With the possible exception of the New York Rangers, no team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference has had a better offseason than the Florida Panthers.
Las Vegas has noticed, moving the Panthers — who haven’t made the playoffs since 2016 — up to the top wild-card favorite in the East.
The Panthers’ positive mojo began on April 8, when GM Dale Tallon hired three-time Stanley Cup champ coach Joel Quenneville.
On June 21, the Panthers made another bold move, drafting a goalie in the first round for the only time in franchise history, selecting a possible future star in Spencer Knight. He will play for Boston College for at least a couple of seasons, in all likelihood, before turning pro.
Then, on Monday, the Panthers signed star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky as well as defenseman Anton Stralman and wingers Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari.
Bobrovsky, who has won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie twice in the past seven years, believes the Panthers can contend, in time, for a Stanley Cup.
“It’s all about the Cup,” Bobrovsky said. “That’s why I’m here now. I believe in this team. I believe in this group.
“But it’s a process. No one said it’s going to be easy. No one said it’s going to be smooth and nice. We will face adversity. But I believe we will reach our goal.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied the NHL record for regular-season wins, and the Boston Bruins, who reached the Stanley Cup finals, join the talented Toronto Maple Leafs as the top three teams in the Atlantic Division, followed by the Panthers, just ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, according to oddsmakers.
In the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won the Cup twice in the past few years, and the Washington Capitals, who won it in 2018, are the favorites.
But it’s been a rough offseason for 2019 playoff teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes, and that could open a wild-card door for the Panthers if they fail to win a top-three spot within their division.
Count Stralman among those who are optimistic about the Panthers’ chances.
“I’ve seen [the Panthers] a lot the past few years, and I’ve always thought they had a lot of potential,” said Stralman, who was a key part of the Lightning the past five years.
“As soon as the Panthers contacted me, I felt this could be a good fit. I see this team taking steps toward the playoffs and being a contender, and that’s a trip I want to be on.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Stralman said he had sports-hernia surgery two months ago, an injury that held him to just 47 games last season after playing 80 the prior year.
“Last season was frustrating,” said Stralman, who added that he will be ready for training camp. “It feels like I’m behind it now, but I still have work to do to build up strength.”
Tallon, by the way, called Stralman’s surgery “a minor fix.”
▪ The NHL’s top two top free agents in this 2019 class – Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin, who chose the Rangers – signed for a combined total of $151.5 million. That’s not bad for a couple of Russians who went undrafted by the NHL.
Panarin, who was Bobrovsky’s teammate with the Columbus Blue Jackets, reportedly was offered more money by the Panthers, Islanders, Jackets and Colorado Avalanche.
“We are now on the other side,” Bobrovsky said of Panarin. “It’s a business. He’s happy, and I’m happy.”