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Panthers expect Bobrovsky to be difference-maker in quest for playoffs

Addition of two-time Vezina Trophy winner highlights big day for Florida

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Sergei Bobrovsky met with the Florida Panthers in a private room at a hotel by the beach during the NHL free agent interview period last week.

The sales pitch boiled down to this: Owner Vinnie Viola would spend to the NHL salary cap. The Panthers had a lot of good pieces. Hiring coach Joel Quenneville on April 8 was the first step toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and signing Bobrovsky, a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie, would be the next.

"He's a very, very serious guy and has a plan in place," general manager Dale Tallon said. "He liked what we told him.

"I think Coach Q was probably the clincher."

 

[RELATED: Bobrovsky agrees to seven-year contract with Panthers | NHL Free Agent Tracker]

 

Bobrovsky agreed to a seven-year contract shortly after the free agent market opened Monday, and now it's up to him to be a difference-maker for a team that has made the playoffs five times in 25 seasons in the NHL.

The Panthers did not land forward Artemi Panarin, Bobrovsky's former Columbus Blue Jackets teammate, who agreed to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the New York Rangers even though he once played for Quenneville with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"That was very close," Tallon said. "It was very realistic. We interviewed him as well and had great talks. He had experience with Coach Q. I just think his heart was set on New York and a big market, and that was fine. We pursued it. We went hard after it."

But while the Panthers wanted Panarin, they needed Quenneville and Bobrovsky.

Video: Sergei Bobrovsky signs seven-year deal with Panthers

The Panthers have forwards who can score. Mike Hoffman had 36 goals last season, Aleksander Barkov 35, Jonathan Huberdeau 30, Evgenii Dadonov 28, Frank Vatrano 24. Vincent Trocheck had 10 in 55 games, but he had 31 in 82 in 2017-18.

They were ninth in goals (3.22 per game) and second on the power play (26.8 percent) last season. Panarin, who had 27-31 goals each of the past four seasons, two with Chicago, two with Columbus, would have been a luxury.

The main problem was keeping the puck out of the net last season, even though they were 10th on the penalty kill (81.3 percent). Their 5-on-5 save percentage was tied for 29th (.907).

Quenneville has more regular-season wins (890) than any coach but Scotty Bowman (1,244) and more playoff wins (118) than any coach but Bowman (223) and Al Arbour (123). He won the Stanley Cup three times with the Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015). He will bring structure. 

Video: Panthers add Bobrovsky, Stralman, Acciari, Connolly

Bobrovsky will bring saves. He wasn't great by his standards last season with a .913 save percentage, .915 at even strength. Still, he led the NHL with nine shutouts. Over the past seven seasons, his save percentage is .921, second in the NHL among goalies who played at least 250 games. His even-strength save percentage is .929 in that span, first in the NHL using the same criteria.

"I like our chances now," Tallon said. "I think we've got a legitimate chance to be in the playoffs. It starts behind the bench with [Quenneville] and then goaltending. I think our young [defensemen] will be better too with the coaching that Joel's going to bring.

"And then our offense is going to be fine. We have pretty well the same guys. We'll have a good power play, and we'll have good special teams. Now it's just a matter of 5-on-5 play. We've got more options in that regard and more durability longer term."

The Panthers added three other unrestricted free agents, agreeing to a three-year contract with forward Noel Acciari, a four-year contract with forward Brett Connolly and a three-year contract with defenseman Anton Stralman.

Video: Sergei Bobrovsky, Panthers agree to seven-year deal

Acciari, 27, can play on the third or fourth line and take pressure off Barkov by killing penalties and taking defensive zone face-offs. Connolly, 27, scored 22 goals last season for the Washington Capitals, an NHL career high, and can play up and down the lineup. Stralman, who turns 33 on Aug. 1, could pair with Mike Matheson, 25.

"He's not a relic," Tallon said. "He can still skate and still move, and he's going to play with a young guy that can really skate and cover a lot of ground. It looks like a good pairing to me."

The Panthers have left open opportunities for younger players too. Coaching, goaltending and internal competition should add up to a more competitive team.

"We have a lot of good kids in the minors now, and we've got kids in our system that are going to push these guys to stay on their games," Tallon said. "I think with Bobrovsky and Barkov on your team, everyone's going to work hard. These two guys have to be told to go home, get out of the gym sometimes, and that's going to be a good influence on everyone."

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