Panthers’ Stanley Cup run should end NHL GMs’ lazy excuses for building a team

It’s finish.

No, not the Stanley Cup Final, although that is over too. Congratulations to the Florida Panthers, who narrowly held off Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, avoiding a historic collapse and winning the franchise’s first championship. This caps a three-year streak in which the Panthers won the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy and followed it with back-to-back Eastern Conference championships. With a Stanley Cup banner now ready to fly in Florida, this has been a truly dominant streak, worthy of all the praise that will be thrown its way in the days and weeks to come.

No, what is finished is the story. You know the one about how winning NHL teams should be built. You know all the rhythms. Let’s recite them together.

The salary cap makes trades too difficult.

Free agency is a fool’s game.

This is a draft and development league.

You don’t make a change just for the sake of making a change.

We can’t do anything during the season, because it’s too complicated.

You hit rock bottom, hope for a few lottery wins, and draft your core. Then you stick with it, with maybe a few small moves on the margins, because that’s all you can do in the modern NHL, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise just can’t do it.

And most importantly: the general manager of your favorite team has a tough job. Don’t expect too much. Go easy on him. He does his best, even if his best looks an awful lot like always following the path of least resistance.

We’ve been hearing variations of this story for years, from all over the league. We got it from the general managers themselves, obviously. But we also got it from broadcasters, insiders and beat writers, who were always a little too eager to accept it. And these days, we hear it even from fans, many of whom have so internalized this idea that they will be rightfully angry at any suggestion their team should do…well, anything.

It’s so hard, guys. Be reasonable.

And then the Florida Panthers showed up to denounce this whole charade.

Let’s start with the core. Yes, they hit rock bottom and drafted Aaron Ekblad with the No. 1 pick in 2014. Looking back, he wasn’t the best player in that draft, or even close, but he’s been a reliable guy ever since in top pair. And they hit a home run with Sasha Barkov, the No. 2 pick in 2013.

But as far as the project goes, that’s about it. The only other regular player on the playoff roster acquired in the draft was Anton Lundell. (They also drafted Dmitry Kulikov in 2009, but he made stops with seven NHL teams before returning to Florida this season.) The rest of the roster was pieced together in all these ways that are supposedly impossible, or at least unreasonable.

Expensive free agents? That would be Sergei Bobrovsky, the veteran who received the second-highest salary of the goaltending era, a contract that appeared to be an overpay until he reemerged as a Vezina candidate over the course of two last years.

Panthers’ Stanley Cup run should end NHL GMs’ lazy excuses for building a team

Panthers general manager Bill Zito wasn’t shy in acquiring Sam Reinhart, who scored 57 goals this season, from the Sabers in 2021. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Mid-season trades? It wasn’t “too complicated” for Bill Zito in 2021 when he acquired Brandon Montour and Sam Bennett, two deadline rentals who became part of the long-term plan.

A few months after those two moves, Zito landed Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabers for a first and top prospect. It was a risky, win-now move, with no guarantee that they would keep Reinhart for more than one season; a timid CEO could have convinced himself to take a more patient approach. Zito was not shy and he scored 57 goals because of it.

And then there’s the big one: the Matthew Tkachuk trade, a true blockbuster of the 2022 offseason. Remember the context there – with Tkachuk making it clear he wanted out of Calgary, a handful of teams were lined up around them and wondered how much they could realistically give up for a potential franchise player. Then Zito worked his way to the front of the line with a monster deal that was too good to be true for the Flames. It cost him a 100-point forward and one of his best defenders, as well as a first-round draft pick that hasn’t even arrived yet. The hockey world was shocked by the Panthers’ abandonment. Does anyone think they would like a redesign now?

Zito also had a knack for finding big value on the edges, like signing Carter Verhaeghe as a free agent and picking Gustav Forsling off waivers. Those moves matter, obviously. But the story of this Panthers championship is the story of a team that was willing to make big, bold moves. The exact kind of moves most teams don’t seem to have the courage to make.

And yes, there are a million other excuses you could come up with as to why your team can’t conduct business that way. The weather is warmer. Taxes are lower. Players like Tkachuk are never available except when they are. What if these measures had not worked? So what ?

This is the kind of reluctance we are used to hearing. Trust me, the front office of your favorite team knows this well, and they really hope you’ll line up to recite it in their defense.

The alternative is that you, or the media, or (God forbid) the owner might look at everything the Panthers have spent the past few years doing and wonder if the million-making general manager really has a job too difficult ; that the simplest way is the only one.

To be clear, none of this means that a long-term vision can’t lead to success, or even championships. A three-year plan can work. A five-year plan can work. A Steve Yzerman plan in Detroit may work. Maybe this time next year we’ll be talking about a Cup champion who showed patience in drafting and development, stayed focused on the long-term plan, didn’t take no risk and saw it all pay off. a parade.

It could happen. There are many ways to win a championship.

But this is what the Panthers have just proven: There’s more than one way. Shy, conservative and patient is a solution. It’s not the only one, no matter how many times you’ve been scolded about it.

It’s worth keeping this in mind, especially right now, as the NHL embarks on a ridiculously condensed offseason that will see most of the action take place over the next week. If you’re a fan of one of the many teams that have fallen short of expectations this year, this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the time for your team to step up and make big, bold moves that can change the trajectory of a franchise.

Some of them will. And some of them won’t, sticking instead to a more basic approach. A minor deal here, a few conservative spends there, draft a few that we can’t believe were still there when we drafted prospects and call it a summer. See you in September, everyone, don’t forget to renew your subscriptions.

And then, when someone dares to question this approach, they roll their eyes and launch into lessons. What do you think fantasy hockey is? Do you want them to act just for fun? Don’t you know there is a salary cap? We knew about some names, we were kicking tires, we were listening but not shopping, and it just didn’t work. What do you want the front office to do, you idiots? Their work?

Don’t buy it. Or at least don’t think that’s the only option. That’s never been the case, unless you’re a general manager more concerned about job security than winning.

Bill Zito and the Panthers proved it, and now they’re busy frolicking in the ocean with the Stanley Cup because of it. This is what can happen when a team decides that the path of least resistance won’t get them where they say they want to go.

You’re not being unreasonable, or some kind of bad fan, by asking your favorite team what they’re doing to keep up.

(Top photo of Panthers President and General Manager Bill Zito hoisting the Stanley Cup: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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