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2023 Stanley Cup Final

Florida Panthers Helped Vegas Build a Winner at Expansion Draft

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Vegas Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault celebrates his goal against the Arizona Coyotes with linemate Reilly Smith on Dec. 3, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

When the Vegas Golden Knights were entering the NHL as an expansion team in 2017, their then-record $500 entrance fee got them a new set of rules in which to build their team. The Florida Panthers certainly helped.

General manager George McPhee had deals made with teams from around the league, teams offering sweeteners to, in many cases, take certain players over others.

While the expansion draft took place in June 2017, some deals had been in place since the previous season.

One of them was with the Florida Panthers.

Instead of losing one player as per the rules, Florida ended up losing two. But it was by design — a design with obvious flaws.

While only one was selected from the Panthers’ unprotected list, another was traded there for a fourth-round pick.

Both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith helped the Golden Knights get off the ground in their historic expansion season — and have helped them to what is their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final this year.

And, look who Vegas is playing: The Florida Panthers.

“It’s a long time ago. It’s water under the bridge,” Marchessault told ESPN last week before the Golden Knights finished off Dallas in the Western Conference finals.

“I was disappointed at the time but that’s six years ago now, so it doesn’t bother me anymore. I know it’s my old team, but good for them. I don’t worry too much about them anymore. I worry about our team.”

How exactly did both players end up in Vegas?

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As is usually the case in situations like these, it came down to money and who wanted to pay what.

Dale Tallon, basically, did not want to pay Smith the five-year, $25-million contract extension signed while the Panthers were under new, and what turned out to be temporary, management.

He also did not want to disrupt his team’s defense.

But the big thing was the contract.

By the time the expansion draft came around in 2017, Tallon was back in charge as Florida’s GM after giving up control the previous summer to Tom Rowe, Steve Werier and Eric Joyce.

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Those three made a lot of moves in 2016.

They signed a number of new players (Keith Yandle, James Reimer and Jonathan Marchessault among them) while extending existing players such as Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck and Derek MacKenzie.

Tallon was told to cut back on the spending and payroll.

Reilly Smith’s extension was the contract Tallon wanted to shed when the expansion draft came around.

Not only did he think the money was too much, he did not like that Smith had a modified no-trade clause in the contract which was set to kick in a few days after the expansion draft.

With former Florida coach Gerard Gallant nownin Vegas and a proponent of bringing in Smith, the Golden Knights were willing to made a deal.

Only they were not going to do the Panthers any favors, not when they held all the cards in the expansion process. With acres of salary cap space, Vegas could afford to take on some bigger priced contracts. They utilized that space to get other assets.

The price to take on the contract Tallon wanted to rid himself of was Marchessault, a young forward who had bounced around before finding a home with the Panthers during a tumultuous 2016-17 season.

In what turned out to be Marchessault’s only season with the Panthers, he led the team with 30 goals and was third with 51 points.

“I want people to remember me, remember the season I had, but not for negative reasons,” Marchessault said as the season was winding to a close. “I want people (in Florida) to remember me for helping get this team to the playoffs. We have had some ups and downs — a lot of downs.”

He never got the chance to lead the Panthers to the playoffs although he has had a lot of success in Vegas.

Marchessault was on a fantastic team-friendly deal of two years at $750,000 annually signed by Rowe’s crew in 2016.

After the season he had with the Panthers, Marchessault was going to be due a major-league raise.

Vegas knew they could afford to give Marchessault his big contract — and did so in January of that first season, signing him to a six-year deal worth $30 million.

Both Smith and Marchessault thrived in Vegas, mostly playing together on a line with another outcast, former Columbus fourth-liner William Karlsson.

They ended up being three of Vegas’ top four scorers that season as that trio combined for 92 goals and 213 points — and helped the expansion team set all sorts of records en route to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year.

Before the deals were leaked before the expansion draft, some were shaking their head at the decision Tallon and the Panthers made when it came to their protected list.

Marchessault and Smith were left unprotected knowing a deal was in place.

When it came time to protect players, NHL teams had the option to protect either: Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender OR eight skaters total (forwards and defensemen) and a goalie.

Tallon went for the latter, protecting four defensemen.

While Ekblad was a no-brainer, Yandle (who just completed the first year of a seven-year deal) had to be protected because of his no-trade clause.

Tallon did not want to lose Mark Pysyk or Alex Petrovic, either, and by making the deal with Vegas, would not have to lose either.

This, obviously, was a move that did not work out.

It did look bad at the time and has certainly not aged well.

But the plan, all along, was that there was a trade in place to move a contract Tallon did not want to be stuck with. It cost the Panthers two pretty good players, ones who may come back and haunt them in the coming weeks.

Tallon eventually added Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman to replace Marchessault and Smith.

“You win championships with defense first,” Tallon said in explanation of his decision to save eight skaters instead of 10.

While Marchessault and Smith blossomed in Vegas, Petrovic was no longer with the Panthers just over a year later.

Florida let Pysyk walk as a free agent in 2020 and bought out the final two years of Yandle’s contract in 2021.

By only protecting four forwards (Sasha Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau), the Panthers left Marchessault and Smith unprotected.

In the end, Tallon made a deal with the Knights in which he would not protect Marchessault if they would take Smith and his new contract. He saved his defensemen but lost two good scorers.

Marchessault has 150 goals and 348 points in six seasons with the Golden Knights; Smith has 124 and 286.

Not bad.

For them, not the Panthers.

“You know what? I thought they were going to protect me,” Marchessault said in the interview with ESPN. “I was surprised of the decision. But I mean, that’s just the way she goes sometimes. Keeps you honest.”

As for the potential — and now reality of playing the Panthers — Marchessault said he has been paying attention.

“They’re kind of a similar team to what we had here in the first year. Kind of this Cinderella story,” Marchessault said. “They worked their way there and hard work pays off sometimes.

“In the playoffs, it’s how desperate and how bad a team wants it. And I think they’ve wanted it more. They’ve dominated most of the games they’ve played in the playoffs.’’

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK

THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
GAME 1
  • When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
  • Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
  • TV: TNT
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 96.5 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
  • Series Schedule — Game 1: Saturday at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 2: Monday June 5 at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 3: Thursday June 8 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 4: Saturday June 10 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Tuesday June 13 at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Friday June 16 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Monday June 19 at Vegas, 8 (TNT). * – If Necessary
  • 2022-23 Regular Season Series Vs. Vegas (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
  • All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Vegas Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
  • Postseason History: First meeting
  • How They Got Here — Vegas: d. Winnipeg in 5, Edmonton in 6, Dallas in 6; Florida: d. Boston in 7, Toronto in 5, Carolina in 4.

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