July 1st is one of the most stressful days of a hockey fan’s year. So often it is a day in which a team’s dreams are either realized or crushed, and July 1st, 2019 was no different. Just ask the Florida Panthers, who experienced both at once.
The 2019 off-season saw two highly coveted unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Rumor had it that the Panthers were heavily courting both and that they wanted to stay together, having spent the last few years playing together both for the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Russian national team, but the pair was separated when Artemi Panarin was swayed by the allure of Manhattan, while Bobrovsky chose the sunshine and beaches of south Florida. Though landing both (in addition to a defenseman) would have been the best-case scenario for the Panthers, they had a backup plan in motion, just in case. They added Anton Stralman to shore up defense, Brett Connolly to increase depth scoring, and Noel Acciari to center the fourth line. This may not have been the ideal ending for the Panthers’ 2019 edition of free agent frenzy, but one cannot dispute that the team filled in the holes that needed to be filled.
The Florida Panthers had the fourth-worst goals saved above expected and the second-worst save percentage in the entire league in the 2018-19 season. With Roberto Luongo’s age and injury history and James Reimer’s record as a starter, it was abundantly clear to the Panthers that they needed to add a goalie on whom they could rely for at least 50 games per year until Spencer Knight is ready for the show. Enter Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers signed the two-time Vezina Trophy winner to a seven-year deal worth $70 million ($10 million average annual value). Bobrovsky’s price tag presents a big risk to the Panthers, as he has had issues with consistency from year to year throughout his career, but they certainly bought the two Vezinas and the team hopes that he can recreate those efforts more often than not over the next seven years. Over the last seven years, since winning his first Vezina, Bobrovsky ranks 12th in save percentage on unblocked shot attempts and differential between actual and expected save percentage on unblocked shot attempts, 3rd in goals saved above expected, and 2nd in wins above replacement. In 2016-17, Bobrovsky not only lead all NHL goalies in those four metrics for that season, but his stats for that year are also the highest marks any goalie has reached since the 2013 lockout-shortened season, making it the best single season any goalie has had in the last seven years. Bobrovsky has been far from perfect throughout his career, however. In each of the three seasons following his first Vezina, he posted negative results in his actual performance relative to his expected performance and ranked outside of the top 30 in wins above replacement in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 (Table 1). In signing Bobrovsky, the Panthers acquired an established goaltender who has posted positive results more often than negative, including some truly top-tier performances. However, Bobrovsky will be 31 before his first season with the Panthers begins and the term and money from the Panthers represent an enormous gamble that he will age gracefully and that he can continue to post his elite results more frequently than those below replacement level.
Moving up the ice, the Panthers also added to their blue line by signing Anton Stralman to what is probably the worst contract that the team handed out on Monday. The three-year term will not handcuff the team in the long run, but the $5.5 million AAV will make it tough to add pieces over the course of this contract. Stralman is no longer the top-tier shutdown defenseman that he once was (Figures 1, 2), having seen a steady decline in his on-ice results each of the past five years. He was especially bad in 2018-19, posting career worsts in almost every defensive metric, but it stands to reason that it could have just been a down year compounded by an injury that kept him off the ice for nearly half the season. Panthers fans should not expect a major bounce back for the 32-year-old (33 by the time the season starts), but basic statistical regression would point towards Stralman having a slight improvement on his 2018-19 season.
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The Panthers also added two forwards to their roster on July 1st, both pieces who can contribute in the bottom-9, something the Panthers have been lacking for quite some time. The first was Brett Connolly. The 27-year-old former top-10 pick signed a four-year contract worth $13 million ($3.25 million AAV) which, contrary to Stralman, is likely going to be the best value contract that the Panthers signed. Connolly has spent the last three years with the Washington Capitals, with whom he also got his name on the Stanley Cup. Connolly is not much for driving play (Figure 3) but he is certainly one for finishing it. Over the last three seasons, Connolly ranks 11th in the league in goals per sixty minutes at 5-on-5 despite averaging just under 11 minutes per game at even strength (Table 2), mostly with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky as his line-mates. Secondary scoring has been a major issue for the Florida Panthers in the past. During the 2018-19 season, of the Florida Panthers 162 goals scored at 5-on-5, Aleksander Barkov was on the ice for 70 of them. The 92 goals for which Barkov was not on the ice rank among the fewest bottom-nine goals for in the league. Connolly’s shooting talent and scoring rates should be a huge help to their depth scoring and, potentially, their second power play.
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The final addition that the Panthers made on the first day of free agency was Noel Acciari, who had spent his career up until this point in the Boston Bruins’ system. With a three-year, $5 million deal ($1.67 million AAV), Acciari’s contract does not really move the needle one way or the other, but neither does his play. He will likely slot in as the Panthers’ fourth-line center, another position which the Panthers have struggled to reliably fill in seasons past. A low-event forward, Acciari is responsible defensively and mostly a non-factor offensively (Figure 4). One under-appreciated part of his profile, however, is his penchant for staying on the right side of the penalty ledger. Relative to league averages, he draws 12% more and takes 63% fewer penalties. He will not allow much in front of Bobrovsky and he will help the power play get on the ice more often than he will force a penalty kill. For $1.67 million per year, that will make for one of the more solid fourth-line centers the Panthers have had in a long time.
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Overall, the Panthers had a fine day on July 1st, 2019. It is disappointing that they lost out on adding a top forward, but they added an elite goaltender, two good value depth forwards, and a veteran defenseman. The Panthers improved in all facets of the game and did so in a way that will neither handcuff them from continuing to improve nor prevent them from maintaining their core when it comes time to re-sign Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck. Though it may not have been prudent to redistribute the money earmarked for Artemi Panarin so quickly, it is hard to harshly criticize where the money ended up. That said, there is still plenty of room for this roster to improve and, while the Panthers may be done in the free agent market, fans should not expect the lineup as it is to be the one that enters the 2019-2020 season.
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Featured Image Photo Credit – Nikos Michals