June 13, 2024

How friends Panarin, Bobrovsky changed the Rangers, Panthers

Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky have been dancing.

It was July 2019. The two had been teammates with the Columbus Blue Jackets, changing into shut friends when Panarin was traded there from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017. Their households are friends. Panarin is the godfather to Bobrovsky’s daughter. They take silly photos together. They have fun holidays and trip collectively — this specific dance occasion was in Capri.

Their dancing is extremely spirited, with each NHL gamers kicking their legs over their heads towards the evening sky on the deck of a ship. It’s the form of dance one expects in a second of offseason catharsis, like when two friends signal free agent contracts value a mixed $151.5 million. The ink was nonetheless drying on Panarin’s seven-year, $81.5 million take care of the New York Rangers and Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70 million contract with the Florida Panthers.

It’s now May 2024. Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t talking. There’s no animosity between the shut friends, however the battle strains have been drawn: The Rangers and Panthers are taking part in in the Eastern Conference finals. Panarin is making an attempt to attain towards his finest pal in hockey, and Bobrovsky is tasked with stopping it.

At stake is an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup, which Bobrovsky did final season with Florida however Panarin has but to do in his nine-year NHL profession. They are rivals now. They’ll be friends once more when it is over.

“I like how he looks at his life, how he looks at himself. Not only about hockey, but what he’s going to do after that,” Bobrovsky has stated of Panarin.

“He’s an unbelievable guy, a great human,” Panarin stated of Bobrovsky, by way of NHL.com. “We can talk about everything all day and we can say anything to each other. We can talk about good things and the not good things, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a very honest relationship.”

They are two of the most impactful gamers of the final decade in the NHL. Bobrovsky has extra wins (354) than some other goalie since 2012-13, when he received his first Vezina Trophy. He received his second Vezina in 2016-17, the identical yr he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Panarin is fifth in factors (781) since coming into the league with the Blackhawks in 2015-16, the identical season he received the Calder Trophy as rookie of the yr. He’s sixth in points-per-game common (1.16) throughout that span. Only Nikita Kucherov is forward of him in each classes amongst wingers.

In 2019, Bobrovsky and Panarin changed the trajectory of three franchises. They walked away from the Blue Jackets as free brokers, and Columbus has made the playoffs simply as soon as since then. Bobrovsky solidified the Panthers’ goaltending, incomes a 3rd profession Vezina nomination this season. Panarin helped the Rangers transition from a retool to prime of the league this season.

As one NHL supply put it: “If they don’t sign either one of those two, the Panthers and Rangers are not fighting to get into the Stanley Cup Final right now.”

AS FREE AGENCY drama usually does, the Panarin and Bobrovsky saga began for the Blue Jackets a yr earlier than their contracts have been up.

Reports have been that Bobrovsky and Columbus have been far aside on a brand new, long-term contract. But they have been speaking, which was greater than may very well be stated for Panarin and the staff. He was pushing off talks.

The uncertainty of his future in the market had groups sending basic supervisor Jarmo Kekalainen commerce proposals, though few have been designed to assist Columbus in the current. But even when the Blue Jackets considered transferring Panarin, there was one other complication: The NHL echo chamber was reverberating with speak that Panarin wished to be a New York Ranger.

There have been different groups he was contemplating — the New York Islanders and Panthers amongst them — however the Rangers have been his staff of selection, and that undoubtedly impacted the provides coming in for him.

Columbus followers wished him to remain. Some even resorted to bribery: High Bank Distillery created a billboard proclaiming that Panarin would get free vodka for all times ought to he stay with the Blue Jackets.

“I feel really good after that. I say it’s harder for me to keep talking about my free agency because I see how people want me to stay in Columbus,” he stated of the billboard. “But it’s my life.”

In February, there was one other wrinkle: Panarin fired agent Daniel Milstein and employed Paul Theofanous, the agent for Bobrovsky. At a media availability in Las Vegas, Panarin declared he was testing free company that summer season.

“It’s one life, and I want to test free agency,” he stated, in accordance with the Columbus Dispatch. “[They] have a chance [to sign me], but we’ll see what happens in the summer. I want to still [consider] this season and help the team win the Stanley Cup.”

The agent change instantly sparked hypothesis that the two might develop into a “package deal” in free company, handing a number one scorer and a franchise goaltender to some fortunate staff — luck on this case equating to geography and cap area, theoretically.

Hockey followers had seen this earlier than: In 2003, star wingers and former Anaheim teammates Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne have been reunited as a package deal deal in Colorado, as each gamers have been purchasers of agent Don Baizley.

The Blue Jackets opted to not commerce both participant at the deadline — Bobrovsky had a no-trade clause, Panarin didn’t — as Columbus was nonetheless in a playoff race.

“If they want to go and test the free agency, they’re going to want to have their best years. And that’s the best for us and the best for them,” Kekalainen stated at the time. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We’ll have a great team next year, no matter what happens.”

They’d each have nice years forward of recent contracts. Panarin had 87 factors in 79 video games, a brand new profession excessive. Bobrovsky had a .913 save proportion and an NHL-best 9 shutouts. They saved their finest for final, each taking part in a significant position in the Blue Jackets’ first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 128-point juggernaut and one among the finest regular-season groups in NHL historical past.

Bobrovsky had a .931 save proportion in securing his first postseason collection win. Panarin had 5 factors in 4 video games, outscoring each participant on the Lightning in the historic upset.

The Blue Jackets can be eradicated in the following spherical by the Boston Bruins, formally signaling the begin of an offseason of uncertainty.

At this level, it was broadly assumed that Panarin was gone. Kekalainen’s massive swing to maintain him was an eight-year contract, which no different suitor might provide, value greater than $11 million yearly. One supply stated the Jackets might need gone even greater to maintain Panarin.

But the Blue Jackets all the time hoped they might cling on to Bobrovsky, logically surmising that the marketplace for an over-30 goaltender in search of a long-term, big-money contract can be restricted.

The buzz time period surrounding his contract ask was “Carey Price cash,” referencing the eight-year, $84 million take care of a full no-movement clause that the goaltender signed with the Montreal Canadiens in July 2017 — a contract the Habs are nonetheless paying, at the same time as Price hasn’t performed since 2021-22.

The Jackets have been providing offers with a shorter time period, hoping his desired contract would not materialize elsewhere. But there was, actually, a marketplace for Bobrovsky.

Among the most aggressive suitors for Bobrovsky have been the New York Islanders. They had Ilya Sorokin finally on the approach from the KHL. Bobrovsky might have given them an elevated model of the Russian goalie tandem they finally had with Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov.

The “package deal” rumors endured. The NHL wage cap — then set at $81.5 million — was the major deterrent.

“No way you can actually do that in this environment without one of the players getting shortchanged,” one NHL supply stated.

But groups have been making an attempt. The Islanders had $20 million in cap area at the begin of free company. Getting each Russian gamers would have impacted a number of different bits of enterprise — re-signing Anders Lee, an eventual extension for Mathew Barzal — but it surely was doable for GM Lou Lamoriello, somebody identified for his audacity in roster constructing.

The Colorado Avalanche have been additionally serious about a package deal deal. Their goalie coach, Jussi Parkkila, labored with Bobrovsky at St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL, and the two remained friends. They favored Bobrovsky, however they coveted Panarin. The Avalanche have been providing a four-year contract that will have made Panarin the highest-paid participant in the NHL, in accordance with one supply. But even with the flexibility of Nathan MacKinnon‘s cap-friendly contract at the time, they could not discover a solution to signal each below the wage cap.

The actual downside with the “package deal” is that one a part of the package deal had aspirations to signal with one staff specifically: The New York Rangers.

And the feeling was mutual.

ON FEB. 18, 2018, the Rangers’ web site posted a brand new article titled “A Message from Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton About Our Team.”

It can be identified henceforth as “The Letter.” It said that the franchise “didn’t reach our ultimate goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to New York.” That the Rangers would search to get youthful and extra skillful; and in the course of, “this may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect.”

Much like how nobody in “Casablanca” ever utters the phrase “play it again, Sam,” at no level does “The Letter” use the phrase “rebuild.” It wasn’t one thing the staff referenced. When John Davidson left the Blue Jackets in May 2019 to rejoin the Rangers as staff president, he most well-liked to make use of the time period “build” when describing their plans.

They have been constructing quick. In April 2019, the Rangers acquired the rights to defenseman Adam Fox from the Carolina Hurricanes for 2 draft picks. A local of Jericho, New York, Fox knowledgeable the Hurricanes he would not signal with them. It was broadly speculated that Fox would finally signal with the Rangers as an NCAA free agent anyway. He wished to be a Ranger, and he was a Ranger.

In June 2019, the Rangers traded a first-round decide and defenseman Neal Pionk to the Winnipeg Jets for 25-year-old defenseman Jacob Trouba, who instructed the Jets he wasn’t signing with them. He pushed for a commerce to New York so his fiancée, Kelly Tyson, might advance in her medical profession. He wished to be a Ranger, and he was a Ranger.

They drafted Finnish ahead Kaapo Kakko second total in the 2019 draft. They had goalie Igor Shesterkin and defenseman K’Andre Miller of their system.

“These are pieces that fit a puzzle, and we’re trying to get that puzzle completed the proper way as quickly as possible,” Davidson stated.

The Rangers have been on the proper monitor again to rivalry. The query was whether or not their velocity synced with Panarin’s availability as a free agent. There have been debates internally about whether or not the Rangers have been prepared so as to add a star, resembling Panarin, at a substantial dedication to the wage cap.

Signing him would impression issues in the quick time period — the Rangers purchased out the contract of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk that August to create extra room — and in the long run. The Athletic reported at the time that Panarin’s signing meant ahead Chris Kreider “will be dealt before he hits unrestricted free agency next July 1st.”

Ultimately, it was determined that even when the “build” wasn’t at a degree the place including Panarin would make them a championship contender, the Rangers could not afford to attend to be prepared. What if a participant of Panarin’s caliber wasn’t obtainable then? What if there weren’t related choices on whom the Rangers might spend their cash? Panarin was solely 27 that summer season; what if the massive free agent prize was 31 years previous when the Rangers have been able to do enterprise?

“When these young players pop, he’s still going to be in his prime,” rationalized Davidson, who was president of the Blue Jackets after they acquired Panarin.

Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5 million take care of the Rangers as free company opened. His common annual worth of $11,642,857 was the second highest in the NHL behind Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid ($12.5 million) however the highest for a winger, surpassing his former teammate Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks ($10.5 million).

Those unimaginable numbers apart, Panarin left cash on the desk to signal with the Rangers.

“I don’t think those [other] teams did anything wrong,” one NHL govt instructed ESPN. “I think he just wanted to be a Ranger.”

On July 2, Panarin took half in a now-iconic photoshoot on Seventh Ave., holding his No. 10 jersey in entrance of the Madison Square Garden marquee that welcomed him to New York.

“There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” he stated relating to free company. “My heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

His pal Bobrovsky felt the identical approach about South Florida.

THE PANTHERS OFFERED Panarin the identical ballpark numbers as the Rangers. They thought that they had an opportunity at him, what along with his former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville behind the bench — Panarin credit him with coining his “Bread Man” nickname — and the state tax advantages from taking part in in Florida. But finally, they figured he was New York-bound.

They believed Bobrovsky was extra aligned with their wants and remained targeted on him.

“They had some good offensive pieces. If you had to pick one or the other, they didn’t have a goaltender,” an NHL supply stated. “They decided on Bob, and it paid off.”

Star goalie Roberto Luongo retired at 40 years previous in June 2019. Thanks to NHL cap recapture guidelines, the Panthers noticed wage cap financial savings of roughly $3.5 million yearly; whereas the Vancouver Canucks, who initially signed Luongo to a 12-year, $64 million back-diving contract in 2009, have been on the hook for extra.

The different shoe to drop was that of goalie James Reimer. His contract wasn’t buyout pleasant, so the Panthers traded him the Hurricanes for goalie Scott Darling, whom they then purchased out.

It was apparent GM Dale Tallon was clearing the decks for a run at Bobrovsky, and almost gave him the “Carey Price money” he was in search of: seven years, $70 million and a full no-movement clause as free company opened.

“Sergei is an elite starting goaltender who has consistently proven to be one of the best in the NHL,” Tallon stated.

Florida was praised for making an enormous wager on a long-term goaltending answer. ESPN gave the signing a B-plus at the time.

The contract made Bobrovsky the second-highest-paid goalie in the league in common annual worth and base wage. It additionally put an infinite weight on his shoulders as he began with the Panthers in 2019-20. Bobrovsky had a .900 save proportion, a 3.23 goals-against common and a 23-10-6 report for Florida that season. Quenneville and his Panthers teammates spoke as much as support Bobrovsky throughout that preliminary season.

“Sometimes there are ups and downs, but you have to keep your focus,” Bobrovsky stated at the time.

The following season, Bobrovsky noticed an previous acquaintance be part of the staff: Bill Zito, assistant GM in Columbus, was named the new basic supervisor in Florida in 2020. He known as Bobrovsky earlier than being introduced, leaning on the goaltender for info and perception about his new staff.

Zito additionally discovered himself having to defend Bobrovsky in gentle of his contract and outcomes. “I’m not worried about him at all. He’s a really intuitive guy, really bright. He’ll figure it out. And he wants to win,” Zito instructed ESPN at the time.

That persistence was finally rewarded. By his third season, Bobrovsky’s save proportion ticked as much as .913 and he led the NHL with 39 wins. He had a regression in the 2022-23 common season, however nobody remembers that.

What they keep in mind is “Playoff Bob” dealing with a playoffs-high 639 pictures, making a playoffs-high 585 saves, posting a .915 save proportion and orchestrating each the Panthers’ stunning first-round upset of Boston and their run to the Stanley Cup Final. That included a 63-save efficiency in a four-overtime game towards the Hurricanes that lasted 5 hours and 44 minutes.

Since Paul Maurice took over the Panthers as head coach final season, he has witnessed Bobrovsky being greater than only a franchise goalie he rolls out for playoff begins.

“Sometimes your goaltender is separate from your team, right? Nobody talks to them because they do that weird goaltender stuff,” he stated. “But Bob is part of the fun and might be a driver of it in some ways. Because that’s not his natural state, because he’s a very intense man. So he has fun in the morning skates and everyone knows that ‘Bob’s good.’ I think he just enjoys the performance aspect of it.”

His efficiency this postseason is way totally different than in the Panthers’ Stanley Cup Final run final season. Bobrovsky went from dealing with 32.9 pictures on purpose per sport on common in 2023 to 23.8 pictures on purpose in 2024, as the Panthers’ protection improved. It hasn’t all the time been excellent for him, however Maurice stated he trusts his goalie to handle the change in quantity.

“I feel that a guy that doesn’t have the experience that Bob has would’ve a difficult time doing what Sergei’s been able to do,” he stated.

WHILE BOBROVSKY TOOK slightly time to search out his groove in South Florida, Panarin was successful on Broadway from opening evening, when he had a purpose and an help in the Rangers’ win over Winnipeg.

Panarin tallied 95 factors with 32 targets in 69 video games in the 2019-20 season, making him a Hart Trophy finalist for the first time in the COVID-19-truncated marketing campaign. His points-per-60 minutes price climbed in his second season in New York.

When deciding whether or not the timing was proper to signal Panarin, Rangers executives had quietly focused the 2021-22 season as the level at which they anticipated the franchise to show the nook to rivalry once more. He scored 96 factors that common season and 16 factors in 20 playoff video games to assist the Rangers again to the 16-team event for the first time since 2017 and the convention closing for the first time since 2015.

While Panarin was strong in 2022-23 with 92 factors to guide the staff, he wasn’t a cheerful participant with the Rangers. Sources stated he did not mesh with coach Gerard Gallant, who was let go after New York was upset in the playoffs by the New Jersey Devils. That collection was additionally a nadir for Panarin, as he posted two assists in seven video games.

“It’s mental, and I feel terrible,” he stated after the season.

He took the defeat personally, recommitted himself to coaching in the offseason and shaved off his trademark locks in a symbolic vibe shift. The outcomes: a brand new profession excessive in targets (49) and factors (120) in main the Rangers to the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s finest regular-season report.

“I know this is a benchmark year for him, but his statistics over the last 7-8 years are incredible. There’s consistency that goes with that. This isn’t a fluke year — it’s just a really good one,” stated coach Peter Laviolette, who changed Gallant. “He’s been an elite player offensively, and this year has obviously been his best.”

As the Rangers and Panthers return to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 on Thursday evening, all eyes are on Panarin and Bobrovsky once more. The Rangers winger hasn’t scored a purpose since Game 3 towards the Hurricanes in the second spherical, though he has collected 4 assists in seven video games since then.

Bobrovsky continues to battle, stopping 21 of 23 pictures in Game 4 after giving up 5 targets in an extra time loss in Game 3. His save proportion for the playoffs is .904, however he has been there when they’ve needed him, posting a playoffs-leading .862 save proportion on high-danger probabilities.

One of them will play for the Stanley Cup. One of them won’t.

After it is over, when their strains of communication are not on mute, they’re going to reconnect to speak about it.

Two rivals. Two former teammates. Two friends who’ve made indelible marks on their respective franchises since that fateful summer season of 2019.