It seemed like as close to a certainty as possible. Once Joel Quenneville was brought aboard as Florida Panthers head coach, Artemi Panarin, who had played with him while with the Chicago Blackhawks, would follow… and bring his Columbus Blue Jackets teammate, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, with him. Sometimes, sure things just don’t pan out, though.
Bobrovsky vs. Panarin
As recently as days before the July 1 free agency start date, rumors still swirled. It was going to be a marriage made in heaven, albeit between three parties. Unfortunately, with Panarin signing on with the New York Rangers, the Panthers had to settle for just the one free agent.
Thankfully, you have to believe the Panthers had been prioritizing a goalie as their top need, especially with Roberto Luongo retiring. And, to their credit, the Panthers got an elite one in Bobrovsky, maybe even the best one available, signing him to a seven-year, $70 million deal.
Regardless of whether or not that deal represents an overpayment for a 31-year-old goalie coming off a down regular season, the Panthers did okay during free agency. Just okay, though. Arguments that the Panthers are now all-in are greatly exaggerating the situation at hand, unfortunately. They may be looking to win, but, missing out on Panarin or a substitute of a similar caliber, they still have huge holes in the lineup that can’t be ignored.
Panthers Also Get Connolly
Granted, the Panthers also signed forwards Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly (and defenseman Anton Stralman). However, in what world does the production of Acciari (14 points) and Connolly (46 points) come close to what an in-his-prime Panarin would have brought to the table? It doesn’t.
Panarin would have potentially pushed them over the edge, even if they did finish a good 12 points out of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Now, in spite of having acquired Bobrovsky, the Panthers need a Plan B. Sure, Connolly’s first name starts with a “B,” but, in spite of his last initial, he’s more of an “F,” considering his reputation as a third-line option who can provide secondary scoring. He’s good for what he is. He just isn’t what the Panthers really need.
Even though Connolly plays left-wing like Panarin and just reached new career-highs, there’s a good chance the 46 points were an aberration. After all, he had failed to tally even 30 in any one season before, dating back to his 2011-12 debut. As a former first-round pick, Connolly may have the pedigree, but Panarin has the actual track record, with 320 points in 322 games played since the start of his Calder Memorial Trophy-winning season.
Thankfully, Connolly’s four-year, $14 million deal is fair for a 27-year-old coming off a career season. Plus, the Panthers did all right in the offense department last season, ranking No. 9 in goals (264), No. 7 in shots generated per game (33.0) and No. 2 on the power play (26.8%). The Panthers did lack killer instinct though. They had a league-worst .483 winning percentage when leading after a single period and the second-worst winning percentage when leading after two (.735).
Where Do the Panthers Go from Here?
That’s where the likes of Panarin could have really helped out, to continue to build leads instead of taking the foot off the gas pedal. The arguable issue is there’s a steep drop-off in terms of offensive talent from the very top of the lineup to the bottom six.
Whereas the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov delivered, with production ranging from 96 to 70 points, the next-highest forward was Frank Vatrano with 39. Like Connolly, last season represented far and away his best season. What are the chances the two of them replicate their respective, recent success?
Hopefully, Connolly pushes the Panther’s scoring depth, like Vatrano, down the lineup, but ideally they’d add someone else up front. Now only secondary options like Marcus Johansson and Ryan Dzingel remain as free-agent leftovers. Either one is a possibility, with $5.4 million remaining in projected cap space and a few roster spots left to fill. For what it’s worth, currently former-first-rounder Owen Tippett is slated in to fill one of the open roster spots up front, on paper anyway. A little additional insurance couldn’t hurt, though.
Nevertheless, what’s done is done and the Panthers can’t control the past… only hope to give themselves as good of a chance as possible to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16 and win their first series since 20 years before that. No pressure.
On the plus side, Bobrovsky is coming off his first-ever career series victory as a starter in the league. So, there’s, uh, that. Just like Bobrovsky’s first-round upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning, this is all as about as far from a sure thing as you can get. At least the Panthers have got that going for them. Anything can happen.
It would just help the Panthers’ cause if general manager Dale Tallon could rekindle some of the magic he made with Quenneville while they were both with the Blackhawks. Panarin hadn’t yet entered the picture then. So, there’s always hope. They both need to get cracking to avoid further disappointing Panthers fans, though.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.