How they were made, Stanley Cup Finals edition: Edmonton Oilers vs. Florida Panthers

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So it’s all come down to this. Thirty NHL teams on the sidelines, preparing for the draft and free agency season to come. Two teams left, playing for all the marbles.

Other than butting up next to one another in an alphabetical listing of NHL teams, there’s not much of a past history between Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers. They’ve never played more than 2 games against one another in any season and just 7 games altogether during the 2020s. Now they might face off that many times this month alone, with one of them destined to win the Stanley Cup.

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The clubs have taken very different paths to where they are today. Back in 2019 Bill Zito was short-listed for the Oilers’ GM job vacated by Peter Chiarelli before Ken Holland threw his hat into the ring and quickly landed the gig. A year and a bit later, Zito landed in Florida where he began to transform the make-up of a club that had some promise but no tangible results. The Cats had not won a playoff series since a shock run to the Finals in 1996, their third year of existence.

Since then? The club won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22, and followed up with consecutive trips to the Finals in ’23 and ’24. In the past three seasons they’re the only NHL team to win more playoff series (7) than have the Oilers (6).

Zito’s path to the corner office more resembled that of Oilers’ CEO Jeff Jackson than it does Ken Holland. He was a player agent for 18 years before changing lanes in 2013.

How they were made

Let’s take a deeper look at how the Panthers were built, and how they compare to the Oilers. We’ll use the same methodology that we revived for our recent analyses of the Canucks and Stars.

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Forwards are shown in red font, defencemen in blue, goalies in green. The 20 players who actually dressed for the clubs’ most recent game are emphasized in bold font.

First round draft picks

EDM-FLA Round 1

One commonality between the two clubs: both are built around a pair of high draft choices in consecutive years.

It’s a formula that has worked well for the most successful teams of the salary cap era: Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004 followed by Sidney Crosby at #1 in 2005; Chicago Blackhawks landed Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane at #3 and #1 respectively in 2006 and 2007;  Tampa Bay nailed it with Steven Stamkos (#1, 2008) and Victor Hedman (#2, 2009). Need I add that the Pens and Hawks are the only NHL clubs to win three Stanleys in the cap era, while the Bolts are the only squad to go back-to-back.

Florida and Edmonton both found themselves at or near the bottom of the heap for several years running in the early 2010’s. The Panthers drafted Aleksander Barkov at #2 overall in 2013; the following year they won the draft lottery and selected defenceman Aaron Ekblad first overall. Both have been cornerstone players for the franchise ever since. with Barkov becoming the team captain in the manner of Crosby, Toews and Stamkos before him.

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Similarly, the Oilers drafted Leon Draisaitl at #3 in the Ekblad draft, then a year later won the lottery of the decade to land their own current captain Connor McDavid. Both he and Ekblad had achieved Exceptional Player status in the OHL, then landed on top of the NHL heap three years later.

The Oilers retain a couple of players picked before the Draisaitl-McDavid axis in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (#1 in 2011) and Darnell Nurse (#7 in 2013). The key add since was defenceman Evan Bouchard, picked #10 in 2018. Since Holland’s arrival in 2019, they’ve added defender Philip Broberg at #8 in 2019, then forward Dylan Holloway at #14 a year later.

Florida features just one other draft pick on their roster, that being centre Anton Lundell who went 12th overall in 2020, a few months before Zito’s hire. Otherwise, the new GM has not been shy to move inherited assets, even high value ones such as Jonathan Huberdeau, the #3 overall pick in 2011.

Oilers’ management and scouting staff have taken a few hits over the years for their relative lack of success beyond the first round of the draft, an area where some powerhouse clubs (notably Tampa Bay) have made hay over the years. But apparently, success on Day Two is not essential to future success on the ice. We saw this in an earlier review of Colorado Avalanche, whose 2022 Stanley Cup champions featured not a single player from this category. Now we see similar with the 2024 Florida Panthers.

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Just because no Day Two picks survived to the current day doesn’t mean that there weren’t successes. Two standout examples were both selected in the seventh round: netminder Devon Levi (2020) was part of the package that landed Sam Reinhart in 2021; defender Mackenzie Weegar (2013) was, along with Huberdeau, a key piece of the Matthew Tkachuk trade in 2022. Fair to conclude that Zito’s approach has been a proactive one, as we’ll see in the categories to come.

The Oilers meanwhile have a trio of Day Two draft picks from the Chiarelli era which gradually worked their way up to the big club. Key among them, netminder Stu Skinner.

Unrestricted free agents

EDM-FLA UFA

No fewer than ten current Panthers came via free agency. Only starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and his seven-year, $70 million co predates the current GM. Zito made a splash right away in 2020 when he signed Group VI free agent Carter Verhaeghe from Tampa Bay to a two-year deal at $1 million per. That turned into an instant value contract, and remains one even with the major bump in pay the player received upon renewal in 2022. The Panthers added greasy grinders Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins in this manner before loading up with six (6) UFAs in the opening two days of free agency last summer.

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Never mind that the Cats had just been to the Finals, let’s change up the mix. Zito brought on three proven defenders in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and former Oiler Niko Mikkola; useful forwards Evan Rodrigues and Kevin Stenlund; and a reliable backup goaltender in Anthony Stolarz, another former Oiler who led qualified goalies (25+ GP) in both goals against average and save percentage. Under $11 million for the six of them.

On the Oilers side of the page, 2021 addition Zach Hyman might be the best UFA signing league-wide in the last 5 years, paying premium dividends in 2023-24 with a combined 68 goals in the regular season and playoffs. Evander Kane and Corey Perry were high-profile in-season signings after their previous pacts were annulled for various reasons. Checkers and grinders Cody CeciDerek Ryan, Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown all came via this route, though not all at bargain prices. An underrated signing proved to be that of netminder Calvin Pickard who played an important role with the Oilers in the second year of his “insurance policy” pact.

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Waivers

EDM-FLA waivers

Not often does one see players of significance added in this fashion, but Gustav Forsling is a massive exception to this rule. What an absolute steal. Plucked from Carolina of all places on the eve of the 2021 season (Zito’s first), Forsling has been a massive outscorer in his subsequent 4 seasons, and playoffs, in Florida. His +56 in the season just past is the best such figure of any NHL defenceman since, wait for it, Vladimir Konstantinov in 1995-96 (+60).  He’s kept right on outscoring the in the postseason, where his +11 ranks second only to Bouchard’s +14.

The Panthers tried to duplicate that magic with similar waiver claims on two other depth d-men who might have seen action by now had not all 6 regulars been healthy throughout the playoffs.

Trades

EDM-FLA trades

Another major source for the Panthers, who acquired the above eight regulars by the trade route. Two-way forward Eetu Luostarinen is the only one to predate Zito, who brought in a number of impact players including powerplay rearguard Brandon Montour and top six forwards Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk. Worth noting the latter three all have high-first-round draft pedigree, just not in Florida. Four excellent trades for the Cats, who also brought on vets Vladimir Tarasenko and Kyle Okposo at the most recent deadline. All Tarasenko did was score the series-winning goal in the conference finals.

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Ken Holland has also acquired a few guys via the trade route, though generally not 20-somethings like Tkachuk, Reinhart, Bennett and Montour. His best success was clearly the addition of defensive stalwart Mattias Ekholm in 2023, though Warren Foegele and Brett Kulak have proven to be useful players. Of three vets acquired at the most recent deadline, all-purpose forward Adam Henrique has been the most prominent.

Summary

EDM-FLA full

The Panthers have undergone a significant makeover since Bill Zito took the helm in September of 2020. Just five players — Barkov, Ekblad, Lundell, Bobrovsky, Luostarinen — remain from the roster he inherited 45 months ago. The rest have come on board since by the gamut of sources: trades, free agent signings, even waiver pickups. The squad has compiled an impressive cast of both leading lights and support staff during that time.

Ken Holland on the other hand has played the hand he was dealt in hanging on to eight players, all of them acquired by the draft, even as several of them didn’t emerge as NHLers until his watch. His own selections of Broberg and Holloway swell the ranks of drafted Oilers to 10 of the 24 players listed. All of the rest have been added during Holland’s time here, within the past three seasons in every case, even as the club’s core group has remained fairly constant throughout.

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Different methods, whose is superior? As the old saying goes, “that’s why they play the games”. It’s time to drop that puck.

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