Last season the Florida Panthers made the biggest Free Agent signing in the franchise’s 27-year history in Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
When Sergei Bobrovsky first came over to the Sunshine State from the Columbus Blue Jackets, everyone was expecting the Florida Panthers to make a deep run in the Playoffs.
It was understandably expected. They had one of the top first lines in the league with Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov teaming up with elite center Aleksander Barkov. They had a great nucleus of scorers to complement their top line such as Mike Hoffman and Vincent Trocheck. They also still had Aaron Ekblad, who is slowly but still improving as an NHL defenseman.
Not to mention the fact that the Panthers had also hired three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville as their new Head Coach.
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The team had gobs of talent and adding a supposedly top 10 goalie would eventually transform this team into a Stanley Cup contender. However, that didn’t happen.
Even after the fledging franchise made some eye-raising and attention grabbing moves for the first time in years, they still struggled. Everyone including Bobrovsky faltered as the season went on and a team that was supposed to make noise in the postseason for the first time since their Cinderella run in 1996 was looking in on the outside for a possible Playoff spot.
When the NHL paused due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Panthers were only able to earn 78 points during the regular season. That still was good enough for the league to allow them into the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and play the New York Islanders in a Best-of-5 series. When play resumed, however, the team looked the same and showed no improvement. They were eliminated in four games to the Isles.
Bobrovsky struggled to maintain a footing with the team in his first year. He only had a .900 Save Percentage and a 3.23 Goals Against Average. Those are scary and concerning numbers for a guy who signed a seven-year, $70,000,000 deal last offseason.
But was it all his fault? No, absolutely not. While many can point the finger and say that he is the one to blame for the Cats’ lackluster season, the bigger picture must be analyzed. For the past few seasons, at least before Bobrovsky arrived, Florida had been one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
They ranked 28th out of 31 teams for goals against with 228 this past season. Some of that is on Bobrovsky’s shoulders, but most of it isn’t. The defense in front of him was one of the worst I have seen in person. They would turn the puck over repeatedly, fail to cover the opponent’s top players in their own end, and not know specific assignments.
The defensive core was also compiled with offensive-minded defensemen, past their prime entities, youngsters lacking NHL experience, and Michael Matheson, who is now a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. All you need to know is that Matheson is useless in his own right. He is one of the worst defenseman in the league by far.
With all that out of the way, it’s time to ask a debatable yet interesting question. Has the new management group given their embattled superstar the chance to have a bounce back season?
Owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu decided to go in a different direction and part ways with the franchises’ longest tenured GM Dale Tallon. Matt Caldwell then selected former Columbus assistant Bill Zito to be the new GM. This offseason he has made a ton of moves with the NHL roster, some of them questionable. It’s clear he emphasized grit and toughness with the moves he made.
His first big acquisition was acquiring Patric Hornqvist from the Pittsburgh Penguins. What makes this move more important than it looks is that he was able to dump the dud in Mike Matheson. As mentioned earlier, the defenseman was terrible. He regressed more and more after signing one of the biggest contracts in Panthers history just before the 2018-19 season, an eight-year, $39 million contract. Matheson became a liability on defense and took plenty of egregious penalties. This resulted in Head Coach Joel Quenneville scratching Matheson out of the lineup on several occasions.
Zito then signed a few other players in Free Agency and said goodbye to Evgeny Dadonov and presumably Mike Hoffman. After acquiring Hornqvist, Zito was able to come to terms with Alexander Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, Markus Nutivaara, Radko Gudas, and Vinnie Hinostroza.
On paper it looks like the team lost some offense and they did. However, if top prospects Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko can make the team, play a full season and contribute just enough offensively the unit could be fine. While Zito let go some high-profile scorers, what he brought in could finally get this team over the hump.
What this team needs the most, however, is help for Bobrovsky. The team needs to be able to allow him to keep the puck out of the net and have him composed for a full 60 minutes. The additions could help him justify that big contract he earned last season.
The reason why the Russian goaltender was able to excel in Columbus was because of the team put around him. While you could make the argument that an elite goalie should be able to do all the dirty work and keep the puck out of the net themselves, they simply can’t. All goalies need a collection of defensive-oriented players to help.
It looks like that Bobrovsky would have that help with the aforementioned acquisitions, including a player like Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist was the first player brought into Florida during the offseason. Since he is older, 33 years old to be exact, it is a possibility that his point production could get even lower, depending on where he plays and how well he fits in with the Panthers.
It has already been decreasing. Starting from the 2017-18 season, the veteran from Sweden had his point total go down from 49 points to 37 the next year and now 32 from last season. Joel Quenneville would most likely want to make the declining winger to focus more on the defensive side of the puck. It’s not going to be much of an emphasis for him to chip in if Denisenko and Tippett step up right away, like I said earlier.
Of course, Zito made an expected and clever move by also getting gritty defenseman Radko Gudas. Gudas has never been a scorer throughout his career but he is always a premier name when looking for an upgrade to a defensive unit. Gudas has been one of the more physical players in the league for a great amount of time now, averaging stockpiling 1,648 hits throughout his career. The defensive unit for the Panthers has been relatively soft for the last few seasons.
It was rare to see a defenseman line up and make contact with an opponent. That has been the case for the two best defensemen on the roster, Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle. Playing physical and manning the front of the net in their own zone has never been their style of play. And it was clear that both of them on the same pairing was a disaster waiting to happen.
Now with the acquisition of Gudas, along with bringing back Mackenzie Weegar, that will allow Yandle and Ekblad to put more of their focus on the offensive side of the puck, which is where they contribute the most. Gudas would most likely play on the third defensive pairing since he has never averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time in a season.
The Panthers also acquired Markus Nutivaara from Columbus in a minor trade. The 26 year-old still has two years left on his contract and will become an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2022. However, I don’t necessarily see the fit for him here because of a couple of circumstances.
The first is that for an NHL defenseman, he is a bit undersized. Nutivaara is only 6-foot-one and just weighs in at 187 pounds. He was also injured for most of last season, only playing in 37 contests. The native of Finland was also a healthy scratch for most of last year too, including the Playoffs.
The second factor is because he will have some competition with a youngster who has a bright future in my opinion. Riley Stillman played exceptionally well when in the lineup at times during last season. While the son of former NHLer Corey Stillman played in just 34 games, he showed a lot of potential as a defensive defenseman. In the short span he accumulated 59 hits and 57 blocked shots. Stillman plays a more physical game than Nutivaara and that element is what has been needed with the Panthers for a long time now.
Nutivaara can become a top six blueliner with the Cats but I don’t it happening. Stillman could be starting on opening night (whenever that is) and Nutivaara would be a depth option throughout the upcoming season.
Now with some moves made across the roster especially on the defense, Sergei Bobrovsky appears to have a little bit more help. However, Bobrovsky needs to step up himself as well. He let in a bunch of goals that he should’ve stopped last year.
He seemed lost the entire season and it also appeared at times that he wasn’t comfortable. With the losses from last season, this team still has a boatload of talent but the Russian goaltender is going to be the main X-Factor here.
I believe that GM Bill Zito has given his marquee goaltender more of a formidable defense in front of him, mostly because of Radko Gudas and bringing back Mackenzie Weegar. But, if Sergei Bobrovsky continues to regress than you can count on the Florida Panthers suffering yet more Stanley Cup Playoffs disappointment.