Feedback from analysts on the Florida Panthers’ free-agent splash this week, a $105 million spending spree highlighted by the addition of elite goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky:
Overall, “the Panthers have made huge strides,” said NHL Network analyst and former NHL player and Tampa Bay general manager Brian Lawton, the first overall pick of the 1983 draft. “It’s not the way we thought it was going to play out. We thought [new New York Rangers winger Artemi] Panarin would probably end up there with Bobrovsky. The fact of the matter is they still made a lot of excellent changes.
“If I had one concern about them, I’m still not sold completely on that [defensive] core. [Anton] Stralman will help them immensely, can give them 20 plus minutes a night. Maybe we will see them rejigger a forward moving out, one more defenseman coming in. I think that will be the difference between playoffs or no playoff for the Florida Panthers.”
NHL Network analyst Alex Tanguay, who scored 283 NHL goals, said: “When we look at what Dale Tallon did, first the hiring of Joel Quenneville, from there we thought there was a sense of excitement, rejuvenation in what the Florida Panthers could do. The key to their team is Sasha Barkov. They realize early in October they will need to put their foot in the gas pedal right away because Toronto and Boston and Tampa Bay are not going away.”
The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy: “Goaltending had been a soft spot for the Panthers due to Roberto Luongo’s descent, but the Panthers got their man in Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The price was steep, but the Cats had the space and now they have bolstered a very big need. Elsewhere, Florida got an experienced depth defenseman in Anton Stralman, a bottom-six bang-and-crasher in Noel Acciari and a middle-six winger in Brett Connolly. Given how much talent the team already had up front (headlined by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau), it’s looking very positive for the Panthers. Assuming the key guys stay healthy, this is a playoff team.”
More on the four players added:
▪ Bobrovsky (7 years, $ 70 million): Age 30, and considered one of the NHL’s best goalies. Was 37-24, 2.58 goals against average for Columbus last season. His 115 wins for Columbus since the start of 2016-17 are the NHL’s most over the past three seasons.
“He was the No. 1 rated goaltender out there and he’s an absolute difference maker,” Lawton said.
Said Tanguay: “You look at the save percentage, but what I think he brings is an aura of confidence over the team. Now all of a sudden, Sasha Barkov, Vincent Trochek, they look at the team and think, ‘OK, we make a mistake, there’s no problem. We’ve got the backbone that’s going to make that save, that is going to allow us to perhaps some nights might not be at our best and still win hockey games.’ That four, five, six games you can win based on the goalie making the difference alone might be so reassuring for some of those guys in Florida that the impact for them will not only be in the net but psychologically.”
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski: “In the short term, it gives the Panthers one of the league’s top netminders. In the long term, he’s going to be a 36-year-old making $10 million against the cap. Only Canadiens goalie Cary Price ($10.5 million) has a higher average annual salary among netminders than Bobrovsky, 30, who will earn $10 million against the cap annually with the Panthers through 2026.”
▪ Forward Brett Connolly (four years, $13 million): Age 27. Had career highs in goals (22, including five game winners), assists (24) and points (46) for the Washington Capitals last season, with two goals in seven postseason games.
“Top nine forward,” Lawton said.
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan: “Likely a third-line winger. Connolly is an upgrade to Florida’s bottom six, but doesn’t exactly move the needle in suddenly transforming the Panthers into a playoff team. That said, playoff teams need important role players, and that’s exactly what Connolly is. The good news for the Panthers is that Connolly may be only realizing his best potential now, and this four-year deal theoretically takes him through the prime of his career. The bad news is, we’re not sure how high that ceiling is...Connolly never got a lot of ice time (he maxed out at 13:20 per game last season in Washington) or power-play time, and perhaps he gets more of a look in Florida.”
▪ Forward Noel Acciari, 27 (three years, $5 million): Had six goals, eight assists, 14 points in a career-high 72 games with the Boston Bruins last season. His 221 hits ranked second on Boston and 12th among all NHL forwards.
“A bottom six forward,” Lawton said. “What do all [four new Panthers have in common]? They were all in the playoffs last year. They’re looking to change the culture in Florida. They did a lot of great work.”
▪ Defenseman Anton Stralman (3 for $16.5 million): Age 32. Appeared in 47 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season and had two goals and 15 assists.
“That is going to be a big move for them; he’s got to stay healthy,” Lawton said. “He’s not the biggest, hardiest player, but he’s an excellent player.”
In Stralman’s defense, he played 82, 73, 73 and 80 games before the injuries limited him to 47 last season.
Tanguay: “He’s not going to overwhelm you with anything, but he does everything well, makes the players around him better. The question is how many games can he play, because they’re going to need big minutes out of Anton Stralman. He brings you stability. Dependability is something they were looking for.
“There’s still some growth that needs to happen. Mike Matheson needs to grow. We know what Keith Yandle will provide. They have been expecting more in Florida from Aaron Ekblad. MacKenzie Weegar has been developing, but to add a veteran the quality of Stralman, he will bring leadership, the voice of reason. That could speed up the development of some of the younger D-core in Florida.”