Kevin Kraczkowski (I had to copy/paste his name) over at Litter Box Cats asked me to answer five questions about the Rangers and the current state of the team as a primer for tonight's matchup against the Panthers. After I gave him my answers he asked if he could answer any questions I might have... we don't normally do this kind of thing here but I thought it would be interesting and a nice change of pace for you guys. So let's learn a little bit more about the Florida Panthers and what's ailing them.
1. What are your thoughts on the Kris Versteeg deal? Are you excited about what you got back in return for Versteeg?
Kevin: Versteeg still had plenty of skill, he just wasn't producing with Florida like he could have. He would rather make a fancy move than get a shot on net, which resulted in a lot of turnovers in the offensive zone. He was responsible for more than his share of opposing odd-man rushes. The FO had seen enough of him turning the puck over and skate back to the bench for a line-change as the other team scored. Of course, there were those that though he was still in recovery from his offseason hip surgery. He's already scored four points in six games for Chicago, so he's doing better there. In return, we got a solid fourth liner in Jimmy Hayes (one goal and one assist in five games) and a good pairing partner for third-year defenseman Erik Gudbranson. He made his debut last night and tabbed an assist in 19 minutes. Florida dumped an expensive non-producer and picked up two solid, if unspectacular, contributors to the cause.
2. The goaltending situation in Florida has been quite hectic the past few seasons. Do you feel that Markstrom has what it takes to be a starter in the NHL and what are your thoughts on Tim Thomas and his play this season?
Kevin: Markstrom was brought along just a little too fast. It takes years for these guys to reach their NHL potential, and he's been crowned the heir apparent since he was drafted in the second round five years ago. With just a few days until the start of the season, the Panthers were set on a goaltending tandem of Markstrom and career backup Scott Clemmensen. The signing of Thomas was a real surprise, and made Clemmensen redundant, or so we thought at the time. Markstrom put up a 1-5-3 record, an .877 save percentage and a 3.36 GAA, hardly starting goalie material. Once Thomas got back from an early season injury, Markstrom found himself back with the San Antonio Rampage, and Clemmensen (0-1-1, .877, 3.09) has found himself on the bench for the last nine games. Thomas is keeping a substandard offensive and defensive team in every game, and boasts a .914 save percentage despite facing 31 shots per game. He's a little old to never get a night off, but his 6-7-1 record is sparkling all things considered.
3. Florida's lineup is brimming with young players with all kinds of potential. If you would, can you tell us which three young players in the lineup are you most excited about and why?
Kevin: Aleksander Barkov plays like a seasoned veteran at only 18-years-of-age. He's got a natural shot, and skills in the shootout. He'll probably put up 40 points this season. Thing is, he defers to the vets on the team and doesn't take enough shots. His 13.3% shooting rate is almost double the team's rate. If he took a few more cuts, he could easily be a 30-goal guy. I think he'll figure it out as he goes.
You've probably heard of Jonathan Huberdeau, last season's Calder Memorial Trophy winner. Also a shootout stud, he's not as strong as Barkov, but he's a decent threat to score every time he gets near the puck. He'll also only get better.
Nick Bjugstad joined the Panthers after a few games this season. After looking tentative on the ice for his first few games, he started to properly utilize his 6'6", 211 pound frame to good use. He's hard to knock off the puck and never takes a shift off. After posting a minus-8 in 11 appearances last season, he's one of very few Panthers with a positive rating, at plus-3.
4. Which player should Rangers fans keep their eye on tonight and why?
Kevin: Sean Bergenheim missed over a full season before finally rejoining the Cats soon after the season started. After nine games of "finding his legs," he potted two in the Panthers victory over the Flyers on Monday night. He's your average third-line stiff, but sometimes, when he gets on, he'll go through a stretch where he scores piles of goals. It looks like he may have flipped that switch on Monday. Also, watch that Marcel Goc character. He's the best faceoff guy on the Panthers and the most solid, least flashy two-way forward on the team. You'll never notice him until he scores, then you'll be all like - "Where did that guy come from?"
5. Florida has struggled early and currently finds itself six games below the .500 mark. In your opinion, what are the three biggest problems with the Panthers?
Kevin: Number one by far is the special teams. The Panthers own the worst power play in the NHL by far (10.2%), and their penalty kill is in the bottom five (77.0%). Until recently, the forwards seemed to not understand the concept of "back-checking," or "defense." New coach Peter Horachek seems to have addressed this problem, at least temporarily. The team is 4-4-1 during his tenure, and seem to be on the upswing. Thirdly - as good as Tim Thomas is, he's hardly the face of the future in Florida goaltending. We'll be lucky to see him back next season, and aside from him, Florida faithful will have to look to Jacob Markstrom. He may, in fact, be ready by then, but he's still unproven at the NHL level. Behind him, they have the aforementioned Clemmensen, Dov Gromet-Morris in San Antonio, and Michael Houser in Cincinnati. Morris is property of the AHL club, but Houser looks like he may be a legit NHL calibre goaltender after a few more seasons of work.
If you want to see the questions I was asked and see my answers be sure to check over at Litter Box Cats. They have some good people over there that know their hockey and Litter Box Cats is an excellent hockey blog.
So what do you think about tonight's game boys and girls? Like the Rangers chances of getting back above the .500 mark or are you discouraged and concerned about the way they played in Tampa? Let me know what you think in the comments section.
Let's go Rangers.
Oh, by the way, we at Blueshirt Banter want to wish you all a very happy, safe, warm, and dry Thanksgiving. Please drive safely and enjoy spending the holiday with your loved ones. Go laugh, live, love, and enjoy your leftovers.
Let's go Turkey.
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