Stanley Cup Final: Right matchups crucial for Panthers and Golden Knights

Pitting the right players against one another can make the difference with the Stanley Cup on the line.

The Stanley Cup Final is shaping up quite nicely, trades are starting to happen, and the NHL silly season hasn’t even started yet.

The game within the game

We often hear the saying, “A series doesn't start until a home team loses." And when it comes to hockey, what that really means is that the home team has the last change and can more effectively control the matchups. When it comes to the Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights, those matchups have been evolving as the series has gone along. In Game 1, the matchups rolled out as follows:

Game 2 may have been a blowout, but the matchups started to change:

  • Stone played the most against, in order, Reinhart, Bennett and Lundell. Tkachuk also played the majority of his minutes against Stone and Stephenson.

  • Eichel and Pietrangelo got more time against Barkov directly.

  • Shea Theodore grabbed big minutes against the fourth line with Ryan Lomberg and Eric Staal.

In Game 3, that evolution continued:

  • We once again saw lots of Eichel against Barkov, and 5-on-5 shot attempts were 10-1 for Barkov against Eichel head-to-head.

  • Stone got the Bennett-Tkachuk line.

  • Karlsson played primarily against Lundell. As did Pietrangelo.

Ultimately, it seems Florida is pushing for more head-to-head matchups, best on best. And Vegas wants their checkers (led by the Stone-Stephenson line) to check Florida’s top player and set the table for their skill players. It's the game within the game.

Bank on Mark Stone and Matthew Tkachuk seeing a whole lot of each other once again in Game 4. (Getty)
Bank on Mark Stone and Matthew Tkachuk seeing a whole lot of each other once again in Game 4. (Getty) (NHLI via Getty Images)

Panthers feeling Luostarinen absence

The quietest story of the Stanley Cup Final is the absence of Eetu Luostarinen. We have noted him throughout the playoffs as the 6-foot-3, versatile forward who's had a quietly impactful playoffs. He hasn’t played since Game 4 of the series against the Carolina Hurricanes, as he is suspected to have a fracture in his lower leg after blocking a shot.

He has been a staple on the Panthers third line, alongside Lundell and Reinhart, averaging 16:41 per game, which is higher than players like Anthony Duclair and Nick Cousins. He is also a regular penalty killer, on a unit that needs all the help it can get, to say nothing of him closing games when the Panthers are protecting a lead. They haven’t adjusted well to that shakeup.

The Panthers have been rolling three lines all playoffs — especially with Ryan Lomberg missing the entire second round. In Game 1, they moved Lomberg up and dressed Zac Dalpe for the first time in nearly a month. In Game 2, they ran 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. In Game 3, they went back to 12 and 6 with Lomberg back on the third line. Reinhart has yet to put up a point through three games in the Final. Lundell has two points, but one was shorthanded and one was assisted by Duclair, not his usual linemate.

Losing players is tough, even down in the lineup. It shakes up the continuity of what has been making you successful and starts moving players around, asking them to do things they haven’t been doing. Luostarinen might not be their best player, but he’s an important one, and the Panthers have been scrambling to help fill the void since losing him.

Tkachuk paved the way for sign-and-trades

The Tkachuk trade has been talked about ad nauseum as he has been a superstar while leading the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season in Florida. It has come up again, just maybe not in the way you might think.

When the trade happened between Calgary and Florida last summer, it was believed to be the first true sign-and-trade in NHL history. The team that you are on has your bird rights and is able to offer you an extra year on your contract as an incentive of sorts to stay by offering you an eight-year deal, when in free agency you can only sign for a maximum of seven years.

Tkachuk made it clear he did not want to stay in Calgary and as part of the trade, he technically signed with Calgary for eight years then was traded to the Panthers. Now, we have seen the second trade of the sort between the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets in order to facilitate an eight year contract for Damon Severson.

The concept itself makes sense all-around. The original team signs the players to the full eight years and receives some compensation rather than losing a player for free. You can’t really evaluate the Matthew Tkachuk trade as a template due to the magnitude of trading one of the elite players in a sign-and-trade, who also happened to be a restricted free agent.

Severson, on the other hand, is a scenario we are most likely to see more of moving forward. A good player that was a pending UFA, signed and traded weeks before free agency opens and the price was a third round pick. That is now the realistic bar for an eight year sign-and-trade, and it’s a relatively small price to pay if you’re a team signing a player to extra term and presumably lowering the annual average cap hit as a result.

Blue Jackets' new-look blue line

In terms of the actual addition of Severson, he was not the only defenseman the Blue Jackets have brought in over the past week, as they traded for Ivan Provorov as well. The full trade breaks down as follows:

Columbus Blue Jackets receive:

Ivan Provorov

Philadelphia Flyers receive:

Cal Petersen

Sean Walker (LAK)➡(PHI)

Helg Grans (LAK)➡(PHI)

2023 1st round pick (22nd overall)

2023 2nd round pick (LAK pick)

CBJ Conditional 2nd round pick (2024 or 2025)

Los Angeles Kings receive:

Kevin Connauton

Hayden Hodgson

30% of Provorov’s cap hit

Shed Peterson’s contract

And with that, the Blue Jackets have completely remade their defense, adding two top-four defensemen to a group that also includes Zach Werenski, Erik Gudbranson, Andrew Peeke, Jake Bean and Adam Boqvist. Something will likely happen because the lowest salary between all seven of those defensemen is Bean at $2.3million, so unless they are planning to run 11 forwards and 7 defensemen all season, it wouldn’t make much sense.

All of Werenski, Severson and Provorov thrive as offensive, puck moving defensemen. Who, among that group of seven, is going to handle the opponents top line on a nightly basis? Werenski is the highest paid defenseman in the group, but has never started more in the defensive zone than the offensive zone in his entire career. In all five seasons where he has played in at least 63 games, he has hit double digits in goals, including a 20-goal campaign.

Over the past three seasons, Provorov struggled on a poor Flyers squad as he wanted to be an offensive, roaming defenseman rather than a solid two-way blueliner. Severson has had a good career on what was largely a poor Devils team throughout his tenure, but as they emerged this season his primary partner was Brendan Smith playing down in the lineup. That’s not to say that none of these players can take on this nightly task, but it’s something that traditionally has not been their strong suit.

Mike Babcock is definitely going to stress defense and structure. How it all fits together will be fascinating to watch unfold. To say nothing of Mike Babcock potentially trying to convince Patrick Laine to play defense, too.

Kings get much-needed cap relief

Not to be lost in the three-way trade is the Los Angeles Kings paying up to essentially open up cap space. Cal Petersen is slated to make $5 million per season for each of the next two years, and yet, by the end of the season, he wasn’t even on the team. That’s too much money to eat. The price to clear that money was steep: Sean Walker (a solid defenseman), prospect Helge Grans (drafted 35th overall in 2020), and a 2024 second round pick.

It wasn’t that long ago that teams would send bad contracts down to the AHL — infamously, Wade Redden comes to mind — or swap them for other bad contracts, the way Edmonton and Calgary swapped Milan Lucic and James Neal. For L.A., though, this trade purely opens up cap pace. They got back two players that they can freely bury in the minors. In turn, they have opened up $5 million, or if you want to include the maximum threshold of $1,150,000 to bury for next season, just under $4 million. They paid a second, a legit NHLer and a prospect that was recently drafted pretty high.

For a team that is ready to win right now, to clear up that much money to use for any number of things, that is not a massive price to pay. The weak teams in the league are massive power brokers. The Arizona Coyotes have happily done it for a few seasons now. All in all, teams are aggressively looking to get cap relief, and now they are buying their way into it.