Much to the chagrin of Florida Panther fans, another franchise’s recent success is a constant reminder of what could’ve been if some decisions were made differently in the past 12 months. The first-year Vegas Golden Knights sit atop the Pacific Division and are in the midst of a five-game win streak, largely thanks to some pieces that were in Sunrise not too long ago.
Men Lie, Women Lie, Records Don’t
One year to the date of the infamous Gerard Gallant firing that reportedly forced him to catch his own cab back to the airport, the two parties have very different records that show Gallant’s success in Florida was no fluke. Since Nov. 28, 2016, the Panthers have struggled to a 34-38-12 record and bear almost no resemblance to the 2015-16 Atlantic Division Champions that had Gallant behind the bench. Gallant, however, has enjoyed a surprising amount of success with his new club that looked like the worst team on paper coming into this season but has overachieved and currently holds a 15-7-1 record.
Vegas Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant on the bench in the first period against the Colorado Avalanche 9/19/17 (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)
The 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights consist of an assortment of players who had to be seen as somewhat expendable by their former clubs who chose not to protect them, so naturally, expectations were extremely low for the Golden Knights. This week, ESPN ranked the Knights as the tenth-best team in their most recent power rankings, something that seemed almost unfathomable considering their preseason predictions.
Déjà vu for Panther Fans?
The success of the Golden Knights comes as less of a surprise to Panther fans than other people in the hockey world after experiencing first-hand the effect Gerard Gallant can have on a team. In his lone season with the Panthers, Gallant led the Cats to an NHL-best 25 point increase from the year prior and was named a finalist for the Jack Adams award, given to the coach who is judged to have contributed the most to his team’s success. Since Gallant’s departure, the Panthers have missed the playoffs and have been nothing short of disappointing a quarter of the way through this year.
Not only did Vegas snatch the Panthers’ third-leading scorer in Marchessault on draft night, but they ended the evening by adding their sixth-leading scorer and another one of the Panthers’ top six forwards in Reilly Smith. The Panthers did receive a fourth-round pick in return for Smith, but with Gallant, Marchessault, and Smith going to the Knights in the span of a few months, it appears the Panthers were the franchise that lost the most when the NHL gained another team.
Is There a Method to the Madness?
Hindsight is 20/20, but given the Panthers’ current record and the success of the Golden Knights thus far, it’s hard to imagine that Panther management would let these assets go for such a small return if they could go back in time. Despite totaling 87 points in two seasons with the Panthers, some of Reilly Smith’s critics point to his $5 million a year salary as to why Panthers management pinned him as someone with negative trade value.
Reilly Smith (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)
Smith’s point total did decrease slightly from 50 points in 2014-15 to 37 points in 2016-17, so it is possible that this was enough of a regression to make management believe they had another nightmare scenario that is Dave Bolland’s contract on their hands (which cost them 2015 first round pick Lawson Crouse). Panther fans are likely under the impression that the club was too quick to move on from Reilly Smith, given his 19 points in 22 games this season and the Panthers’ inability to consistently produce offense.
#FlaPanthers AGM Eric Joyce says trading Lawson Crouse is “the cost of the business” to get rid of Dave Bolland’s contract. #Coyotes pushed.
Moving forward, there is nothing else Panther fans can do but hope management can limit the poor personnel decisions that have put the team in their current state, and focus on the fact that they have been extremely successful on signing their core players to long-term extensions.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers Oct. 17, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
As of now, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, Michael Matheson, and, most importantly, Aleksander Barkov are all under contract with the Panthers for multiple years after this season. This young group of players that have already experienced success in their short careers does give the Panthers a light at the end of the tunnel, but let’s hope we can make it out in time before Vegas can get their hands on any more of them.