NHL Notebook: Joel Quenneville hoping to take Panthers down familiar path

Joel Quenneville sees a lot of similarities between his new team and the old one.

When he took over behind the Blackhawks' bench four games into the 2008-09 season, Chicago had a roster loaded with untested skill led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews still trying to find its way.

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Quenneville guided the Blackhawks into the conference final the following spring for the first time since the mid-1990s. Just over 12 months later, he was hoisting Chicago's first Stanley Cup since 1960.

There would be two more titles in 2013 and 2015. But all coaches have a shelf life, and his time in the Windy City ended in November 2018.

Now, the 61-year-old is looking to go down the same road with the Florida Panthers.

"We had a ton of talent, a ton of depth (in Chicago)," Quenneville said earlier this month. "This team (has) comparable young talent that has high-end ability that is a little bit unproven."

The Blackhawks were mostly miserable in the decade preceding Quenneville's arrival with just one playoff appearance since 1997.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have qualified for the post-season just four times since making the Cup final in 1996, winning a grand total of six playoff games.

Quenneville had Kane, Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith in Chicago to help steer the ship. In Florida, there's Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad.

Those young stars remain largely untested in big moments, something their coach is looking forward to seeing as the Panthers continue to battle the Toronto Maple Leafs for third in Atlantic Division.

"We're going to find out what that test is going into the stretch," Quenneville said. "That'll be finding out about them individually and collectively as a team. That's when it gets fun — playing meaningful games.

"And that's what we've got to get better as a young group."

Florida, which hosts Toronto on Thursday, remains in the playoff hunt despite having the 27th-best save percentage at 5 on 5 after signing Sergei Bobrovsky to a massive seven-year, US$70-million contract in free agency. The move has yet to settle the Panthers' troublesome and ongoing crease issues.

That glaring problem aside, Quenneville has the players believing they're on the cusp of something greater.

"He's very thorough," said veteran defenceman Anton Stralman. "He expects you to go out every day in a game-like speed. There's no gears. There's only one gear. It's been a fun ride. He's got a lot of experience.

"He's good for this team. A lot of players look up to him and rightfully so with his track record."

Huberdeau, the Panthers' leading scorer with 77 points, said Quenneville is the right coach at the right time for this group.

"He's a guy that demands a lot," said the winger, whose team is two points back of Toronto for the third and final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. "You've got to earn your ice time."

Quenneville could have stayed on the sidelines after getting handed his walking papers by the Blackhawks — he had another season left at US$6 million — but couldn't turn down a lucrative offer from Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, his old boss in Chicago.

"I'm not getting any younger," Quenneville said when asked why he got back in the saddle so soon. "You want to stay in touch with the game. Dale gave us gave us a tremendous opportunity to be a part of a team that was very comparable to what we were around in Chicago.

"That's what we feel we're trying to capture here."

Second only to Scotty Bowman in all-time coaching wins with 923, Quenneville is getting used to a different pace and lifestyle in a non-traditional hockey market.

That doesn't mean his expectations have changed.

"There's been some progress with the team and the fans and the excitement," he said. "As far as our team, I think the one thing we want to make sure of is being consistent in that standard of predictability — how we're going to be competing on a game-to-game basis. That's something that we've been dealing with. We've been getting better in that area, but that's the challenge.

"(The league) has had success in some other climates that are very comparable ... there's no excuse."

PAGING PAGEAU

Jean-Gabriel Pageau endeared himself to New York Islanders fans in his first game with his new team. Acquired from the Ottawa Senators ahead of Monday's NHL trade deadline before signing a six-year, $30-million contract extension, the centre scored in his debut against the New York Rangers. But what fans on Long Island will likely remember much longer was his willingness to drop the gloves and jump to the defence of Michael Dal Colle after he hook a huge — and legal — hit from Rangers defenceman Jacob Trouba.

BACKLUND ON FIRE

With the Calgary Flames in a battle for a playoff spot, one might expect Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan or Johnny Gaudreau to be leading the offensive charge. But in the last 2 1/2 weeks, Mikael Backlund has occupied the driver's seat. The 30-year-old centre has eight goals in eight games — the most in the entire NHL over that span.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb 26, 2020.

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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

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