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How Penguins Can Follow Panthers’ Rebuild; Different than Dubas’s Path

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Pittsburgh Penguins game analysis, Florida Panthers

Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas said the club is trying as urgently as it can to acquire as many draft picks and prospects as it can reasonably get its hands on in order to integrate the newbies with the grizzled and successful Penguins core including Sidney Crosby.

It’s a slight veer from the traditional rebuilding in which a team ships its veterans away in exchange for draft picks, stinks for several years as to get higher draft picks, and rebuilds around the drafted core.

It worked for the Penguins in extraordinary ways in the early 1980s—hello Mario Lemieux—and in a nearly unprecedented way from 2003 to 2006—hello Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal.

Yet, the Florida Panthers did not undergo such a rebuild. True, they were the sludge near the bottom of the NHL barrel for more than two decades, but it wasn’t the stockpile of top picks that delivered Florida to hockey’s promised land of shining silver. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, and it would have been a fourth if not for the expanded format of the NHL bubble playoffs in 2020, the Panthers did not hold a fire sale for draft picks.

Nope, Florida has just three homegrown players on their roster.

Trades and free agency. It’s the armchair GMs fantasy come to life as Florida has wheeled and dealed its way to prominence. Sergei Bobrovsky, free agent. Matthew Tkachuk, blockbuster trade. Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov are homegrown pillars. Anton Lundell is the only other drafted player.

Florida has snagged bargains on the free agent and NHL trade market, like the octagenarian rolling through weekend yard sales.

Evan Rodrigues: Free agent.
Sam Reinhart: Trade. Prospect Devon Levi and a 2022 first-round pick.
Sam Bennett: Trade. Rights to prospect Emil Heineman and a 2022 second-round pick.
Carter Verhaege: Free agent.
Eetu Luostarinen: Trade. Vincent Trocheck for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Luostarinen, and defenseman Chase Priskie from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Vladimir Tarasenko: Trade. Conditional fourth-rounder in 2024 and third-rounder in 2025.
Gustav Forsling: Waiver claim from Carolina.
Niko Mikkola: Free agent.
Brandon Montour: Trade. 2021 third-round pick.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Free agent. Bought out by Canucks, and signed a one-year deal.
Dmitry Kulikov: Once a Panthers draft pick, he bounced around the league and signed as a free agent.

You’ll also notice the bargain nature of the Florida blue line. Ekblad carries a $7.5 million cap hit, Forsling got a raise to $5.75 million, and Montour is the next highest paid at $3.5 million.

All make millions less than their counterparts with the Penguins.

Of course, in 2019, Florida shoveled a seven-year, $70 million deal on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. At times, that signing looked like an absolute catastrophe worthy of sailing the team into the Bermuda Triangle. However, as the team has improved, Bobrovsky has reclaimed his form. He’s a virtual sure thing to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, assuming Florida wins the Stanley Cup.

In 2021, the Panthers ended their playoff drought. In 2022, the Panthers took the next step forward by making the playoffs and winning their Round One series. In 2023, they made the Stanley Cup Final. We all know what’s about to happen in 2024.

So, can the Penguins trade a paperclip for a Ferrari and work their way back to the top within the remainder of Crosby’s Pittsburgh career? It’s possible, though Dubas is about to attempt the same magic act that former GM Ron Hextall horribly failed; winning while simultaneously building for the future.

Dubas is off to a better start than Hextall, acquiring Erik Karlsson and Michael Bunting instead of Jeff Petry and Mikael Granlund, but if he stops there and nibbles at the edges of the roster while picking up more prospects and picks where he can, it will be a slow process that most likely outlasts Crosby.

Zito has shown the needle can be threaded, free agent bargains allow more flexibility, and good trades can shorten the process to a couple of years.

Also, who can Dubas trade to acquire the picks and prospects he craves? The Penguins don’t have many veterans worth the picks he seeks.

We’ve got two weeks to see the plan unfold, but there is also another path.