Why the Panthers' five-player trade is a warmup for something bigger

The Panthers sacrificed a prospect so they could clear a chunky cap hit in a deal with the Blackhawks. Bet on Florida to make at least one major acquisition before the deadline.
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Aaron Ekblad is irreplaceable. Losing him to a broken leg was devastating to the Florida Panthers. But it’s clear they’re not ready to roll over. Not when they’ve been so dominant and fashion themselves legitimate Stanley Cup contenders with or without their top defenseman. It appears GM Bill Zito wants to make one or more high-impact moves to retool his roster in time for the post-season. Technically, he made one already Thursday, but it looks on paper like a precursor to more. The Panthers are clearing the deck.

It was announced Thursday they sent right winger Brett Connolly, defenseman Riley Stillman, the RFA rights to center Henrik Borgstrom and a 2021 seventh-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for center Lucas Wallmark and defenseman Lucas Carlsson.

The Panthers are dumping salary. Moving Connolly clears $3.5 million in cap space. Depth center Wallmark played for the Panthers and coach Joel Quenneville after coming over in a deadline deal last season, too, and Carlson brings some organizational depth, but, for Florida, this trade was not about them. The Panthers are now projected to have as much as $18 million in trade-deadline space, per CapFriendly. That leaves room to address multiple needs. They could pursue a top-end left winger such as the Buffalo Sabres’ Taylor Hall to play on a scoring line, and they could seek a right-shot Ekblad replacement for the top four on defense, perhaps the Anaheim Ducks’ Josh Manson or the Columbus Blue Jackets’ David Savard. The Panthers are set up to be a big stack at the poker table between now and the April-12 trade deadline. They wouldn’t have sacrificed Borgstrom otherwise. In The Hockey News' 2021 edition of Future Watch, he ranked as their No. 4 prospect. 

As for the Blackhawks, the young assets acquired in the trade are the boon – one in particular. Two-way center Borgstrom, 23, has been considered one of the better prospects in the game since being drafted 23rd overall in 2016, but the prospect label has almost peeled off. He’s approaching the now-or-never age, having bounced back and forth between the Panthers and the AHL in recent seasons. But he has a winning pedigree as a star on an NCAA champion squad at the University of Denver, and he’s found his scoring touch playing back home in Finland for HIFK Helsinki. He’s an interesting reclamation project for a franchise known for seeing potential in neglected commodities. A great recent example is Dominik Kubalik, whom Chicago acquired from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

Though Chicago took on Connolly as a favor, might he be a sneaky-useful addition? This season was a disaster for him, with his impact cratering to career lows in most offensive metrics. He ended up a frequent healthy scratch and got waived and stashed on the taxi squad for almost a month. But he contributed between 15 and 22 goals in each of his previous four seasons, operating as a useful middle-six forward. And while it feels like he’s been around a long time, he’s only 28. So perhaps the Blackhawks, depleted by injuries and two points out of a playoff spot, can find a role for him.

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