Weekend Takeaways: Panthers could add shot in arm before trade deadline

Watch as Alex Wennberg scores his first-career hat-trick, coming against his former team, the Blue Jackets.

Bill Zito was sitting at the table when the Columbus Blue Jackets made one of the most invigorating all-in plays we’ve seen at the trade deadline. Two years on, it would be great to see the first-year Florida Panthers GM give his surprising team a similar shot in the arm.

Okay, so nobody expects Zito -- former assistant to GM Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus -- to go wild the way his old boss did in 2019, when Kekalainen spent significant prospect and draft pick capital to acquire Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel (among other, smaller pieces), while also opting to hang on to studs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky despite the fact both men were all but certain to walk away from the Jackets as UFAs the following summer. Did we mention the Jackets -- who won the first playoff series in franchise history a couple of months after Kekalainen’s play -- were as bubble-team as it gets in the days leading up to the deadline, dancing from side to side of the post-season cutoff?

Zito’s Panthers are certainly on much stronger footing than that, especially after a home weekend sweep of Zito’s old friends in Columbus put the squad ahead of every other NHL outfit with 56 points. Florida is on a six-game winning streak, with four of those coming in the aftermath of all-world defenceman Aaron Ekblad’s season-ending leg injury on March 28.

Speaking of injuries, Aleksander Barkov returned from a lower-body ailment on Saturday after a couple of weeks on the shelf. The captain immediately made his presence felt, doing great work to set up MacKenzie Weegar for the opening goal of a game won 5-2 by Florida. The next day, Barkov just went ahead and opened the scoring himself during a 3-0 Cats whitewashing. If somebody is doing more for $5.9 million against the cap than Barkov, please alert the police.

The success stories really are everywhere on this team, from Barkov’s MVP-calibre play to Jonathan Huberdeau being the most underrated Robin in the league (for the exact same $5.9 million hit as Batman) to a bounce-back from Patric Hornqvist and breakouts for Weegar and Carter Verhaeghe, and on and on. When Zito took over the Cats last September, some people wondered if his first big tasks with the perpetually under-performing team might be trading Barkov — he’s UFA eligible in 2022 — not bolstering a roster that is finally making good on the promise people have seen in it for years.

For an organization and fanbase with so little to cheer for in the past 25 years, it would mean the world to see Zito go out and get a piece or two that could help the Panthers win their first playoff series since — gulp — the 1996 Eastern Conference Final.

And while Florida likely headlines the group of teams you’d love to see signal big intentions before next Monday’s trade deadline, the Panthers certainly aren’t alone. The Minnesota Wild are the fifth-best team in the league by points percentage dating back to mid-January of 2020 (roughly a 60-game sample size), so maybe we can stop wondering if there’s a rebuild coming. The Wild — who won for the second time in 48 hours in Vegas on Saturday — are basically a lock to finish at least third in the West and it would be awesome to see GM Bill Guerin give them a little boost along the way.

Could the burgeoning Carolina Hurricanes — who watched Petr Mrazek pitch a 1-0 shutout on Sunday versus the Dallas Stars in his first game since January 30 — strengthen their contender status with a juicy pickup? Unlike Florida and Minnesota, the Canes have actually had post-season success in the recent past, making the final four in 2019 after a decade of missing the cut altogether. Carolina’s last two seasons ended at the hands of the Boston Bruins, though, and you’d love to see the hipster-turned-mainstream-darling squad go out and show how bad they want to not just hang with, but beat the big boys.

Ultimately, hockey fans will be amped for whatever action we get leading up to the deadline. That said, it would be extra spicey to see a couple of teams with antsy supporters nudge a few chips in the middle before Monday.

Other Takeaways

• The St. Louis Blues can dine out on their 2019 championship for a couple more years, but yikes, are things ever looking bleak right now. The Blues lost two squeakers to Colorado on Friday (3-2) and Saturday (2-1), and while there’s no shame in getting beat by what might be the NHL’s best team right now, St. Louis is 3-7-4 in its past 11 and have just one regulation-time win since March 3. The Blues are in a snarling dog fight with the streaking San Jose Sharks (more on them in a minute) and Arizona Coyotes for the final playoff spot in the West. St. Louis is dead last in the NHL in goal differential during that stretch and ranks 27th in expected goals percentage, so the Blues are full value for their stinky showing.

Andrei Vasilevskiy absolutely owns the Detroit Red Wings. The Russian (and Vezina favourite?) ran his career record to a glistening 12-0-0 versus the Wings with a 2-1 win in Tampa on Saturday. The Bolts could play any goalie against the poor Wings and win though, right? Well, 24 hours later Detroit put five pucks past poor Chris Gibson, who was making his first NHL start in three years. The 5-1 victory was the Wings’ first in Tampa Bay since 10 days after Steven Stamkos’s 21st birthday, otherwise known as Feb. 17, 2011.

• He won’t be in any awards conversations, but good on Martin Jones for fighting to get his game back to a respectable spot. Jones, who had sub-.900 save percentages in each of the past two seasons, has won his past four starts for a Sharks team making a commendable push in the West. (Speaking of perseverance, don’t forget San Jose played 12 straight games outside Northern California to start the year because COVID-19 restrictions prevented them from playing at home in the SAP Center to start the year.) While Jones has been absolutely brilliant lately, his strong play dates back nearly two months as he’s posted a .925 save percentage since mid-February.

Weekend Warrior

The book on Jakob Chychrun when he was drafted five years ago was as follows: strong kid, great defender, but would likely never light it up offensively. Well, after some miserable injury luck, Chychrun is busting through his perceived ceiling. The blue-liner, who turned 23 last week, netted his first career hat trick on Sunday night, which included the extra-time winner during a Chychrun 3 Ducks 2 victory in Anaheim. Chychrun’s next point will tie his previous career-best of 26 and he’s playing at a 54-point pace this season.

The Week Ahead

• The Wild host Colorado on Monday (and Wednesday) night. Minnesota is going for a delicious dozen straight victories on home ice, where the Wild have not lost since Jan. 30.

• The Devils will face the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night in Jersey, but — one way or another — Kyle Palmieri won’t be in the lineup. The scoring winger was held out of Sunday’s tilt versus the Caps as a precautionary move ahead of the trade deadline. Palmieri won’t be the only guy on the move this week as we head toward next Monday’s swap shutoff.

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