Florida Panthers: Looking back on Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault

Watching the Florida Panthers struggle on offense for most of the new season certainly has been frustrating.

It’s been made more frustrating by watching what Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are doing for the Vegas Golden Knights, and more frustrating still wondering if they could have done that in Panthers colors.

The decision to let them go to Vegas this offseason was a very controversial one, and most everyone agrees it was not the wisest of decisions. However, Dale Tallon had his reasons for letting them go, and while it’s not a line of thought many will enjoy following, the logic behind it is there, even if it is hard to see.

If you follow me on Twitter, my thoughts on this issue are well known. I didn’t agree with the decision to let them both go when it happened, and I certainly don’t now. But producing fair reasoning as to why the decisions were made from a cap and team-building perspective does not make me anti-analytics or anything else of this nature.

Florida is in a unique and tough position in terms of their internal salary structure, which means tough decisions like this have to be made for a better future, even if it means the present is worse.

Marchessault’s signing last year was probably the best of all of the moves made by the old regime. Signing him to a two-year deal worth $750,000 AAV was a masterstroke. The team knew he didn’t have a fit in Tampa, but could add some great goal-scoring depth for the Panthers. And he did.

Playing in all sorts of positions, he tallied 51 points and became the first 30 goal scorer for the Cats in eight years. The Panthers had concerns about whether he’d maintain this level of play when he wouldn’t be playing top line minutes anymore, and while those concerns ended up being unfounded, replicating new-found successes is something many surprise players and teams struggle with.

And then there is the question of his next contract. If he was to replicate his 2016-17 success again, someone would inevitably splash the cash for him, eliminating what was his best-selling point: bargain production. And with the Panthers internal cap, plus their bevy of long term deals already on the books, they were likely not going to be the team to give him that deal.

In fairness, it may not be Vegas either. As a 27-year-old highly desired free agent, this may be his only chance to ring the bell. He will get paid. For Florida, losing him for nothing stings badly. But considering they weren’t going to likely have him beyond 17-18 season anyway, and his value proposition would be lost because of the new contract that he’d get, there’s some logic as to why they left him unprotected in the expansion draft.

As for Reilly Smith: one of Dale Tallon’s best moves was acquiring him in exchange for Jimmy Hayes before the 2015-16 season. He picked up 50 points in his first season, but only 37 in his second. And, a new five-year, $25 million contract was kicking in.

37 points for a $5 million second line winger is not a good value proposition, no matter how good his underlying numbers are, as well as his ability to play at 5v5, PP and PK minutes.

For a Panthers team with an internal cap, and not many contracts that they could relieve themselves of (i.e.: Dave Bolland contract), trading Smith for a fourth round pick after leaving him unprotected didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Is he better than Nick Bjugstad, the player who the Panthers protected instead of Smith? Probably not. His 2014-15 season form has still escaped his grasp, largely because of injuries and lineup juggling.

But, beyond how he was one of Tallon’s first draft picks, his AAV of $4.1 million with only three years left on it is much easier to maneuver around than Smith’s new deal was. And Smith’s 19 points playing with better line mates in 23 games isn’t all that much better than Bjugstad’s 11 playing with Jamie McGinn, Connor Brickley et al.

So the decision to get rid of these two players is still controversial, and has worked out pretty well in Vegas’ favor. Although, the Panthers aren’t exactly in a terrible position for the future.

Sure the present is still a tad ugly, but with young players on the horizon such as Borgstrom and Tippett, plus Henrik Haapala’s positive start with the Panthers, they can find a way to replace the points they lost from Smith and Marchessault’s moves to Vegas eventually.

For a team with an internal cap and a desire to improve dramatically from the 2016-17 disaster, tough decisions had to be made. Dale Tallon’s hands were largely tied in this regard, so he did the best he could thinking forward depth is easier to replace than depth on the backend.

Early returns haven’t been kind to him, but these are not decisions made in a vacuum. Analysis of these moves even now a quarter of the way into the new season still assumes that they were, which isn’t true.

Sometimes, moves like this are made with the future in mind more than the present. Dale Tallon knew the team’s future may be better if these tough pills were swallowed. It doesn’t necessarily mean he was right. But at least he has a plan for how to replace this secondary scoring, even if it hasn’t come to fruition this year.