers, may be diminished greatly. That coupled with the likelihood that Pirri will be playing a prominent role for Florida this season, Hayes could be seeing his fair share of healthy scratches again in 2014 (was a healthy scratch 6 times last season).

Speaking of Pirri, his recent contract extension may be the most devastating to Hayes’ case for a high dollar contract. Pirri, who was too previously in Chicago with Hayes, recorded 14 (7-7-14) in just 21 games with the Panthers, including seven points in the final seven games. And yet, Pirri signed a bridge deal that will pay him $1.85M over the next two seasons ($925K AAV). It doesn’t take a hockey expert to know that Pirri is worth more at this point than Hayes. Pirri is projecting be a top six winger at some point THIS SEASON. Certainly can’t say the same about Hayes.

But just for fun, lets compare the two even more.

 

2014 Stats w/ Panthers Brandon Pirri Jimmy Hayes
Games Played w/ Panthers 21 53
Point Total w/ Panthers 14 18
Corsi % for the year 51.7% 47.5%
Goals For% 5vs5 for the year 57.8% 48.9%

Unknown-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Pirri being more productive, and flat-out a more important young player for the Panthers moving forward, there is no way that Hayes should/will be getting a higher dollar contract than Pirri.

The other underlying issue with Hayes getting a six digit/year contract is that it sets precedent for future signings down the road. Just imagine the money that the agents that fellow 1st round picks Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad would be asking for if Hayes got a $1M+ contract for 18 points in 53 games. Sure the Panthers have the money right now, but there’s always a limit. And with a number prospect contracts ending after the upcoming season, the Panthers need to make sure they are paying fairly according to production across the board.

Again, I like what Jimmy Hayes brings to the Panthers. But realistically, he is a 4th line player and will likely play 4th line minutes next season, while spending a few nights in the press box.

Bottom line, Pirri got a two-year deal, $925K AAV; Dylan Olsen got a two-year deal, $775K AAV; Hayes should be valued somewhere between those numbers.

For a player who still has a lot to prove at the NHL level, and will have to earn playing time on a much better roster than in 2013, that’s an adequate dollar figure. If he out plays that contract – Fantastic. He’ll get paid in one/two years. But until he proves his full worth to the Panthers and fans, he needs to be paid accordingly.

 

(Usage Chart courtesy of ExtraSkater.com)

Florida Panthers Re-Sign RFA Dmitry Kulikov

The Florida Panthers announced today the re-signing of D Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year, $13m contract. Kulikov, 23 led all Panthers defensemen in goals last season, scoring a career-high eight goals in 81 games and recorded 19 points (8-11-19) on the year.

The left shot defenseman from Lipetsk, Russia is still young and prone to make mistakes. Kulikov who averaged a minus-5 rating for his first four seasons in the NHL struggled in his fifth. Finishing with a team worst, minus-26 rating, Kulikov struggled during last season defensively and lacked consistency throughout the year.

A young, puck-moving defenseman is a commodity to have on any team, especially the kind of defenseman with the type of potential that Kulikov still possesses. A smooth skater with good hands, a deceptively quick release from the point and the kind of player who isn’t afraid to throw his body around, Kulikov has the tools to be not only an important piece to the Panthers future, but to be a very good NHL-er. Now armed with a new coaching staff, Kulikov has a chance to really turn the page on last season and write a new chapter to his career.

New Assistant Coach, Mark Morris hails from the Los Angeles Kings system as the former Head Coach of the Kings’ AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs. Morris worked with young defensemen like Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin who are not only NHL mainstays now, but are difference makers on the ice (Martinez scored the Stanley Cup clinching goal and Western Conference clinching goal during the 2014 playoffs) . Morris also coached new Panthers d-man, Willie Mitchell during his years at Clarkson University. A coach who has worked well with young defensemen and helped develop them into solid professionals is exactly what Kulikov needs to reach his potential and bounce back.

Drafted in the first round (14th overall) of the 2009 Entry Draft, Kulikov has played in 313 NHL games, recording 99 points (24-75-99).

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Florida Panthers Re-Sign RFA Brandon Pirri

Today the Florida Panthers announced the re-signing of F Brandon Pirri to a two-year contract, worth $925K AAV. Pirri, 23 was a late season acquisition by Florida after trading a 2014 third round pick and a 2016 fifth round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for the young forward.

Playing in 21 games for the Panthers, Pirri posted 14 points (7-7-14) and became one of the team’s most relied on players as the season came to a close. During the 2012-13 season, Pirri spent time playing for the Rockford Icehogs of the AHL, where he led the league in points, scoring 75 points (22-53-75) in 76 games.

A second round (59th overall) draft choice by the Blackhawks in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Pirri has a deceivingly powerful and accurate shot for his size (6’0″, 183 lbs). During his short campaign with Florida last season, Pirri posted an impressive 15.2% shooting percentage and also recorded five power play points (2-3-5).

Pirri has played in 56 career NHL games posting 27 points (13-14-27).

 

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Florida Panthers Re-Sign RFAs Garrett Wilson and Ryan Martindale

The Florida Panthers announced today the re-signings of F Garrett Wilson and C Ryan Martindale to one-year, two-way contracts.

Wilson, 23 is coming off of his first full-time AHL season where he played 71 games and posted 30 points (14-16-30). A “crash-and-bang” type forward, Wilson played a prominent role for the San Antonio Rampage this season. His strong season in San Antonio earned him a trip to the NHL where he suited up for the Panthers for 3 games. Wilson’s NHL debut was on Mar. 18 in San Jose, where the Panthers defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-2. The Elmvale, Ontario native was drafted in the fourth round (107th overall) of the 2009 Entry Draft.

Martindale, 22 was a mid-season acquisition from the Edmonton Oilers system and played 37 games for the Rampage, posting 14 points (5-9-14). Combined with his 22 games he spent playing for the Oklahoma City Barons previously, Martindale finished the season with a total 24 points (8-16-24). The left shot, 6’3″, 207 lb center was an Edmonton draft selection in the third round (61st overall) of the 2010 Entry Draft.

 

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Panthers Prospect Profile: Michael Downing

Most freshmen that go to play for the University of Michigan don’t usually make too much of an impact. Head Coach, Red Berenson is notorious for making players earn their ice time and is well-known for pushing his freshmen to do so. Florida Panthers prospect, D Michael Downing did just that during his first season of college hockey in Michigan.

Drafted in the fourth round (97th overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Downing is coming off of a solid freshman season for Coach Berenson and the Wolverines. Posting 12 points (2-10-12) in 34 games, Downing finished second in scoring among defensemen on his team. Named to the 2014 All-Freshman team, Downing finished the season with a plus-3 rating and finished third on his team with 53 blocked shots.

“He had a great season at the University of Michigan. For a freshman he stepped in and played top four minutes. (He) exceeded expectations for what they were expecting out of him this year. We feel that we got a steal in getting him in the fourth round.” Said Manager of Player Development, Bryan McCabe

Wearing jersey number 49 for the Panthers at development camp, Downing has shown a lot of promise and plays the kind of game that McCabe likes.

“He hits like a truck, plays mean, knows his role, can skate, can do everything…but he’s mean. Every time I saw him play this year he killed someone. He’ll get penalties for just hitting someone too hard. You can’t teach guys to play like that. He’s got that edge to him that you need on a D core.”

The 6’3″, 192lb Downing has created a very positive start in his college career to build upon. He doesn’t get the attention that some of his fellow Panthers prospects receive, but don’t sleep on Downing. He may fly under the radar on a team that’s looking to break through and move past rivals University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin, but he will make the opposition pay at both ends of the ice. Keep an eye on Downing as he becomes a much bigger part of the team in Michigan as a Sophomore.

 

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Florida Panthers D-Camp Day Two Spotlight: Defensemen

Although C Aleksander Barkov put on quite the display of individual talent of his own during the shootout drill at today’s development camp, the defense was the talk of the town among those spectating. Armed to the teeth with towering defensemen, the Panthers blueline of the future is intimidating. But don’t let the size fool you, they are quick on their feet as well. With an array of different types of defensemen at their disposal, the possibilities are endless down the road for Florida’s defense.

Take 2014 First Overall selection Aaron Ekblad  for example. Ekblad has been the must see defenseman at camp so far, due to the hype that surrounds him and his likeliness of making the Florida Panthers roster at the start of the 2014-15 season. His 6’4″, 220 lbs frame make him a physical specimen at just 18-years of age. Despite his size, he moves the puck quite well and has a heavy shot, which will come in handy for Florida’s struggling power play.

Brian Skrudland, last season’s Assistant Coach of the Panthers has returned to his former Player Development role and has been very impressed by Ekblad after only day two. “I’m impressed at the individual, first and foremost as a human being. The way he treats everybody, the way he carries himself. I’m also impressed at the way the guy can skate and shoot and play the game of hockey. He’s a very heads up individual.”

Although Ekblad may be the prospect most fans will see first in a Panthers uniform, he is followed by an incredibly talented defensive core, who will make their way up to the pro ranks shortly. Both Michael Matheson (2012, 23rd overall) and Ian McCoshen (2013, 31st overall) play together for Boston College and are two of the team’s top defensemen. Matheson, who is entering his junior year of college, will be serving as captain for the BC Eagles this season and has off the charts skating ability. He’s a puck mover comparable to current Panthers blueliner Brian Campbell and stands at 6’2″, 180 lbs, giving him the ability to not only emulate Campbell, but has a few inches on him as well.

Choosing to go the college route instead of joining the Canadian Major Juniors, Matheson felt he could work more on his game at the college level despite having more of a fast track to the NHL through a league like the CHL. The 20-year old defenseman knows that he may be getting closer to being NHL ready but is focused on the task at hand.

“I still have work to do”, says Matheson. “I’m not quite at this (NHL) level. I need to work on my decision-making, simplifying my game and just staying more consistent all-around”.

Manager of Player Development, Bryan McCabe, gave Matheson a glowing review, “He’s strong. He blew all the tests in the gym away, as usual.”

“He can skate like the wind. He’s always in great shape, he’s a true professional,” says McCabe.

Matheson’s BC teammate McCoshen stands at 6’3″, 215 lbs and brings more size to lineup. The Faribault, Minnesota native is coming off an impressive Freshman season posting 13 points (5-8-13) in 35 games, showing he can develop some more offensive skill to go along with the shutdown frame he possesses thus far. McCoshen also represented Team USA at the World Junior Championship last season.

Another defenseman that has come up in conversation from General Manger Dale Tallon is 2013 seventh round draft gem, MacKenzie Weegar. The smallest defenseman of the group, Weegar is 5’11”, 183 lbs, and describes his game as, “Defensively sound” and “poised with the puck.”

“(I) control my own game,” says, Weegar. “I like to play the body as well, I’m a pretty solid guy, pretty thick, I may not have the size but if I play smart back there, then there’s a lot of offensive chances and that’s what I like to create.”

Playing alongside premiere players with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL for the last two seasons like 2014 Calder Trophy Winner, Nathan MacKinnon and Tampa Bay Lightning 2013 First Rounder (Third Overall), Jonathan Drouin, Weegar claims he learned a lot by playing with them as well as playing alongside San Jose Sharks prospect Konrad Abelthauser.

Rounding out the development camp group is Josh Brown (6’5″ 213 lbs), Jonathan Racine (6’2″, 194 lbs), Michael Downing (6’3″, 192 lbs), Ed Wittchow (6’4″, 205 lbs) and Shayne Taker (6’4″, 210 lbs). The staggering amount of size on the blueline that’s listed here is still omitting some who are still young, but have seen a fair share of NHL action like Erik Gudbranson (6’5″. 215 lbs), Dylan Olsen (6’2″, 223 lbs) and Alex Petrovic (6’4″, 206 lbs).

“It’s not only the size,” says Skrudland. “It’s the mobility of these guys today. I’m in awe when I get out on the ice and see how fast they are and how mobile. Even off the ice,these guys are wonderful athletes. We feel very fortunate and there’s a good chance that some of them will have an opportunity here, very shortly, if not this year.”

Wednesday will be a day off for the prospects as development camp continues on Thursday, July 10th from 8:45am-12:00pm at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.

 

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