In one of the unlikeliest storylines in NHL history, the Vegas Golden Knights are now one game outside of playing in the Stanley Cup Final. While their achievements deserve an immense amount of praise, they also have the Florida Panthers to thank for a chunk of their success.
For example, on Friday night, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien fanned badly on a simple pass to the blueline, springing Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith on a breakaway. Smith wasted little time, beating Connor Hellebyuck with an unsuspected wrister over his left shoulder. The Game 4 goal would turn out to be the winner. Less than a year ago, Smith was a castoff by Florida in a series of decisions that will haunt the franchise for seasons to come.
Rewind to mid-to-late June, the Panthers opted to give away the club’s leading goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault in the exanpsion draft to protect players such as Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk – solid defensemen, but not nearly on the level of the late-blooming forward. The cats weren’t done with the Golden Knights, trading Smith for a fourth-round pick, a deal more forgivable given Smith’s long-term $5 AAV.
Florida Panthers offseason moves:
Tallon back in charge
Lose Marchessault and Smith
Promote Pronger, Thornton, and McCabe
— Liam McGuire (@LiamRMcGuire) June 30, 2017
At the time, one couldn’t help but fail to understand Florida’s decision making in letting 45 goals worth of players walk for such a small return. Sure, the club needed to make decisions in order to ensure good players weren’t exposed in the expansion draft, but losing two of their top-six talent wasn’t a good look. Here’s how general manager Dale Tallon tried to explain it.
“We have some flexibility long term. Our goal is to win multiple championships and these moves we’re making are looking to the present but also to the future.
“We will be aggressive moving forward in free agency. There’s a plan in place and we’re going to stick to it.”
That plan didn’t yield immediate results and it might not yield long-term success, you know, unless that fourth-round pick turns into a top-line forward down the road.
Nobody could have predicted the Golden Knights being this good, this fast, but Tallon had to know what he was losing with Smith and especially with Marchessault. The latter would set a career-high with 75 points forming one of the NHL’s best lines with William Karlsson and Smith – who chipped in with a career-high 60 points himself.
Florida’s mismanagement also gifted the Golden Knights the likely Coach of the Year. While Tallon might not be solely responsible for coach Gerard Gallant getting axed the year after he was a Jack Adams nominee and while he had a positive record (he was 11-10-1 at the time of his firing), losing the 54-year-old coach sent the Panthers in a spiral. With Gallant five wins away from the most improbable Stanley Cup in NHL history, the Panthers won 44 games and missed out on the playoffs.
It’s fair to assume if Marchessault was protected and remained in the Panthers lineup, he would have been at least worth a couple wins. Maybe enough to get Florida over the hump and into the playoffs. Instead of extending him, they chose to lose him for nothing and watch him blossom into a superstar for a team that has no right being better than they were.
In retrospect, the Panthers shot themselves in the foot. Unlike Vegas’ success, Marchessault’s production is more or less what you’d expect after a breakout season. The Smith trade can be forgiven, although his production indicates Florida should have gotten more for him. Dale Tallon might be responsible for building a Stanley Cup-winning team, but unfortunately it’s not the one who employs him.