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Building off a breakthrough: Evgenii Dadonov

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

The Florida Panthers front office missed on a couple of things when constructing its roster during the summer of 2017, but one move that unquestionably worked out in their favor was the decision to bring forward Evgenii Dadonov back to North America on a three-year, $12 million contract.

Usually when we think about “breakthrough” players it tends to be a younger player without much professional experience — or having struggled for a bit while still finding their way in the league — having their first big season in the NHL. In that sense Dadonov is not your traditional breakthrough player because it took him quite a fear years, with a pretty extensive detour in the middle of it all, to have his first big year.

[Panthers Day: Looking back]

Originally drafted by the Panthers in the third-round of the 2007 draft, Dadonov flashed some potential early in his NHL career (20 points in 56 games over parts of three seasons) before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes late in the 2011-12 campaign. Following that season — and after having never played in a game for the Hurricanes — he made the jump to the KHL where he spent five highly productive years split between Donbass HC and St. Petersburg SKA.

Following what was his best season in the KHL in 2016-17, and with the Hurricanes no longer controlling his NHL contractual rights, Dadonov returned to the NHL and joined the organization he began his professional career with. Given that no one really knew what to expect from Dadonov in his return, the $4 million per year cap hit was probably considered a bit pricey and perhaps even a little bit of a gamble.

In the end it turned out to be a bargain for the Panthers.

In his return season to the NHL Dadonov was one of the Panthers’ best players, finishing with 28 goals (second on the team), 68 total points (fourth on the team), and a 53.6 Corsi percentage (best on the team) in 74 games.

He spent much of the season playing on Aleksander Barkov‘s wing, a duo that turned out to be a fantastic one for the Panthers. When they were together, the Panthers outscored teams by a 53-38 margin and controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts, and while it would be easy to attribute a lot of that success to Barkov carrying the line, both players saw their performance drop significantly when they were separated from one another.

Honestly, the Panthers couldn’t have hoped for Dadonov’s return to go better than it did.

Now the question becomes whether or not he can do it again for the Panthers.

There is very good reason to believe that he can.

Not only were his traditional numbers outstanding, but there is nothing in his underlying numbers to suggest any of it was much of a fluke as he was not really benefiting from any sort of an unsustainable surge in shooting percentages (neither his nor his teammates). The Panthers took a bit of a gamble by committing as much as they did to him up front, but the reward seems to be a top-line winger to join their young core alongside Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

Hockey nerds, would you like a fun activity? C’mon, the season is far away, you know you want one …

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Ask yourself a question: what are the best contracts in the NHL, under two parameters:

1. The contract must have some term on it. It was a great run, Erik Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, and Max Pacioretty. (Pours one out for John Tavares‘ ridiculous, recently expired deal.)

2. It can’t be a rookie contract, because that’s cheating.

Waits …

Waits some more …

Pencils up, you can stop scouring Cap Friendly now.

For my money – it’s not my money, I can barely afford to run a team in DFS – the best contract in the NHL is probably that of Nathan MacKinnon. He was a (deserving) Hart finalist for the low-low price of a $6.3 million cap hit. If that wasn’t enough, MacKinnon is somehow just 22, and his dirt-cheap cap hit runs for five more seasons.

(Joe Sakic just took a second to stop smirking about the Matt Duchene trade to smirk about MacKinnon’s contract.)

One can debate this topic from dawn until dusk – heck, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall‘s deal is in the discussion, too, though not for much longer – but I’d argue that the Florida Panthers rank among the teams who boast the most great contracts.

Specifically, this franchise is doing a wonderful job of signing fantastic forwards to equally fantastic deals. They’re paralleling what the Nashville Predators are doing with their defensemen: sign guys, usually with proactive extensions, to fairly long-term deals before they’ve fully blossomed.

The result: a slew of contracts that give a budget-conscious team a real chance to compete.

(Yes, it’s more than a little bit amusing that the Panthers biffed the expansion draft by giving away Reilly Smith [a nice $5M value even then] and Jonathan Marchessault [who signed a team-friendly deal in the middle of his first Vegas season, also for $5M per year], yet Florida still boasts so many great deals. There are advantages, you see, to being bad for a long time, not to mention operating in a state that gives sports teams certain tax advantages.)

Take a look at the great deals, and ones that at least qualify as good.

Aleksander Barkov – Panthers fans might have been screaming “Barkov” during that MacKinnon/Hall/etc. discussion, and with good reason. You could make a strong argument that the rising Selke-caliber forward’s deal is the biggest steal at $5.9M through 2021-22.

Like MacKinnon, Barkov is just 22, as he was selected one spot after the speedy Avs center. It turns out Florida was quite smart in doing so, despite the mild surprise.

Barkov set a ton of career-highs (27 goals, 51 assists, 78 points) despite seeing his usage flip-flop from beginning about 60-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone before to beginning close to 60-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2017-18.

He’s a legitimate, tide-turning top-line center, and Barkov’s making a relative pittance. He’s also not alone in being a bargain, even if he’s the best value of this bunch.

Jonathan Huberdeau‘s cap hit matches Barkov’s $5.9M, although Huberdeau’s deal runs through 2022-23. In this way, Huberdeau-Barkov parallel Johnny GaudreauSean Monahan as players with similar deals, with both being great values, even if one shines brighter than the other.

We’ll probably move Huberdeau up the bargain rankings more if he can stay healthy, as he did in playing all 82 games in 2017-18. So far, he’s shown the ability to drive puck possession in his own right, seeing a similar increase in defensive work last season. He matched Barkov’s 27 goals, and while he didn’t score as many points, 69 is still a new career-high.

Vincent Trocheck – For a while there, Trocheck was Florida’s other best-kept secret, behind Barkov.

It’s going to be tough for the underrated center to slip under the radar if he matches or exceeds last season’s 31 goals and 75 points, though. Trocheck’s possession stats slipped after some masterful years, yet those could very well go up if Huberdeau stays by his side, as was the case late in last season.

Trocheck is another fantastic steal at just $4.75M through 2021-22.

Evgenii Dadonov – It might seem weird for a 29-year-old to break through, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider how fantastic Dadonov was during his first season after a KHL sojourn.

Other GMs might not feel like it makes sense – or is fair – that a guy who just scored 28 goals and 65 points is making just $4M per year for two more seasons, but it fits into the pretty picture Florida is painting.

Nick Bjugstad – You could knock Dadonov, and also Bjugstad, for enjoying their best days when they landed on Aleksander Barkov’s line. It’s certainly a factor to consider, as Barkov clearly makes his linemates better.

Should the Panthers really care, though? Like Dadonov, Bjugstad suddenly seems like a bargain if he can stick on one of those top lines, maybe more so than trying to carry a line by himself. Bjugstad’s season totals weren’t amazing (19 goals, 49 points), but consider that he scored 10 goals and 27 points in just 35 games following the All-Star break.

Cooking with fire once he landed with Barkov suddenly makes his $4.1M for three more seasons look like quite the boon.

Mike Hoffman? – It’s too early to tell how Hoffman will fit in with the Panthers, as discussed in greater detail here.

Still, a guy who’s scored 20+ goals for four straight seasons and at least 56 for three consecutive years is probably at least a solid value at $5.188M per year (through 2019-20). Chances are, if Hoffman hits the Barkov lottery –  or clicks with Trocheck – then he’ll look like a steal, too.

***

So, to review, here are the good-to-great forward deals:

Barkov: $5.9M, four more seasons
Huberdeau: $5.9M, five more seasons
Hoffman: $5.188M, two more seasons
Trocheck: $4.75M, four more seasons
Bjugstad: $4.1M, three more seasons
Dadonov: $4M, two more seasons

This gives the Panthers quite the window to compete, and maybe thrive at a level many aren’t expecting. That’s especially true if these steals coincide nicely with rookie contracts for Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, and if the veterans on this team can hang on for a few more seasons.

Panthers management received well-earned ribbing for mismanaging the transition back to GM Dale Tallon, and Tallon’s stumbled a time or two.

Even so, between “The Computer Boys” locking up some good contracts, and Tallon helping with a Dadonov here and Hoffman trade there, the Panthers are in an awfully interesting position.

Now they just need to actually put it all together, and preferably for a full season, instead of a few months.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

2017-18

44-30-9, 96 pts. (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Mike Hoffman
Bogdan Kiselevich
Michael Hutchinson

OUT:

Radim Vrbata
Connor Brickley
Curtis Valk
Chases Balisy
Harri Sateri

RE-SIGNED:

Jared McCann
Frank Vatrano
MacKenzie Weegar
Alex Petrovic

The Florida Panthers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point.

One. Measly. Point.

Imagine where they’d have been if they kept Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Gerard Gallant, am I right?

All jokes aside, the Panthers actually had a pretty good year after finishing 26th in the NHL in 2016-17.

They managed through a coaching change, a new system and a time where both Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were hurt (thanks to the now-departed Harri Sateri) and still got to watch some of their biggest names — Aleksander Barkov (78 points), Vincent Trochek (75 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points) — flourish in career years.

Evgenii Dadonov came back from an extended stint in Russia with a love for producing points. He had 65 to sit fourth on the team after spending six seasons in his homeland. Dadonov and Barkov looked at home with each other on the top line, and the addition of Nick Bjugstad to the line later in the season formed a nice trio.

What didn’t help was the lack of secondary scoring. Outside of the five listed above one forward, no one topped 15 goals or 30 points. That said, the Panthers scored 40 more goals last season compared to the one previous. It’s a step in the right direction and fueled by young players that are only getting better.

That number could increase again this season, too. The Panthers went out and traded for Mike Hoffman after the debacle in Ottawa. Hoffman, despite off-ice issues with between his significant other and Erik Karlsson‘s, was solid on it with 22 goals and 56 points for a terrible Senators team.

Hoffman should slide into the left wing spot alongside Trocheck and Bjugstad, solidifying two quite good scoring lines.

A little more scoring from the bottom six could go a long way this season, as could an improved power play (21st) and penalty kill (16th).

The team was anchored on the backend by Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, but the Panthers still need to find a way to stop so much rubber coming their way. The Cats gave up 34.6 shots per game, third most in the NHL. A little shot suppression would surely help, and they’re hoping it comes in the form of Bogdan Kiselevich. Unless you’re an avid KHL supporter, you likely haven’t heard of Kiselevich, but in Florida, he’s expected to be a top-four pairing defenseman after an all-star season in Russia.

“Bogdan is a solid, shutdown defenseman who adds depth to our blue line and possesses a strong work ethic,” general manager Dale Tallon said when they signed the 28-year-old. “He’s proven himself to be a reliable defensive presence on the international stage and in the KHL and has the ability to be a steadying influence on the back end for our young defensemen.”

To its credit, Florida’s defense battened down the hatches as the season progressed, so finding that same stride early in this coming season will be crucial to a good start, which they didn’t have last year after going 7-11-2 in their first 20 games. Sometimes it’s about how you finish, and with the 24-8-2 record from Feb. 1 onward, the Panthers certainly closed out the season on a high note.

A healthy Luongo as a starter for the duration of next season would be a blessing for the Panthers. When he played, Luongo was the same solid netminder he’s always been, posting a .933 save percentage five-on-five and a very respectable 9.41 goals saved above average.

Reimer played more games than Luongo because of the latter’s injury but is slated to start the year as the backup once again. He had a .917 save percentage at five-on-five. The Panthers brought in former Winnipeg Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson, who provides good depth should the injury bug sting again.

Florida has been building quite the farm system over the past few years. Hoffman’s addition is the only opening day roster move Dale Tallon has pulled the trigger on so far, but there’s hope that a couple youngsters could make the jump.

Not trying to jinx it, but Panthers feel like a team on the brink — words not always uttered for this particular Florida-based team. Two very good scoring lines, an improved defensive group and an elite goalie (when healthy).

Keep it all consistent and it usually adds up to playoff hockey.

Prospect Pool

Henrik Borgstrom, C, 21, University of Denver (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

In his second season with the Pioneers, Borgstrom once again put up a strong showing, building off his freshman season with 23 goals and 52 points in 40 games. His play helped Denver become National Collegiate Hockey Conference champs, and Borgstrom was named the conference’s player of the year, forward of the year and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, handed to college’s top player. His season was topped off by four games with the Panthers and included his first NHL goal. Now, Borgstrom will challenge for a roster spot in Florida come training camp. For the 21-year-old, there’s a good chance he’s in the Show this year.

Owen Tippett, RW/LW, 19, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – 2017 first-round pick 

Taken 10th overall in last year’s NHL Draft, Tippett scored the same 75 points this past season in the OHL as he did in his draft year, only he did it this season in nine fewer games. Tippett began the year with the Panthers, playing in seven games and scoring his first NHL goal as he got his first taste of pro hockey. When the Steelheads were bounced from the first round of the OHL playoffs, Tippett got a second helping, this time with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, where he notched a goal and added an assist. Tippett will compete for a spot, and if he can make it, could provide that coveted secondary scoring. He’ll likely have to beat out Borgstrom, so that should be an interesting camp battle to keep an eye on.

Aleksi Heponiemi, C, 19, Karpat (Liiga) – 2017 second-round pick

Heponiemi peppered the Western Hockey League with 90 assists last season with the Swift Current Broncos, the most in the league, and finished third in league scoring with 118 points as he helped the Broncos to the league title and an appearance at the Memorial Cup. Too good for the Canadian junior hockey ranks — he had 204 points in 129 games over two years in Saskatchewan — Heponiemi will take his talents back home to Finland this season to play with Karpat in the Finnish Elite League. It will be a step up in competition for the speedster, who will get to play against men. His deal in Finland is for two years.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will Hoffman, Panthers get last laugh?

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Some of the hottest rivalries in hockey intensified on Tuesday.

No, not Penguins – Capitals or Bruins – Canadiens. Not even Matthew Tkachuk versus the Kings or Brad Marchand against that frozen pole in “A Christmas Story.”

Instead, two of Hockey Twitter’s favorite punchlines united – eventually – as Mike Hoffman (who will never want to scroll Twitter again) was traded to the Florida Panthers (who may never stop hearing about sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas … at least on Twitter).

You could almost feel snarky hockey fans thanking the Panthers for efficiently consolidating their jokes into one spot. (Granted, not all of their jokes; the Canadiens and Senators are still reliable for that.)

The juicy part is that maybe, just maybe, Hoffman and the Panthers can band together to get the last laugh against their hecklers?

Let’s dig a little deeper on the shared motivations for the team and their newly acquired top-six winger.

The Panthers finished the season on a tear

Yes, Florida missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, giving them plenty of opportunities to painfully watch the Vegas Golden Knights’ deep run from the comfort of their own homes. (They probably opted to go to the beach or play golf instead, but still.)

It’s easy to forget how strong a push the Cats made for one of the East’s final playoff spots, though.

As a reminder, the Panthers finished with 96 points, leaving them a mere point behind the New Jersey Devils for the East’s final wild card spot after ending 2017-18 on a five-game winning streak. Consider that, since the calendar turned to 2018, Florida went 27-14-3. That tied them for seventh overall in points (57) during that span, and their 27 wins was the fifth-best mark.

(Again, not in the conference, but in the entire NHL.)

Pieces falling into place

While it’s fun to mock GM Dale Tallon’s decisions during the 2017 summer – by all means, keep the chuckles coming – it’s not true to say that every choice was a poor one.

That’s particularly poignant if the Panthers believed that they couldn’t add Evgenii Dadonov without getting rid of Reilly Smith.

During his first NHL season since 2011-12, the Russian winger generated 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Smith and Dadonov bring a lot of things to the table, including both forwards standing as strong possession players.

Dadonov wasn’t just a fantastic addition. He was also effective enough that the Panthers were starting to find a better balance among their top forwards.

Eventually, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed some of the best stretches of his career finishing chances created by Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov, as that trio formed one of the league’s scariest top lines. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau trickled down to the second line, and he really seemed to build something promising with Vincent Trocheck.

Now, the natural joke is to say “Wow, now imagine how great they’d be with all of those guys alongside Marchesssault and Smith?”

That’s fair, but it might not be that simple for a budget team.

And also …

Adding a key piece

… Hoffman could really make things interesting, and dull some of the ache that comes with being a go-to punchline on social media.

Florida (claims to) give Hoffman a clean slate, while Hoffman brings undeniable sniping abilities to a roster that could be downright scary if they don’t need to make any key subtractions this summer.

The 28-year-old scored 22 goals last season, which was actually his lowest total since he began his 20+ goal streak in 2014-15. Hoffman’s 104 goals ranks 24th in the NHL during that timeline, leaving him ahead of players such as James Neal, Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

It’s notable that, with a $5.19 million cap hit, Hoffman also fits into the mix of Panthers forwards who are solid-to-ridiculous bargains (Barkov being the biggest steal as a true star at just $5.9M per year). With two years of term remaining, the Panthers get some cost certainty while Hoffman should be hungry to drive up his value in the market.

Of course, considering all of the things people will be snickering about on Twitter, his value is almost certain to go up.

***

As a veritable scamp, I can’t in good consciousness advise people to stop making jokes about the Panthers and/or Hoffman. That would be like asking Alex Ovechkin not to enjoy his time with the Stanley Cup.

That said, there’s a decent chance that Hoffman and the Panthers could silence at least some of their critics next season. Or at least win enough games to change the tone of some of the mockery.

Update: Hoffman provided this statement on the move.

More on the Mike Hoffman trade

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

House Money: How Golden Knights were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.

Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.

[How the Capitals were built]

It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.

Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.

The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now

Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.

Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.

Anyway, stockpiling defensemen and futures was a huge part of the gameplan. At the time, it seemed like any bit of first-season success would be the gravy. Instead, a nice first entry draft (despite bad draft lottery luck) and a bucket of picks ended up being the cherry on top of this beyond-Cinderella run.

Fleury and other established players

Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.

But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.

Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.

James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …

Karlsson is to Forsberg …

In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.

When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.

While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.

Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.

[What Vegas success says about NHL]

Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.

Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …

via Getty

Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans

An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).

To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)

You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.

Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.

/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.

Speaking of former Panthers

Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.

Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.

It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.

Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.

Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.

A fairly clean slate

You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.

Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.

Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.

That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.

As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?

Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.

***

No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.

Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.

You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• How Washington was built

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.