The Florida Panthers of course got their man in head coach Joel Quenneville. The only problem is many analysts believe they need much more than the one, namely Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky & Panarin: Pending UFAs
The logic is relatively sound. Panarin not only had Quenneville as his coach when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks, but is friends with Panthers winger Evgenii Dadonov. And, if Panarin signs with the Panthers, it’s at least possible his current teammate and fellow countryman, Bobrovsky, follows him too.
One thing is clear: It’s very likely that neither Panarin nor Bobrovsky will stay with the Blue Jackets even after they went all in and won the franchise’s historic first series this past spring. Panarin has all but explicitly stated he’ll move on, while Bobrovsky spoke in the past tense about his time with the Blue Jackets after they got eliminated by the Boston Bruins.
None of that means both will move on beyond a shadow of a doubt though, let alone come to the Panthers in a package deal. As such, Panthers fans should avoid counting their chickens before they’re hatched while the Panthers themselves should consider alternative avenues to improving their club.
Panthers in Dire Need of Help
Admittedly, signing the Blue Jackets “brothers” would be a fine solution to most of what’s ailing the Panthers nowadays. They need more depth up front, as they arguably have just five legitimate top-six forwards under contract for next season (excluding Frank Vatrano, who has a great deal more to prove).
Meanwhile, goalie Roberto Luongo and backup James Reimer had seasons to forget. Even though Luongo had been coming off an impressive 2017-18 season (.929 save percentage in 35 games), he is 40 and it’s a foregone conclusion he has more bad seasons than good ahead of him, if Luongo has any left at all.
Needless to say, the Panthers need to start thinking about a succession plan. It is unlikely any one of their goaltending prospects (Sam Montembeault, Ryan Bednard or Chris Driedger) would be able to take the reins this coming season at least. And, because Reimer’s performance has dropped off season after season, going the free-agency route seems like the best possible way to bridge the gap. That’s especially true for a franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and hasn’t won a round since 1996.
Bobrovsky the Top of the UFA Class
As a result, the Panthers should be desperate to win now. The problem is, not only is the soon-to-be 31-year-old Bobrovsky the best of the goaltending crop, but there’s really only him and New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner. Competition for their signatures will be steep, as, don’t forget, the Islanders and Blue Jackets will likely also be in the market.
From there, it’s a steep drop-off relative to them and the second tier, which comprises Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov and Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek. Varlamov, at 31, may be too much of a risk factor to consider signing long-term, but Mrazek does still have upside at 27. Even though the Hurricanes (another team likely in the market for Bobrovsky’s services) are reportedly trying to re-sign Mrazek, he may be the perfect Plan B for the Panthers.
It’s true that Mrazek isn’t elite, but he did have a worthwhile bounce-back season (23-14-3, with a .914 save percentage). Even though he stumbled in the playoffs, he did help the Hurricanes reach the third round and would realistically be looking to earn a starting job. That’s not really something the Hurricanes can or should promise Mrazek, because they have alternative options. The Panthers, if they miss out on Bobrovsky, don’t really.
The Merits of Average Goaltending
There’s every good reason the Panthers can coincidentally follow the Hurricanes’ model for success by stacking the line-up with a deep defense and forward group to make up for average goaltending. Considering the Panthers’ below-average defense, which had the second-most defensive-zone giveaways in the entire league, in many ways Bobrovsky should be the Plan B himself, as they focus on rebuilding the defense instead.
In any case, Panarin remains a good target. Thankfully, there is no shortage of alternative free-agent forwards to pursue instead of or in addition to him. In terms of players who can play left-wing though, count them: Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner, Gustav Nyquist, Ryan Dzingel and Anders Lee.
So, chances are good the Panthers will secure themselves some decent help up front, regardless of whether or not it’s Panarin. They will likely find themselves having to choose between an elite goalie like Bobrovsky or an elite defenseman, in which case go with the defenseman.
Just look at what Quenneville was able to accomplish with the Blackhawks, winning Stanley Cups on teams backstopped by Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford. No disrespect to either of them, but the 2012-13 edition of the team that ran roughshod through the league had a defense corps that included in-their-primes Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson with a 22-year-old Nick Leddy thrown in for good measure.
That’s a pretty good foursome the likes of which Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson would ideally be able to replicate. They just need to find that fourth man to start.