It was almost a year ago that the Florida Panthers committed to a rebuild by trading Artemi Panarin. But the club is proving a lot can change in a year.
Since blowing up a team they thought would be very competitive, trading two players they thought would be somewhat long-term building blocks in Panarin and Esa Lindell while struggling to place in the middle of the league, the Panthers have re-established themselves and sit atop the Eastern Conference, 3rd in BEARD Hockey with a 36-19-3 record.
If it wasn't clear what their intentions were, they finally pulled the trigger on a move to bring that true star power back to the lineup when they traded Nikolaj Ehlers, Chaz Lucius, and a 2022 1st round pick that was acquired from St. Louis in that Panarin deal (a possible lottery pick) in exchange for Brad Marchand.
The Panthers got here by carefully crafting a roster full of depth. When they blew up the team, the intention was always to load up on cap space, then spend it efficiently on Free Agents and other acquisitions in the off-season.
Tyler Johnson, acquired last year for a 2nd round pick, has 76 points in 83 games since donning a Panthers jersey. Oliver Bjorkstrand, picked up in exchange for a late 1st rounder in last season's draft over the off-season, has stepped right onto a line with Johnson and Ryan Johansen to score 58 points in 58 games.
Vladislav Namestnikov was not originally a huge piece of the Panarin deal, but he has been a revelation this season. Playing with Daniel Sprong and Jayce Hawryluk while also seeing some PP time, Namestnikov has potted 21 goals and 42 points in 58 games.
Sprong and Hawrlyuk have been surprises in their own right. Sprong was in a fight to make the team with the team's darling prospect, Peyton Krebs. Yet Sprong was the one who survived and has had a pretty successful rookie season: 15 goals, 34 points in 58 games thus far.
Hawryluk, supposed to be the 13th forward when he was acquired, has instead been a revelation as the team's third-line centre with 18 points and good two-way play.
In the end, that has all provided Florida with three very solid forward lines. Johansen, Bjorkstrand, Johnson, and Kuznetsov have provided some measure of star power.
But none of it compares to what Marchand will bring - the raw firepower that the team was after when they courted, but couldn't land, Nathan Mackinnon, Nikita Kucherov, Alex DeBrincat, and Marchand once previously. The message has been sent loud and clear: the Panthers are here to win a Cup.
"We obviously paid a high price for Brad," said GM Trevor Cook after the deal was finalized. "Ultimately this is a top-5, maybe better, left winger in the game right now. The guys we gave up are not as ready to help a team win a Cup today as Marchand is.
"Nik is a phenomenal player, Chaz is a prospect we're really high on, that pick... I mean, who knows? There are nine teams within 4 points for those 3rd-11th draft lottery spots - it could be anything. But ultimately, it's something that's going to be 3, 4 years away from helping a team win, and we truly think our future's looking pretty bright even without it. We've been looking for this deal since the off-season and we finally found it."
Marchand had 83 points last season and has once again been around that point-per-game mark all season, despite playing on weaker teams this year so far. He will slot right in alongside Evgeni Kuznetsov on the team's first line, with Dominik Kubalik on the other wing.
For Kubalik, it represents a second chance as he had been on the trade block all season. The Panthers had tried to make a deal work with Kubalik. In the end, they had to part with Ehlers to bring in the caliber of player they wanted, and the first line spot remains Kubalik's.
The Panthers hope that playing alongside Marchand and Kuznetsov can get a spark back in his game.
Marchand is set to make his season debut tomorrow night when the Panthers kick off a seven-game road trip against the Los Angeles Kings. Florida is 19-6-1 on the road this season.