The Florida Panthers opened the free agency window for the 2019-20 season by signing four players, highlighted by inking goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, to a $70-million contract over seven years.
In addition to Bobrovsky, the Panthers added defenseman Anton Stralman, along with forwards Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari on the first day of free agency.
Dale Tallon, the Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager, is confident the new additions will significantly improve a club that missed the playoffs and finished 10th in the Eastern Conference last season.
“As a group we felt we needed to make some changes to our roster to get it deeper so we could make a good run for the playoffs,” Tallon said of Bobrovsky. “We have plenty of scoring ability, plenty of offense. We had to address compete, physicality and goals-against. Those were the concerns we had, and I think we did a good job of addressing those needs.”
Sergei Bobrovsky – Goalie
Bobrovsky, who played the past seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, was the highest-rated goalie on this year’s free agent market after he led the Blue Jackets to an opening round sweep of the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 30-year-old Bobrovsky topped all NHL goalies with nine shutouts last season and posted a 37-24-1 record with a .913 save percentage and a 2.58 goals-against average.
“He gives you a chance to win every night,” Tallon said of Bobrovsky, who has an NHL-best 115 wins over the last three seasons. “He’s durable and a very good player. He’s a student of the game. Nobody works harder.”
Bobrovsky’s new contract of $10 million per season makes the two-time All-Star the second-highest paid goalie per season, trailing only Montreal Canadien Carey Price’s $10.5 million annual contract.
The Panthers are putting the success of the franchise squarely on Bobrovsky, despite him losing four of the five playoff series in which he has been the starter and posting an 11-18 postseason record.
In the immediate future, Bobrovsky should solidify Florida’s goaltending as the Panthers gave up the fourth-most goals last season, coupled with the club losing their top two goalies from last season as Roberto Luongo retired and James Reimer was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes last week.
However, there may be longer term concerns down the road for the Panthers as Bobrovsky will be 38 by the end of this contract. History has shown that the play of most NHL goalies slips as goalies approach their mid-30s. For example, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers has seen his goals-against average increase each season since he turned 33.
In addition, Bobrovsky has played a lot of hockey the past three seasons, averaging over 70 games per season, including playoffs, and will be expected to do the same in 2019-20 as the team has penciled in 22-year-old Sam Montembeault, who has played just 11 NHL games, as the backup.
Anton Stralman – Defenseman
In an effort to strengthen their blue line, the Panthers signed veteran Anton Stralman to a three-year contract worth $16.5 million to help a defense that allowed 3.41 goals against per game last season.
The 32-year-old Stralman averaged over 20 minutes per game the past five seasons with the Lightning and will be counted on to do the same with the Panthers. Stralman’s veteran experience should help the Panthers’ young defensemen, as five of their returning blueliners are 25 or younger.
“I like his ability to move the puck, his defensive play,” Tallon said of Stralman, who has played in over 100 playoff games. “He’s steady. He’s reliable. He’s smart. He’ll be a good partner for one of our young guys. I look at a [defenseman Mike Matheson] as a steadying influence with him. I think they’d be a good pair.”
In the past six seasons, the right-handed shooting Stralman played an average of 73 games. Over his 12 previous seasons, he has scored 242 points (47 goals, 195 assists) in 749 games with the Lightning, Blue Jackets, Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs..
Brett Connolly, Noel Acciari – Forwards
The Panthers added a pair of Eastern Conference free agents by signing Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari.
Connolly, who scored 15 or more goals in each of the past three seasons with the Washington Capitals, including a career-high 22 last season, inked a four-year, $13-million contract with the Panthers.
The 27-year-old Connolly is the only current Panther who has won a Stanley Cup, as he lifted the Cup with the Capitals in 2018.
“That’s very important, a Stanley Cup winner in Connolly. Connolly’s a very efficient player,” Tallon said. “He’s averaged 18 goals the last three years with about 12 minutes of ice time per game. He can kill penalties. He can play a heavy game down low, and he’s only 27 years old.”
Acciari joins the Panthers after playing parts of the past four seasons with the Boston Bruins, including reaching the Stanley Cup Final this past season.
Also 27, just as Connolly, Acciari registered a career-best 14 points in 72 games in 2018-19. A physical, hard-nosed player, Acciari ranked second on the Bruins in hits in each of the last two seasons.
“That’s what we’ve been lacking,” Tallon said. “This guy’s going to make people accountable. He’s a versatile player. He wins faceoffs and will take some of the burden away from [Barkov], taking D-zone faceoffs, killing penalties and playing that physical role. He gives our fourth line a little more spirit and passion.”
I have followed the NHL since the early 1980s, when offense was king. I lived in the midwest until 2013, when I relocated to south Florida.