The Panthers are a lesson that the lottery is just the beginning | Defector

In an act of charity to fans who have no interest in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NHL held its draft lottery Tuesday night, which ended with the Montreal Canadiens winning the No. New Jersey Devils moving up to second place. sixth position. For these two fanbases in particular, but also for all those who wanted to progress, it was a day to dream of the future, of the possibility of your franchise landing someone like Auston Matthews or Steven Stamkos – someone whose selection could almost instantly usher in a new, more successful era. It’s the easiest night of the year to convince yourself that better things are on the way.

The Florida Panthers know that experience well, having missed the playoffs in all but two seasons from 2001 to 2019. While mixed results with their picks in the 2000s obviously kept those “best things” moot, their fortunes began filming at the dawn of the last decade. In 2011, the Panthers took Jonathan Huberdeau with the third pick. In 2013, they took Aleksander Barkov with the second. In 2014, the lottery propelled them to No. 1 and they took Aaron Ekblad. This trio forms the nucleus of a resurgent group of Panthers – the top three players of a Presidents’ Trophy winner. Barkov led the Panthers with 39 goals. Huberdeau led the entire league with 85 assists. And Ekblad anchors the defense an average of nearly 25 minutes per night. This is exactly what all lottery teams dream of.

But more is needed. When the Panthers found themselves back against the wall against Washington in Game 5 of a 2-2 series on Wednesday night, it wasn’t those three that saved them. After the Capitals scored the game’s first three goals in its first 24 minutes, teasing the next step to a dramatic and devastating upset that would extend the Panthers’ league-leading playoff series drought to 25 seasons, it It was a quartet of new Floridians acquired by other means who pieced together the comeback that delivered a 5-3 win.

The first was Carter Verhaeghe, who made his debut for the Lightning in 2019 but had to leave after winning the 2020 Cup because Tampa couldn’t put him under the salary cap. The Panthers signed him on the cheap and saw him become a secondary scorer, first with 18 goals in 43 games in last year’s shortened season, then with 24 goals and 31 assists this time around. this. More importantly, he’s been hot when needed most, scoring four goals and three assists in the Panthers’ last two games alone. Verhaeghe opened the Panthers account with a tap-in on the doorstep, then with the game tied for third, he forced a turnover and sped up for a finish at the other end of the ice.

“He’s been the best player on the ice the last two games,” Panthers teammate Patric Hornqvist said of Verhaeghe after Wednesday’s win. But Hornqvist did well too. A 35-year-old veteran of Nashville and Pittsburgh, who won back-to-back cups as a Penguin and scored the series-winning goal in 2017, Hornqvist arrived in Florida in a trade in 2020 for a former first-round finisher in Mike Matheson and NHL fringe player Colton Sceviour. He didn’t light up the stat sheet, but Hornqvist filled in the depth lines with big-game experience and old-guy trickery. Having scored 11 goals this season, he entered the board in Game 5 keeping his composure on a counter-attack after receiving a perfect pass from Verhaeghe.

Then Sam Reinhart tied it down and cemented the Panthers’ reputation as the league’s highest-earning team. The 26-year-old had played his entire career at Buffalo until last summer when the floundering Sabers traded the restricted free agent for a prospect and a pick. The former second overall pick in 2014 was a consistent 20-goal guy in his six years in the North, and he’s shone even brighter now that he’s finally on a winning team. Reinhart had a career-high 33 goals and 49 assists this year, and with five minutes left in the second period, he took advantage of the chaos around the net (again encouraged by Verhaeghe) to sneak the puck through line.

And with the game 4-3, the most prominent of all the Panthers mics got a moment. Again, you’ll hear Verhaeghe’s name in this highlight, but in the end, all the attention is on Claude Giroux, an expensive mid-season acquisition and one of the best Philadelphia Flyers of all time. . Giroux specifically wanted to go to Florida to run his first cup, and while he hasn’t been a big scorer in his limited time so far, he has shown his finishing abilities to give the Panthers some breathing room in game over.

I’m a Red Wings fan in my twenties, which means for a long time I had a blessed ignorance of personal investment in the draft lottery. That has obviously changed over the past few years, and like so many other fans, I now look at my hockey with one eye on the NHL and one eye on developing teenagers elsewhere. Yes, Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider have already exceeded expectations. But the Panthers’ victory on Wednesday illuminates the limits of this narrow thinking that values ​​the draft to the exclusion of all other forms of team-building.

Great teams rely on more than just a few key stars. They to have be. Even a general manager who lands first-, second-, and third-round picks in three straight seasons — something that has never happened and never will — is still less than halfway from a full roster. And while so many of these teams keep their fingers crossed at the lottery refrain from dealing with major changes in free agency or the trade market, favoring future flexibility over incremental improvement, these are steps in the processes that cannot be ignored. The Panthers didn’t happen overnight. Even Tampa Bay, perhaps the highest-drafted group of all time, needed guys like Blake Coleman and Kevin Shattenkirk to help them through.

The rental star, the guy who needs a change of scenery, the cap hurt and the experienced junkman: these are the four horsemen of any Cup contender, and you don’t get them by calling their names in June . Unlike Shane Wright, Logan Cooley and the other kids slated to join the lottery teams this summer, these players will be completely off the radar of Devils, Red Wings, Flyers and everyone else fans for now after a reconstruction. They’re not the ones whose jerseys are on display in the team store even before their NHL debut, or whose every game is taken to Twitter to analyze whether or not it’s developing properly. They are not yet showing up on future lineups when the team is good again. But they’re out there somewhere right now, and the bad teams that want to become relevant and the good teams that want to become champions are going to need them. A franchise can fight their way to a playoff appearance. But as the Panthers — and, of course, the Oilers — know well, without the right pieces around those lottery wins, elimination always looms.

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