The pain of losing in the Stanley Cup Final is now a distant memory as the Florida Panthers are gameplanning for the future.
After the revelation of a plethora of postseason injuries sustained by the Panthers — specifically to star defensemen Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad, who both will be out when Florida opens next season in October — there was a clear need for blue-line depth in NHL free agency, which started on Saturday.
How does one replace Montour, who averaged more than 24 minutes on ice per game, and Ekblad who was right behind him, topping more than 23? Sign a player who is a multiple-time All-Star and has averaged 23:26 on ice for his career: Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Ekman-Larsson is coming off a disappointing season with the Vancouver Canucks (two goals, 22 points) that was derailed due to injury. But he has fully recovered this offseason, and is willing to bet on himself with a bounce-back year.
The Panthers, who believe he has at least that in him, if not more, signed the veteran, 31, to an affordable one-year, $2.25 million contract.
Florida general manager Bill Zito was thrilled to land him, and in speaking with the media on day one of free agency, he reiterated that Ekman-Larsson is good to go health-wise, saying he checked out “fine. There were no issues.”
Zito also spoke on how he has been keen on acquiring Ekman-Larsson, who has 135 career goals, for quite some time now.
“He’s a guy who we talked to actually, during the last season, maybe even before last season, and then recently even at the draft, about how we’re in a cap crunch, we’re in a tough spot, and we need to get value players and players who are willing to come in here and utilize the opportunity in our team as a springboard for themselves,” Zito said. “So, we have a lot of these one-year deals, low cost, low money.”
Now to the average person, when one thinks of South Florida, they may think of the beaches, the nightlife and the lack of state taxes. But to Ekman-Larsson? All of that is just a bonus. He came here focused, and with the intention to win.
Zito said as much Saturday, conveying to the media just how the negotiations went.
“It was a wonderful interaction when I spoke to him, because I was sort of selling him Las Olas (Boulevard) and Fort Lauderdale, and all this, and he said, ‘I don’t care, I want to win.’ Yeah, ‘it’s great, I’ve been there. What about the hockey?’ And he was all-in,” Zito said. “He wasn’t rude, don’t misjudge my tone, but he made it very, very clear that he wanted to come to a place that had the opportunity for him to do his thing, and at the same time be around a group of people that want to win and that care. It was great.”
An issue the Panthers can also address with Ekman-Larsson is the power play. With Ekblad and Montour sidelined, there needs to be a No. 1 defenseman who can quarterback the power play. And while there are no guarantees, and positions have to be earned, on the surface, it appears Ekman-Larsson can fit that bill.
“That’s one of the reasons that we ID’d him. Do I think that he can run our power play? I do. We’ll see, but it makes sense. But at the same time, I don’t know, maybe someone else comes in. It’s a meritocracy and nobody’s going to get penciled in,” he said. “His skill set meshes with exactly what we need short term, but there’s also long term. He’s a leader. He’s a good person, from the background that we’ve done. … We’re just excited that Oliver chose us.”
One player alone cannot make up for the absence – on and off the ice – of Montour and Ekblad, which is why the Panthers kept pushing after the Ekman-Larsson signing.
Zito went ahead and signed former New York Rangers defenseman Niko Mikkola to a three-year, $7.5 million contract, and brought back Dmitry Kulikov, who finished last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to a one-year, $1 million contract, after having spent the first seven years of his career in Sunrise (2009-2016).
Mikkola, 27, is a physical specimen with a stature of 6-foot-4, 209 pounds. It appears he will be the bruiser, and the blueliner bringing physicality for the Panthers, especially after losing veteran defenseman Radko Gudas to the Anaheim Ducks in free agency.
“Niko’s tough, physical presence and skating ability make him a great complement to our blue line,” Zito said. “We are looking forward to welcoming him to South Florida.”
Kulikov, 32, an experienced defender who is well-versed in the Panthers’ culture, has averaged nearly 20 points per season across his career and adds much-needed depth to a short-handed backline.
“It just seems if you look at his game, everywhere he goes, he can play with different types of players, he can play in different situations,” Zito said. “He’s a fit man, he skates good. There are so many elements to what he does.”
Up front, on day two of free agency, Zito signed forward Evan Rodrigues, 29, away from the Colorado Avalanche, giving the veteran a four-year contract with $12 million.
“You always want to join a contender,” Rodrigues told the media Sunday on a conference call. “From top to bottom, we have a really good lineup.”
One that Zito will continue to look at bolstering, here and there, as free agency rolls on. And if nothing else, on the back line, the Panthers are well equipped to start the season without two of their stars from the season before.