Panthers Wrong to Leave Marchessault Unprotected

Oh, how we moaned when Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was rather unceremoniously booted upstairs last May. And oh, how we applauded when Tallon was reinstated as Florida’s GM in December. After all, Tallon is a long-time National Hockey League executive who is not only popular around the league, but was also the main architect of the Chicago Blackhawks’ dynasty.

But when the protection lists for the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft were revealed on Sunday, panic set in as Panthers fans and followers alike realised their golden boy may not actually know what he’s doing (or even if he really is in charge). The main crux of the issue is the fact the Panthers chose to protect Nick Bjugstad with their final forward protection slot, at the expense of Jonathan Marchessault.

Panthers Protected Wrong Player

That’s right, the Cats protected a hulking centre who can’t seem to stay healthy and whose career-high in points is 43 (he had 14 in 54 games in 2016-17). Despite averaging only 0.46 points per game during his career, he makes $4.1 million for the next four seasons.

This in contrast to Marchessault, who makes only $750,000 next season, as he did this year when he led the Panthers – a team that had trouble scoring – in goals, with 30. He was also third on the team in points (51), despite receiving only the fourteenth-most ice time per game (seventh-most amongst forwards).

Marchessault Adds Fuel to Panthers’ Tire Fire

Marchessault’s Comments on the Panthers’ Decision

Marchessault spoke to French-language media outlet TVA Sports, saying how his agent told him the Panthers might work out a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights to guard against the expansion team selecting him for their roster. Evidently, such a deal did not materialise. Needless to say, satisfied as he is with his 2016-17 season, Marchessault is not impressed.

He also spoke with Montreal radio station 91.9 Sports, sounding equally disappointed with how things turned out. It appears Marchessault believed he was a part of the Panthers’ future.

He also cannot understand how he was not considered one of the Panthers’ forwards deemed worthy of protection.

And I’ve gotta say, in both cases, he has a point. Why not build around the young dynamo, whose speed and skill make him ideal for the modern NHL?

Marchessault’s Road to the Panthers

On a personal level, it must be especially devastating for Marchessault. Despite a fine career in Major Junior (239 points in 254 games), Marchessault was left undrafted by NHL teams. He managed to find a spot in the American Hockey League, where he excelled over parts of five seasons (263 points in 306 games). Despite consistent success, Marchessault was bounced between minor league systems, playing with the AHL affiliates of the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning.

After a couple cups of coffee, it was really only in 2015-16 that Marchessault got a proper look in the NHL, playing 45 games with the Lightning. That said, he was buried so far down the depth chart on a talented Tampa team (playing only 12:05 per night) that so he did not have the opportunity to flourish. Marchessault netted only 18 points during his audition with the Lightning, who let him walk in the summer.

In contrast, Tampa Bay’s cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers, liked what they saw, singing Marchessault to a two-year deal. He more than made it worth their while with his offensive production, making it all the more puzzling the Panthers are willing to let him go.

Jonathan Marchessault burst onto the NHL scene in 2016-17, tallying 30 goals and 51 points for the Panthers. (Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports)

I mean, not only did he work his way up from literally nothing – talk about work ethic and determination — but he also gives your team another weapon in the hyper-competitive Atlantic Division. And even if Marchessault is not selected by Vegas, is he really going to want to re-sign in South Florida following this unfathomable snub?

An Explanation From the Panthers?

As the hockey world struggles to make sense of the team’s inane decision, it’s worth mentioning Bjugstad was Tallon’s first draft pick as Panthers GM, way back in 2010. So perhaps there is a loyalty factor there, similar to the one that might have led to Tallon giving Dave Bolland, a former Blackhawk (drafted by Chicago in 2004, when Tallon was an assistant GM there), five years at $5.5 million with the Cats.

Dave Bolland
Getting rid of Dave Bolland’s dreadful contract cost the Panthers top prospect Lawson Crouse. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Loyalty to players is fine, even admirable. It must be comforting to long-time players within an organisation that their general manager is not going to drop them at the first sign of trouble. But how about loyalty to the guy who dragged the Panthers to some semblance of respectability this past season? How about loyalty to the one player on your team who managed to take some of the spotlight off of this circus masquerading as a hockey team?

The amount of time and money invested in developing a highly touted prospect like Bjugstad understandably makes teams think twice before throwing it all away. But Marchessault was found money for the Panthers. He was one of the only things that went right for Florida in 2016-17; exposing him is tempting fate.

Were the Computer Boys Right?

Maybe the Panthers were right to shuffle Tallon upstairs and hand over the reins to the so-called “Computer Boys,” the new-age, analytics-favouring executive faction in South Florida. Maybe the team’s widely-criticised utter disregard for the hockey establishment made more sense than we thought. Or maybe the Panthers are simply leading us down the garden path, yet again.

To his credit, Tallon is set to address the media Thursday morning (9:30 a.m. ET). Who knows what he’ll have to say, but I’ll tell you one thing: it better be good.