Has the Florida Panthers galaxy fallen into oblivion?
How much damage can a playoff loss cause?
Obviously a ton. That was enough to erase the most memorable and successful season in Florida Panthers history in just four games. In the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning rode like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in men in black and – flash! — made all of Florida’s accomplishments in 2021-22 meaningless.
At least, that’s what seemed to be happening based on General Manager Bill Zito’s movements in the weeks and months that followed.
His team won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, accumulating 122 points, the seventh-highest total in 104 seasons in NHL history. Their 58 wins are tied for fifth all-time. They have averaged the most goals per game of any NHL team over the past 26 years. First-line Jonathan Huberdeau is tied for second in league scoring with 115 points and set an NHL single-season record for assists by a left winger with 85. So, yes, naturally, the Panthers felt it was necessary to tear up the roster after winning just one playoff round. Andrew Brunette, Jack Adams Award finalist? Sorry mate, here’s the door. We are opting for a new coach in the person of Paul Maurice, an extremely well-spoken man who suffered the most defeats in NHL history and made the playoffs in nine of 24 seasons. .
Am I simplifying the circumstances to prove a point? Sure. And part of the Cats’ summer rotation was inevitable. The likes of Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot were clear deadline rentals with little chance of re-signing and going under the cap in Florida. Fair. Perhaps UFA left winger Mason Marchment stood out on the team with his incredibly efficient season, in which he finished third among all NHL players with 5 points to 5 by 60. while working as a third line. And no one could have predicted that Anthony Duclair would suffer a serious Achilles tendon injury during offseason training.
But the Matthew Tkachuk trade, which forced Florida to send Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames, may or may not be remembered as Zito’s Icarus moment.
From the Panthers’ perspective, this made sense on many levels. They’ve locked a real unicorn in power forward Tkachuk and, following a cautious new trend across the league, are paying top dollar for a player’s best years. He is only 24 years old. He will be 32 when his eight-year contract ends. That’s $9.5 million in extremely well-distributed annual cap space. In a vacuum, I can understand the logic of wanting to spend wisely on an asset that should remain valuable for the duration of his contract rather than committing to Huberdeau, who is 29 and has signed a seven-year extension. with the Flames paying him until he’s 38.
From a pure expense perspective, I understand. But if you take into account that Florida gave up one of the best defensemen in the league in Weegar… from a bird’s perspective, I see a franchise that was just there among the league’s elite, the epitome of a win-now operation, choosing to step back for the long haul.
Trying to build a roster that will compete over time makes sense if your team is rebuilding, declining, or hasn’t improved for several seasons in a row. But it borders on self-sabotage when you turn the tide on a team that just won the fifth-most games in NHL history. And, speaking to Aaron Ekblad before the start of the season, I got the impression that the Panthers players were pretty flabbergasted by the moves. The tension was palpable – from Ekblad and Zito, if you remember that story.
Here’s Ekblad sharing his thoughts on trade with me:
« There’s a good way to answer that question, and that would be, ‘It’s a business and I’m sad to see them go but happy to be back. Realistically, yes, I’m very happy with Matthew as a player. I think he’s going to be great for us. But sad doesn’t even cover it when it comes to the two guys we lost. They are great friends of mine. I played with them for a very long time. It’s part of the business, but in the end it was a shock to see them go and lose them as teammates. I will try to stay as close to these guys as possible. They are great friends and good people and I will miss them dearly.
« I think at some point it’s important for the success of the group that the leaders accept change as a positive, » Zito said. Daily face-to-face. « I don’t think I needed their permission, but I feel like I certainly respect them as human beings first and as leaders and important movers of culture. It is therefore important for them to understand and accept change.
And now, with Ekblad landing on long-term injured reserve, just long enough to hurt the team’s competitiveness but not long enough for them to shop for a long-term replacement, the worst nightmare of the team has come true. Tkachuk looks dominant at the start of this season, a true game driver, and I have no doubt he will live up to his contract value. But now, with Ekblad out and Weegar gone, not to mention Brandon Montour in the short term, we’re looking at a top four defense of…drum roll…Marc Staal, Gustav Forsling, Josh Mahura and Radko Gudas.
Hey, maybe the Panthers are surviving a few months being extremely exhausted on defense. They still have Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Anton Lundell driving the bus up front. They’re probably still a playoff team.
But I would argue that they willingly stripped their Stanley Cup contender tag over the summer, dangerously depleting their depth, in the name of creating a long-term contender. And if the goal of building a long-term competitor is to, you know, combatwhy would you leave a position you are in the main contender for the Cup? Why save for that beautiful Italian sports car when you already had the Maserati in your driveway?
The reverse is what general manager Brad Treliving did in Calgary – even after losing top lines Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau. Will the contracts he gave to Huberdeau, Weegar and Nazem Kadri be good in a few seasons as they approach their thirties? Probably not. But the Flames were fresh off a dominant season in which they won the Pacific Division. Treliving realized there was no better time than the present to step on the gas and push for a Stanley Cup.
During NHL Board of Governors meetings this week in New York, Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated that the $1.1 billion debt paid by players to owners due to the pandemic shortfall could be removed as soon as this season and that the cap had a chance to increase by as much as as much as $4 to $5 million even this summer. So maybe the Panthers, who have taken care of their core and have Patric Hornqvist’s cap just off the books, make me look silly and power me up with some major additions this summer.
But that won’t change the fact that they’ve taken a 122-point team that just won their first playoff series in 26 years…and galaxy turned it into a more fragile operation that may or may not be able to survive a Ekblad’s long-term injury.
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