The Florida Panthers are done rebuilding. After one of the best seasons in franchise history, the Panthers used Day 2 of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft to upgrade their current roster while giving up future assets.
Sam Reinhart, a former top-five pick and first-line forward for the Buffalo Sabres, is headed to Florida. The Panthers are ready to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
“I’m thrilled about having that opportunity with a group that is expecting to win on any given night,” Reinhart said. “I’m absolutely thrilled and motivated to come to a group that is hungry, trying to make it to the next step.”
It’s easy to view the trade — which sent a 2022 first-round pick and a goaltender prospect Devon Levi to the Sabres — as a “win-now” move. Bill Zito, however, rebuffs the notion.
“I wouldn’t say so much it is win now,” the general manager said. “I think in this business maybe it’s win every day.”
Reinhart is 25, just like versatile forward Sam Bennett, whom Florida gave up a 2022 second-round pick to get in April, and just like star center Aleksander Barkov, defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling, and wingers Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair.
All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau is 28. Star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar is 27, as is winger Frank Vatrano. The Panthers have 11 forwards likely to be in the opening-day lineup, and 10 are between 22 and 29.
Florida spent the last few months giving up Draft picks to get better, but the additions, Zito hopes, are building blocks and not just short-term rentals.
“They’re all sort of in that same temporal scope of their careers, where they can grow together and hopefully enter their primes together,” Zito said. “That’s a focus that we acknowledge and we’ll be fruitful.”
The Panthers still made all five of the picks they had at the start of the day Saturday, too. After taking American right wing Mackie Samoskevich with the No. 24 overall pick in the first round Friday, Florida drafted three defensemen, two forwards and a goaltender in Rounds 2-7 on Saturday.
The Panthers took Canadian defenseman Evan Nause in the second, Russian defenseman Vladislav Lukashevich in the fourth, Russian goaltender Kirill Gerasimyuk in the fifth, Czech right wing Jakub Kos in the sixth and Canadian defenseman Braden Hache in the seventh.
None of those will be in South Florida anytime soon, though, and the Panthers are at the point where their primary focus is on winning a Stanley Cup with their current group. It meant Zito was fine parting with a first-round pick and fine parting with Levi, who was a seventh-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, but could’ve been permanently stuck behind rookie goaltender Spencer Knight.
The Panthers also put a top-10 protection on their pick, Sportsnet reported.
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Buffalo, on the other hand, is in a full-fledged rebuild, and prioritized picks and prospects this weekend. Florida took advantage to bolster its present lineup with Reinhart, who had 25 goals and 15 assists in 54 games last season.
“We want to improve, we want to get better,” Zito said. “Yeah, we want to help, but we also want to respect that room and what they did, and what they accomplished was extraordinary.”
They no longer have any picks in the first two rounds of the 2022 NHL Draft. Instead, they have a core group they trust and, coincidentally, three of the top four picks from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft with Reinhart, Bennett and Ekblad.
This is the Panthers’ timeline now. Most of their best players are hitting their primes and could be in them for years to come.
Zito is putting together a roster capable of winning the 2022 Stanley Cup, but he also envisions years of contention behind the 2021-22 NHL season.
“Hopefully, we play them properly and we have the good fortune of being able to keep them, then we’d be able to hold on to the assets through their prime,” Zito said. “They are players and, hopefully, teammates that we can have here for a while.”