By Brian Monzo
Last week, the Florida Panthers did something very weird. They abruptly fired head coach Gerard Gallant after a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes and basically left him on his own to catch a cab home.
But that was last week and whatever your opinion of that move was, the important thing for the Panthers is now figuring out what they can do to right the ship and move forward as a hockey team.
Obviously one of the keys is health, and getting Jonathan Huberdeau back sometime after Jan. 1 is going to be huge. The 23-year-old forward has 113 points over the last two-plus seasons, and if the Panthers can keep their heads above water until his return, more credit to them.
But to me, the biggest thing for them is going to be getting defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle going offensively. Ekblad has six goals and just one assist in 23 games and Yandle, a former power-play stud, has just four points on the man advantage this season. Yandle is making his adjustments to a new team, and that takes time, but the quicker he and Ekblad get going, the better off the Panthers will be.
— I can admit that for the first time that it appears New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is showing signs of minimal decline. He has played a lot of elite hockey in his career. But he’s now 34, and players at that age generally are in the midst of a slow-down. It’s the Rangers’ job to manage his games and make sure he is fresh and, most importantly, in top form for when the playoffs begin.
But the one thing I can’t take are the fans and critics of Lundqvist and his contract, and the whining about Antti Raanta, and two years earlier Cam Talbot, being better. I like Raanta and Talbot, but this idea that either is good enough to be the Rangers’ starting goalie, at a minimal contract, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
The first time either Raanta or Talbot have a Lundqvist-type season will be the first time. Let them prove they deserve that type of contract elsewhere, and then maybe I’ll admit that they should’ve played more.
Also, did I miss the time that the Rangers missed out on a big-time free agent because of Lundqvist’s or Rick Nash’s contracts? Sure, they moved Carl Hagelin, a replaceable part, and Yandle, but every player who needed a contract got one. Even Derek Stepan. They were also able to sign Jimmy Vesey.
— While Connor McDavid is closing in on being the best player in the NHL, let’s not forget about Jack Eichel, who recently returned from an ankle sprain to score a goal and add an assist in a game for Buffalo. The Sabres are an improving young team, and Eichel is the face of the franchise. If he can stay healthy, maybe they can push for a playoff spot. Either way, having Eichel back is big for the franchise, and big for the league.
This Week’s Top 5:
1. Sidney Crosby — I can’t believe I am going say this, but he may be playing the best hockey of career. He has 15 goals in 17 games and is skating at a level that I’ve never seen him skate at before.
2. Connor McDavid — Ryan Smyth was “Captain Canada,” but McDavid may be turning into “Mr. Canada.” He now has 31 points and is in the process of bringing the Edmonton Oilers back from the dead.
3. Vladimir Tarasenko — Welcome back to the list, Vlad. He has 23 points in 23 games, and has gotten better as the season has progressed. I think he will score 40-plus goals.
4. Patrick Kane — “Mr. Consistency” just keeps going. While he isn’t on pace for the same type of season he had in 2015-16, another 80-point campaign seems likely.
5. Carey Price — He’s good, unfortunately.
Read more columns by Brian and follow him on Twitter at @BMonzoWFAN