Panthers Post-Deadline Playoff Push

Judging by the Florida Panthers‘ trade deadline moves, this team is clearly battling for its second consecutive postseason berth.

With 20 games left in their season, the Panthers and New York Islanders are tied with 68 points, one point back from the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second Eastern Conference wildcard spot.

Roster turnover and injuries have been a big part of why the Panthers are at their current spot in the standings. Key players like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau being out of the lineup for extended periods of time has caused a team that won the Atlantic Division regular season title last year to tread water throughout the current campaign.

But on Wednesday, at this year’s trade deadline, the Panthers made some deals in an attempt to make up lost ground and improve their position in the conference (and playoff race).

The biggest transaction for Florida was acquiring veteran forward Thomas Vanek from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick and defenseman Dylan McIlrath.

Some lesser-known players involved in deals with the Panthers on Wednesday were rearguard Reece Scarlett – who Florida acquired from the New Jersey Devils for forward Shane Harper – and minor league goalie Adam Wilcox – who was sent to the Panthers by the Tampa Bay Lightning for fellow American Hockey League netminder Mike McKenna.

Vanek Joins the Panthers: The Positives

The addition of Vanek to the fold provides the Panthers with an experienced forward who brings depth to a team that has struggled in that department while being bitten by the injury bug throughout this season.

The Red Wings retaining 50 percent of Vanek’s $2.6-million salary cap hit is also beneficial for the Panthers, although Florida may have only owed him a fraction of that amount either way at this point in the season.

Vanek’s contract expires at the end of the current campaign, so if he doesn’t contribute much down the stretch, the Panthers can easily let him walk this summer.

Thomas Vanek’s NHL career has included a brief stint with the New York Islanders. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

In 48 games this season, Vanek has recorded 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists). That likely helped him to improve his trade value as the Red Wings appear to be starting their long-overdue rebuild that arguably kept getting delayed by wanting to maintain their long-running playoff appearance streak.

Making the postseason every year for a quarter-century is no small feat, but finishing in the middle of the pack in recent years only to lose in the first round likely prevented Detroit from bottoming out and acquiring younger, better players through high draft picks. The Red Wings may be preparing to do that now as they’re 26th in the NHL with a 24-26-10 record as of Wednesday.

So for Detroit, trading players with expiring contracts like Vanek, Tomas Jurco, Brendan Smith and Steve Ott for picks and prospects may help that cause.

But for the Panthers, Vanek, offers lots of experience playing in big games, as well as offensive talent, character and other intangibles.

In his career, which has spanned 865 games over roughly 12 seasons, the native of Vienna, Austria has put up 687 points (331 goals, 356 assists) for the Buffalo Sabres, Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild and the Red Wings.

In 63 playoff contests with the Sabres, Canadiens and Wild, Vanek has notched 34 points (20+14), so he has a proven ability to contribute in big games.

Dale Tallon, Panthers president of hockey operations, said before the deadline he was looking for help up front to boost the team’s struggling power play.

Vanek has netted 139 power play goals in his career, including 10 in the post-season. So he’s a beast on the man advantage who should provide Tallon with exactly what he was after pre-deadline.

The Risks of Adding Vanek

As is the case with any trade, it’s a crapshoot. Whether or not it will turn out as a general manager hopes is never certain, or at least not from the beginning.

That said, there’s always a chance Vanek won’t add anything to the Panthers down the stretch or in the playoffs, if they make it. In that event, Vanek’s contract expires soon, so Florida isn’t obligated to re-sign him.

Plus it isn’t like the Panthers sacrificed much to get him where McIlrath has five points in 43 NHL games with Florida and the New York Rangers. The Arizona Coyotes‘ pick (which the Red Wings only get if the Panthers make the playoffs) may not amount to much if this year’s draft class is as weak as many experts are saying.


What Detroit Gets in McIlrath

McIlrath’s $800,000 contract expires after this season, and it’s hard to say what the 24-year-old’s impact will be on a Red Wings team that has pretty much thrown in the towel at this point.

Dylan McIlrath. (Chris Rutsch-Hartford Wolf Pack)

The 6’5″, 236-lb rearguard has appeared in six games this year with the Rangers and Panthers, but he may be able to crack the lineup in Detroit as the Red Wings evidently aren’t pushing hard to make the playoffs right now.

If the Red Wings see McIlrath, who the Rangers picked 10th overall in the 2010 draft, as part of their long-term plans, they can always re-sign him. Or he can test the market as a free agent this summer.

But where the Rangers and Panthers have already deemed him expendable, it isn’t likely that McIlrath will be part of the future as the fire sale begins (and may continue) in the offseason.

The Draft Pick

Detroit arguably could have gotten a much better return for a player like Vanek, who has bounced back and played well on a struggling Red Wings squad after being bought out by the Wild last year. Instead, the team only got a fringe player and a draft pick it may not end up receiving.

Again, if the talent level in the 2017 draft proves to be limited after all, then Detroit won’t likely find a player who can become part of the Red Wings’ long-term future.

Then again, Detroit has discovered hidden late-round gems before (see Chris Osgood, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk). So it may be too early to write off the Red Wings’ chances of using the pick on a future star just yet.

The Moves that Flew Under the Radar

There probably weren’t many people paying attention to the two minor-leaguers the Panthers swapped at the deadline where they weren’t big names, nor did they have any roles with the big club.

It’s not like the Panthers were losing much with Harper, 28, who made his NHL debut on Oct. 13 against the Devils. The 5’11”, 193-lb winger recorded three points in 14 games with the Panthers this season before spending the rest of the year with the Springfield Thunderbirds of the AHL.

Shane Harper’s only NHL experience this year was 14 games with the Panthers in the fall. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Harper may eventually find a spot on the Devils’ roster – if he hasn’t already gotten one with the Albany Devils in the minors.

Scarlett, 23, has spent the last six years of his career with Albany. He may not seem like someone who stands out, but he did lead minor Devils defenders in points with 21 (four, 17).

Scarlett also may not get a chance with the Panthers anytime soon, given Florida’s desire to make the playoffs with as many full-time pros as possible over the next 20 games.

As for Wilcox, he has been lackluster for the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. He has posted a save percentage of .895 and a 2.87 goals-against average, which is somewhat offset by an 18-9-2 win-loss record.

McKenna, on the other hand, has recorded a .907 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average in 26 contests with Springfield this season. His record is 9-10.

McKenna, 33, has appeared in 22 NHL games over four seasons with the Lightning, Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and Coyotes.