With the Florida Panthers missing out on the likes of Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, general manager Bill Zito decided to take a small-ball approach to the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. Zito was able to fill the roster with two trades and a free agent signing, giving the Panthers a chance to compete without mortgaging the future, but did he do enough?
Related: Trade Deadline Tracker
At a historically quiet NHL Trade Deadline, especially in the Central Division where the Carolina Hurricanes (from ‘What did the Carolina Hurricanes do at the NHL trade deadline?,’ News Observer, 4/12/2021) and Tampa Bay Lightning (‘Lightning add defense depth at NHL trade deadline,’ TampaBay.com, 4/12/2021) both made minimal moves, the Panthers did do a little bit more to move the needle than their competitors did. But how far has the needle moved for the Panthers? We’ll assess each of these three deals and figure out how it shakes up the Panthers’ lineup.
April 10: Panthers Acquire Buffalo D Brandon Montour for a 2021 Third-Round Pick
The first move Zito made during the weekend was to acquire someone who could help fill Aaron Ekblad’s spot in the lineup temporarily while he is out with a knee injury. Zito thinks Montour will be able to have an immediate impact on the team, saying “his two-way acumen and ability to play important minutes make him an exciting addition to the Panthers.”
Montour’s offensive numbers this season, especially on a pitiful Buffalo Sabres team, are nothing to scoff at. In 38 games, the 27-year-old defenseman has five goals and 14 points, with two of his goals coming on the penalty kill. While his defensive optics have been horrid this season, a lot of that has to do with the fact he is coming from Buffalo.
His expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) is nearly at -2 this season, but that can be remedied if he’s placed with a partner that can fit with his two-way style of play. Defensive stalwart MacKenzie Weegar likely seems to be who that partner is, as Ekblad’s hole in the lineup has opened that possibility up.
As for the price for Montour, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, a third-round pick is definitely not bad, especially considering how difficult scouting has been this season. If Montour doesn’t gel with the rest of the roster, the Panthers can cut their losses and let him go without having given up anything significant, which makes this deal a win.
April 11: Panthers Sign Recently Bought Out Forward Nikita Gusev to a 1-year, $1 Million Contract
Zito’s next move involved no risk whatsoever, signing Nikita Gusev to a $1 million deal after the New Jersey Devils bought him out of his contract. This move adds possible depth scoring to the Panthers’ roster without giving up any assets at all, a total win for Florida.
While Gusev’s numbers have fallen off of a cliff this season, only amounting to two goals and five points in 20 games, his past track record proves that he has some potential to be a scoring threat. In 2019-20, he scored 13 goals and 44 points in 66 games, not bad for his first season in the NHL.
Gusev’s KHL numbers tell a similar story, with his best season coming in 2018-19 when he scored 17 goals and 82 points in 62 games for SKA St. Petersburg. He is a solid playmaker who can put the puck in the net when he needs to, which seems like a solid fit alongside many of the talented forwards on the Panthers’ roster.
He could find himself in a role where he can be setting up Patric Hornqvist on the third line, or he could find himself wreaking havoc alongside Barkov or Huberdeau. If the deal doesn’t pan out that way, it’s not a big deal; the Panthers gave up nothing for him, and they get off of his contract after the season is over.
If the signing does pan out, however, Florida gained another viable depth scorer who could possibly return next season for no cost at all.
April 12: Panthers Trade 2022 Second Round Pick Emil Heineman to Calgary for Sam Bennett
In one of the more puzzling moves at the deadline, the Florida Panthers traded a 2022 second-round pick and 2020 second-round pick Emil Heineman in exchange for Sam Bennett and a 2022 sixth-round draft pick. Considering the Boston Bruins only gave up a 2021 second-rounder and Anders Bjork for Taylor Hall, this might’ve been a bit of an overpay.
Bennett’s career since being selected fourth overall in 2014 by the Calgary Flames has been a bit of a letdown, with him only scoring 67 goals and 140 points in 402 games as a Flame, and this season has been more of the same. In 38 games this year, the 24-year-old center has just four goals and 12 points in 28 games.
However, one of the more promising parts of Bennett’s game, especially for a team entrenched in a playoff race, is his playoff numbers. Last season, he scored five goals and eight points in the playoffs, leading the Flames in both categories.
Whether or not a change in scenery will bring out that production more consistently from Bennett remains to be seen, but the Panthers did take a massive risk in acquiring the pending restricted free agent. It is also likely that the Panthers would have to wait a timetable of at least a week for Bennett to even play his first game with the team because the trade was made with a Canadian club.
Bennett likely fits on the roster as a second or third-line center, and with the right linemates, he may have a chance to revitalize his career, but it remains to be seen.
With the Panthers making a lot of low-risk, high-reward moves, it seems like there are a lot of questions to be answered down the stretch, but if these moves pan out the way Zito wanted them to, Florida may have a Stanley Cup contender.
Colby Guy is a writer for the Florida Panthers department here at THW. He’s a senior at Florida Atlantic University and currently serves as a social media manager and photographer for FAU Owls Nest. Previously, Colby has written for FanSided as a New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators writer. He also served as Editor-In-Chief for FAU’s University Press.