Florida GM Trevor Cook wanted to build around defense and goaltending - and largely did. But he needed a dynamo on offense, too.
According to Panthers GM Trevor Cook, Florida's BEARD Dispersal Draft went "pretty well according to plan", sticking to budget and producing a deep, defense-first squad around a dynamic offensive player in Artemi Panarin.
And the team looks capable of contending from day one.
The Panthers' decision to drop from six to 18th in the Dispersal order was a discussion point leading up to the draft, where the team ultimately selected Artemi Panarin. Reflecting on the decision when the 18th pick came on the clock, Cook was descriptive in his response.
"I think we ended up having the first round pegged pretty well," said Cook. "So the guy we would've stayed near the top for, the guy that was #1 on our list overall, was Auston Matthews. If he'd fallen to six, that was the only way we'd have regretted that trade. But we were really looking at Marner, Aho, Point, and Slavin."
"So it gets to our pick, Marner and Aho go 16 and 17, a little disappointing, but we never really expected Panarin to be there, either. Honestly, we were ready to take Slavin, but as we looked things over it was a matter of...this is probably the only chance we get to take a player as dynamic as Panarin."
"Defense is falling, there's only one gone at this point. So we felt pretty good about being able to go defense in rounds two and three and still establishing a really, really good top-four. Panarin's only 28 and he's so dynamic offensively, he's going to be an impact player for quite a while yet."
When the draft came back around, Florida took Esa Lindell in the second round at pick #47. A league source later called Lindell the Panthers' worst pick of draft, but Cook says there was never a doubt about taking him in the second round.
"Lindell and Slavin are in a class of their own, the two best defensive defensemen in the league," commented Cook. "We knew this was a player we wanted. But taking him later, Lindell was on a 1-year $6.5 million deal that walked him to UFA, and we wanted to build our defense around him."
"The league's contract adjustment ruling for players picked in the top two rounds meant that we could actually make that a possibility. So it worked out perfectly for us and this was the easiest pick of our draft."
The Panthers were a little bit surprised at how youth-heavy the top couple of rounds were, and so their third and fourth-round picks were a bit of an adjustment to the draft strategy to secure some players they really wanted. They selected 26-year-old defenseman Ryan Pulock and 23-year-old centre Anthony Cirelli.
"Drafts like these...there's always a premium placed on youth, but we underestimated just how much it would be," mentioned Cook. "It helped us get some good vets a bit later on, but we had to adjust our strategy a bit to make sure we didn't miss out on Cirelli, specifically. Pulock is going to be a foundation piece for us going forward, too."
Dominik Kubalik was picked up in the fifth round. Kubalik has another cap-friendly contract and is a 25-year-old with high-end scoring ability. Then the Panthers added a mentor and defense partner for Lindell with the selection of Alexander Edler in the sixth. Edler is 34, but he's got good puck skills and is another of the league's truly elite defensive defensemen.
The Panthers reached down the draft a little bit again in round seven with the selection of 23-year-old Jonas Siegenthaler, a fantastic defensive defenseman on a cap-friendly deal.
"Siegenthaler, like Cirelli, was a guy we just felt we couldn't wait on any more," panned Cook. "He's purely a stay-at-home defenseman, for sure, but there are very few 23-year-olds in the league that play defense like he does and the cap implications of having him on our roster were huge. This guy, along with the picks of Cirelli and Kubalik, were huge for us in being able to stick to our budget and still field a competitive roster."
The Panthers augmented the core they built early in the draft with the pickups of players like versatile forward Mikael Granlund, veteran centres Ryan Johansen and Paul Stastny, elite checking forward Blake Coleman, and defensemen Jason Demers and Dylan DeMelo.
Coming out of the draft, the Panthers had a clearly competitive roster that emphasized defense, perhaps slightly lacking in firepower - something that fit pretty well with what Cook figured his team would look like. The Panthers have a fairly young core, but picked veterans as the draft went on to fill in their roster rather than youth, leaving themselves with a bit of a void in the prospect department.
Michael McLeod and Urho Vaakanainen are solid prospects. But beyond them, the system's best young players were Tyler Benson, Daniel Sprong, Denis Malgin, and Cooper Marody - mostly question marks. They had hoped to solve that issue with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 draft and Peyton Krebs.
But the GM felt he was missing a top-six winger and as he shopped around, he realized that the cost of filling that hole might be a little steeper than expected.
"We asked about a lot of possible targets, and it became clear that we probably weren't going to get a legitimate top-six winger to fill the void on our roster without at least including that 2020 1st round pick," said Cook. "So we worked on a few options with some teams and ultimately we came to terms with Washington on something we liked."
"It put a bit of a dent in our system, for sure. We'll have to draft well the next few years to make up for it. But it fills a need and it leaves us with a roster we're really happy with on paper. It wasn't just a top-six winger we added - it's a legitimate first line right winger."
The deal in question saw McLeod and the 16th overall pick in the 2020 draft go to Washington in exchange for Evgenii Dadonov and a 2020 3rd round pick (67th overall). Dadonov, 31, is signed for two more years at $4,000,000 per season, and is probably the second-best offensive forward on the team.
Expectations are high for the Panthers as we approach the time of the year where we shift from on-paper roster analysis to real games. Sitting on a projected payroll of about $66.5 million, the Panthers' opening night roster is expected to look something like this:
Artemi Panarin - Anthony Cirelli - Evgenii Dadonov
Mikael Granlund - Ryan Johansen - Dominik Kubalik
Blake Coleman - Paul Stastny - Drake Caggiula
Colton Sceviour - Ryan Carpenter - Jason Dickinson
Esa Lindell - Alexander Edler
Ryan Pulock - Dylan DeMelo
Jason Demers - Jonas Siegenthaler