In terms of signing star Russian free agents, the Florida Panthers went 1-for-2 on Monday.
The Panthers agreed to a seven-year, $70 million contract with goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who turns 31 in September. It is the largest deal in franchise history.
He is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2012-2013 and again in 2016-2017. His 115 wins since the start of the 2016-2017 season are the most in the NHL in that span.
But the Panthers missed out on high-scoring winger Artemi Panarin, who chose the New York Rangers.
“The glamour move would’ve been Panarin with [Bobrovsky],” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. “We stayed with it as long as we could. We were hot after both of them.
“But when it looked like it might not come together, we decided to go in a different direction and get a bit more balance to our team.”
The Panthers added Bobrovsky and three other veterans who were all in the playoffs this past season, getting defenseman Anton Stralman to go with wingers Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari.
With the recent retirement of Roberto Luongo and the trade of James Reimer, the Panthers roster was wide open at the goalie position, setting the stage for Bobrovsky.
“Sergei is an elite goaltender,” said Tallon, who added that the backup goalie is set to be rookie Sam Montembeault. “Sergei will give us the confidence to win every night as we look toward to the next era of Panthers hockey.”
Panarin, 27, had Florida on his list of three finalists, but he took less money ($11.6 million per season on a seven-year deal) than was reportedly offered by other teams.
Despite that setback, the Panthers bounced back by adding Stralman, who will get $16.5 million over three years.
Stralman, who turns 33 next month, will be playing for his fifth NHL team, spending the past five seasons in a very successful run with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Anton is a two-way defenseman who plays solid hockey and brings a wealth of experience,” Tallon said. “His knowledge of the game and his winning mentality will be a valuable asset for our young defensemen.”
Stralman joins a crew of defensemen that includes Keith Yandle, Aaron Ekblad, Mike Matheson, Mark Pysyk and MacKenzie Weegar. Tallon mentioned Matheson as someone who could pair with Stralman.
Connolly, 27, was the NHL’s sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft. He set career highs this past season in games (81), goals (22), assists (24) and game-winning goals (five).
“Brett brings a dimension of size [6-3, 195] and skill,” Tallon said. “He’s a Stanley Cup champion who knows what it takes to win in this league, and he strengthens our depth.”
Acciari, who helped the Boston Bruins reach the Stanley Cup finals this past season, is considered a fourth-line grinder. The 27-year-old is set to receive $5 million over three years. He scored just 18 goals in 180 games for the Bruins, but he was second on the team in hits in each of the past two years. He played 19 playoff games this past season despite suffering a broken sternum.
“Noel makes our club deeper and harder to play against,” Tallon said. “He’s a hard-nosed, reliable, two-way forward.”
Acciari, a 5-10, 205-pound native of Rhode Island, was undrafted after playing four years at Providence College, winning one national championship. He had six goals and eight assists in 72 games this past season.
Which brings us back to Bobrovsky, the man the Panthers hope will take them back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. In addition, the Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996.
Bobrovsky will hope to improve a Panthers defense that allowed more goals last season than all but three NHL teams.
“Signing Bobrovsky is a huge move for the Panthers,” is how the analysts put it on NHL Network. “He’s a difference-maker who brings an aura of confidence to the Panthers.”