Florida Panthers disappointing season ends early. More changes coming this off-season?
On Friday afternoon, the NHL's Florida Panthers suffered another loss filled with easily avoided mistakes to the New York Islanders in the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The loss sent the Islanders to the next round and the Florida Panthers home with a bitter, yet familiar, feeling. The last time the Panthers made the playoffs was in 2016, when they won the Atlantic Division, but lost to the same team, the Isles, in the first round, which makes this last loss particularly hard to swallow.
What have the Panthers learned from 2016? Not much, it seems, and not
much in the last 24 years, dating back to the last time they won a playoff series.
Something needs to change, and that started with the firing of longtime General Manager Dale Tallon immediately following Friday’s 5-1 loss.
Here’s what the Panthers need to look for in a new GM.
1: High quality drafting
Tallon spent the first four years of his 10-year stint with the Panthers doing some impressive work in the draft.
In his first year as the Panthers GM, he drafted defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Nick Bjugstad, both of which have since moved to different clubs but served the Cats well. Tallon continued to draft well over the next few years, taking a generational talent in center Aleksander Barkov (2013) and big Panthers names like Jonathan Huberdeau (2011), Vincent Trocheck (now on the Hurricanes), and Aaron Ekblad (2014). Some of his later picks, like seventh rounder MacKenzie Weegar (2013), have also proved prosperous.
But drafting fell off after 2014 with few of the Cats’ picks getting ice time.
If the Panthers want to be serious playoff contenders, they need a GM who can do what Tallon did in his heyday and draft young, talented players to learn under experienced veteran leaders. With the loss to the Isles, the Panthers can at least look forward to a chance at drafting Alexis Lafreniere if they get a good position in the lottery draft.
2: Reduction of contractual mistakes
As things go in any pro league, there are inevitable mistakes made when it comes to contracts. But the last few years have been a bit harder on the Panthers than many would expect.
Tallon’s previously salvageable legacy was effectively and brutally tarnished by the moves he made in the Vegas expansion draft. The loss of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith for what amounts to nothing, as well as trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to Pittsburgh (also for basically nothing but more contractual obligations), is too much to even get into.
Then there’s the recent controversy over Mike Matheson. You could ask most Panthers fans over the last few years what they thought of Mike Matheson and they probably would’ve given you a glowing review of the 26-year-old defenseman. But Matheson is on the hot seat now after committing two excessively violent penalties against the Isles in the first two games of the series, including a hit against Johnny Boychuk which took him out of play for the rest of the series. Matheson was benched, and if the problems persist into next season, the Panthers may
have a big problem offloading his contract, which has five more years and over $24 million left on it.
But Matheson is chump change compared to the catastrophe that was the signing of Dave Bolland. In 2014, the Panthers signed Bolland to a five-year, $27.5 million contract. In two seasons, he played in only 78 out of 164 possible games due to injuries. Eventually, the Cats sent him to the Arizona Coyotes for a couple of picks, but Bolland never played another game.
Just a few millions down the drain.
The Panthers new GM can’t make these mistakes. Players must be evaluated, not only for talent, but also for physical health and decision-making, especially when it comes to how they will represent the team. Not every player, no matter how talented they may be on the ice, is worth a long-term contract.
3: Understanding of a winning formula (with an emphasis on consistency)
When the Cats won the Atlantic Division in 2016, it was because of a specific player formula. The Panthers took their young core (Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Trocheck, Ekblad) and let them grow under the leadership of hockey legends Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo, as well as veterans like Jussi Jokinen, Derek MacKenzie, Brian Campbell, and Willie Mitchell, amongst others.
Having a team of young stars is great, but you can’t blame them (at least, not entirely) when you run into consistency issues. Most young players won’t know how to win in a professional setting unless and until you teach them, and the easiest way to do that is to let winners teach them. The Cats’ consistency issues recently may be a result of having only four players over 30 on the roster. While deserved, it does say something that the team captain is only 24 years old.
4: Development of a young goaltender
What can we say about Sergei Bobrovsky? The 31-year-old goalie has definitely had his moments this season, but his contract, signed by Dale Tallon, has put the Panthers in the hole for the next six seasons. Bobrovsky lucked into a 7-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers only because of Tallon’s incompetence.
The Panthers have cycled through a few young goaltenders since Roberto Luongo’s retirement, including AHL call-up Sam Montembeault, who had a few of his own moments as a backup to Bobrovsky, and Chris Driedger, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Panthers last year. Either or both of these two could turn out to be valuable aspects of the future of the organization, but they are also competing against the Panthers first round draft pick of last year, Spencer Knight.
Knight is the first goaltender ever taken in the first round by the franchise
and was ranked as the top eligible goaltender in the 2019 Draft. One of these three goalies need to prove himself a standout to take over as Bobrovsky’s backup
(and maybe even to supersede him). But it will take some development to make it happen, and that will have to fall on the new GM’s shoulders.
5: Locking up stars Mike Hoffman and/or Evgeni Dadanov (or replacing them)
The Panthers new GM will also need to look at keeping two of their most valuable players, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadanov, locked up for the next few years, after they become free agents this season.
Hoffman was the Panthers third-leading goal scorer this season with 29 goals and 30 assists in the regular season and three in the qualifying round to lead the team. His talents lie especially in the power play, where he dominates, but he is productive in most, if not all, aspects of the offense. His price will likely come in at around $7 million a year, but if the Panthers can keep him on, it seems worth the cap hit.
Dadanov, meanwhile, has proved himself a worthy addition after some swapping around early in his NHL career. The right wing has scored at least 25 goals in his last three seasons, topping off at 70 points in the 2018-19 season, and frequently joins Huberdeau and Barkov on the Panthers’ first line.
The Cats will need to balance the two players’ worth on the ice with their worth in their wallets because it will almost certainly take some big bucks to keep either of them in South Florida. It seems likely that at least one of them will have to be let go.
-- Kyle King
Headline Photo Credit: Miami Herald