Florida Panthers

As these former Panthers move into the Stanley Cup Finals, Florida prepares for draft

Jonathan Marchessault #81 of the Vegas Golden Knights battles for the puck with Dmitry Kulikov #5 of the Winnipeg Jets during the third period in Game Five Sunday.
Jonathan Marchessault #81 of the Vegas Golden Knights battles for the puck with Dmitry Kulikov #5 of the Winnipeg Jets during the third period in Game Five Sunday. Getty Images

The Florida Panthers … (Jonathan Marchessault) are trying … (Reilly Smith) to focus … (Gerard Gallant) on next month’s NHL Draft and the subsequent start of free agency 2018.

But, for fans at least, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore what the first-year expansion Vegas Golden Knights have accomplished with the Panthers’ former coach (Gallant) and two of their players (Marchessault and Smith) from the 2016-2017 roster.

The Panthers fired Gallant, allowed Marchessault to leave in the expansion draft and got just a fourth-round pick in return for Smith.

Marchessault and Smith — both 27 years old — combined to score 49 goals in the regular season and are Vegas’ top two playoff points-getters during their current run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Beyond those moves, the Panthers batted .500 on two other decisions dating to last July — signing wingers Radim Vrbata and Evgenii Dadonov.

Vrbata signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract, produced just five goals and then retired last month.

Florida’s home run move was the three-year, $12-million contract it gave to Dadonov, a Russian winger who produced 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. At age 29, he’s a keeper.

Which leads us to the draft and free agency — what can we expect from the Panthers?

In the draft, the Panthers have the 15th pick. The Sporting News projects defenseman Bode Wilde (“can skate like the wind and unload a heavy, accurate shot).”

Other projections for the Panthers at 15 include center Barrett Hayton, right winger Vitali Kravtsov and left winger Joel Farabee.

In free agency, the last time the Panthers made a major-money splash was two years ago, when they handed defenseman Keith Yandle a seven-year, $44 million contract.

Yandle, while not a shut-down defenseman, scored 56 points last season, his best production since 2010-2011. And his durability is well known, not having missed a game since the 2008-2009 season.

It remains to be seen if the Panthers want to be big spenders in this year’s free-agent class, but there is a need for a winger who can produce 25-plus goals (you know, like a Marchessault).

Barring a trade, the Panthers are set at goalie with Roberto Luongo, who was third in the NHL with a .929 save percentage; and backup James Reimer, who tied for ninth in the league with four shutouts despite starting just 42 games. Third-stringer Harri Sateri performed well when given a chance, but he’s a free agent now. It remains to be seen if the Panthers try to trade Reimer for an asset, opening the door to re-sign Sateri.

The Panthers might try to bolster their middle-of-the-pack defense by adding to their core group of Yandle, Aaron Ekblad and Michael Matheson. But it’s doubtful they will spend big money at this position because of what they are already dishing out on Ekblad and Yandle.

That brings us back to the forwards, where the Panthers have two All-Stars in Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck to go with Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad.

The Panthers have faith that two recent first-round picks — Henrik Borgstrom, 20 and Owen Tippett, 19 — are ready to blossom.

And the Panthers also have faith in other young forwards such as 21-year-old Denis Malgin (11 goals); 22-year-old Jared McCann (nine goals); 24-year-old Frank Vatrano (five goals); and 23-year-old Maxim Mamin (three goals).

But, while the kids mature, Panthers fans are surely hoping the front office can sign an in-his-prime scorer such as James Van Riemsdyk, James Neal, David Perron, Patrick Maroon or Michael Grabner. All are between ages 29 and 30.

Older targets could include Ilya Kovalchuk, who is set to return from Russia’s KHL; Rick Nash; Valtteri Filppula; and Tyler Bozak.

Van Riemsdyk, who scored 36 goals for Toronto this past season, would seem to be an ideal fit if the Panthers were inclined to outbid the competition.

Neal, a former 40-goal scorer in his days with the Pittsburgh Penguins, scored 25 times for Vegas this past regular season.

Grabner, who has elite speed, scored 27 goals in each of his past two seasons and is also an effective penalty-killer.

One other player to highlight is Nash, who has produced three 40-goal seasons in his career but averaged 22 scores the past two years. Nash, at age 33, is no longer an elite scorer but has become a solid two-way winger who could fit well with young Panthers stars such as Barkov and Huberdeau.

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