There were times this past season when it looked like the Florida Panthers couldn’t stop a beach ball.
The Panthers could score, but they missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year because they had the second-worst save percentage in the NHL.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Panthers introduced four free agents who are expected to help on defense, including two forwards.
Three of the signees are rated among NHL Network’s top 20 free agents in the league this year: ex-Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (ranked second), former Washington Capitals winger Brett Connolly (No. 14), and ex-Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman (No. 16).
The Panthers also signed Noel Acciari, a defensive-minded winger who is likely to anchor Florida’s fourth line after helping the Boston Bruins reach the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
But Bobrovsky was the big-ticket signing as he was given a seven-year, $70-million contract.
“I think it’s his athleticism,” Connolly said when asked what makes Bobrovsky special. “He’s super quick.
“He also really takes care of himself. That’s known around the league about him — that he prepares like none other. He’s always been a tough goalie to score on. He’s a true pro and super-talented.”
Had the Panthers sported even league-average goaltending this past season, they likely would’ve made the playoffs.
Instead, Roberto Luongo had a 3.12 goals-against average and then retired at age 40, and James Reimer (3.09 GAA) was traded.
Luongo, a sure Hall of Famer, won 35 games in 2015-2016 but had 18 victories or fewer in each of the past three years as injuries took a toll.
Reimer, 31, also backtracked the past two years.
“To me, Bob is a top-three goaltender in the league,” Panthers broadcaster Steve Goldstein said. “He can steal — as we saw against Tampa — an entire series.”
Goldstein referenced Columbus’ first-round playoff sweep of Tampa Bay this past April. The Lightning had tied an NHL record with 62 regular-season wins, yet Bobrovsky shut down that team, allowing only eight goals in four games.
“Bob doesn’t say anything,” Columbus coach John Tortorella told reporters during that series. “He just goes about his business.”
Bobrovsky, who turns 31 in September, was never drafted, likely because of the difficulty at the time in getting players to the NHL from Russia.
He was signed by the Philadelphia Flyers, but after being traded for a second-round pick and two fourths, Bobrovsky flourished in Columbus, where he twice won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie.
Now, he’s in South Florida, which he targeted for what could be the final stage of his career.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” Bobrovsky said. “I decided last week. With the bright future this team has, a great coach [Joel Quenneville], great management, and a talented group of [players], I’m excited to be here. I think we can make something special here.”
Look for Bobrovsky to get about 65 starts this season, with the remaining 17 going to rookie Sam Montembeault. Bobrovsky has played more than 60 games in each of the past three years, posting a sterling 115-63-12 record during that span.
No other NHL goalie has won as many games as Bob during that time frame.
This past season, he went 37-24-1 with a league-best nine shutouts as well as a .913 save percentage and a 2.58 goals-against average.
But the Panthers’ hopes for improved defense go beyond Bobrovsky. Some of it will hinge on the new defensive system brought in by Quenneville, who has won three Stanley Cup titles and gives the franchise added credibility.
In addition, Stralman, Connolly, and Acciari will all play their defensive roles.
“I think it’s amazing the Panthers were able to fill the holes they had,” Goldstein said when asked about the free agents who were added. “They needed a goaltender. They needed more bite and grit, and Acciari solves that — he was great during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. They needed a little more size and scoring on the wing, and Connolly fills that. Connolly also works the boards and gets back defensively.
“And Stralman may be the unsung one in all of this because he’s a real pro, and he will help stabilize things defensively.
“I expect the defense to be improved for all those reasons.”