Last April, Bill Zito made a trade that many Panther fans wrote off as a necessary loss. It was a salary dump trade. Zito got rid of the Brett Connolly contract and a former first rounder in Henrik Borgstrom, who was unlikely to return to South Florida, after tension with the previous front office. In addition, Zito also included D Riley Stillman, who hadn’t won a roster spot in the Panthers 2020-21 defense and wanted an NHL opportunity. A 7th round pick in 2021 also went to the Hawks which they used on an overage forward from the WHL. Connolly and Borgstrom have struggled heavily in Chicago, while Stillman has seen success and the draft pick Jalen Luypen is producing at a point per game pace as a 19 year old in the WHL. What did Zito get in return? Forward Lucas Wallmark and Defenseman Lucas Carlsson.
Wallmark only played 4 games in his second Panthers stint (his first being a short stint the season prior) and after not recording a point, headed over to Russia, where he enjoyed some moderate success with CSKA Moscow and had a solid olympic campaign for Team Sweden. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Wallmark like many other foreign players chose not to return to Russia. What happens next for Wallmark is a mystery, but I expect he’ll likely join the Swedish League.
That leaves us with Lucas Carlsson. At the time of the trade, the Panthers defensive pipeline wasn’t particularly strong. Heading into the 2021-22 training camp, Carlsson was seen as a long shot to see NHL action, despite playing 18 NHL games with the Blackhawks before the trade and solid AHL production after. The Panthers blueline was pretty set with Aaron Ekblad, Mackenzie Weegar, Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Montour and Markus Nutivaara running it back. Kevin Connauton was expected to serve as the 7th defender, allowing prized defense prospect Matt Kiersted to develop in the AHL. Carlsson was tenth on the defense depth chart, behind Chase Priskie, and in front of Max Gildon. However, things went awry.
Bill Zito made a trade to acquire struggling former top pick Olli Juolevi. Juolevi’s arrival came with a concurrent injury to Markus Nutivaara, meaning many expected Juolevi and Connauton to split time as the 6th defender before Nutivaara returned and Connauton would be waived. Except, Juolevi got hurt immediately too. Nutivaara would play one game before aggrvating something that required surgery and it is highly unlikely he ever plays in a Panthers sweater again.
Connauton struggled and with both Juolevi and Nutivaara hurt, the Panthers decided to give Lucas Carlsson a shot. Prior to his callup, Carlsson had 6 points in 8 games with the Checkers. Carlsson immediately made an impact in the lineup, finding chemistry with Brandon Montour and playing a similar style to Gustav Forsling, who had a similar trajectory to Carlsson. Carlsson scored his first career goal on December 1st against the Sabres. Down 3-0 halfway through the second period, Carlsson got the Panthers on the board with a slapshot. A few minutes later, Carlsson helped the Panthers get back to within two again as his wrist shot was deflected by Sam Reinhart.
Despite having played well, the Panthers wanted to see what they had with Olli Juolevi and Carlsson found himself riding the pine as the Panthers experimented with Juolevi. Juolevi’s tenure did not go well at all as a Panther, with his lowlight being 12 minutes of ice time in a game where the Panthers only dressed five defenders (only one that had been expected to be on the NHL roster at the start of the season) in a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles for the COVID shortened Panthers. Carlsson had 20 minutes of ice time that game and that was kind of concerning in comparison to both Chase Priskie and Matt Kiersted having more ice time than him, but it wasn’t really a big deal considering Kiersted had the lone Panthers goal and Priskie was outstanding defensively.
On February 16, Lucas Carlsson made himself famous. With the Panthers down 1-0 with 15:55 left in the second period, Sergei Bobrovsky made a pad save on a 89mph Jaccob Slavin slap shot. Unfortunately, Bobrovsky allowed a juicy rebound giving Jesperi Kotkaniemi a wide open net. Kotkaniemi took the backhand and scored in the wide open net to make it 2-0 right? No, Kotkaniemi’s backhand did beat Bobrovsky, but before it crossed the goal line, it met the stick shaft of a sliding Lucas Carlsson. As Carlsson fell, Hurricanes forward Steven Lorentz attempted to bat the falling puck into the empty cage. Lorentz sure looked like he was about to, before the flailing Carlsson hit the puck at the same time as Lorentz with his stick, forcing the puck off the crossbar, which would allow the Panthers to clear. Carlsson’s heroics came during a game broadcast on TNT nationally throughout the United States, and social media spread the video like wildfire, making it the second most viral moment of the Panthers season, only losing to the Kodak moment.
As of the time of writing, Lucas Carlsson has 3 goals and 6 assists in 32 games as a Florida Panther. Carlsson vanquished his platoon partner Olli Juolevi to waivers, and Juolevi was claimed by the Red Wings. Lucas Carlsson had won the battle.
Before losing Juolevi, the Panthers made a signing. The aforementioned Russian invasion of Ukraine (which I will be writing a geopolitical-hockey essay on sometime this week) saw Finnish based Jokerit withdraw from the KHL playoffs and the KHL entirely. On Jokerit’s roster was 28 year old Petteri Lindbohm, a stay-at-home defender who had put up 8 points in 45 games and won the gold medal with Finland at the 2022 olympics. A veteran of 40 NHL games, Lindbohm hasn’t played in North America since the 2017-18 season, but is returning on a quest to become the 30th player in history to join the coveted Triple Gold Club. Lindbohm won gold in Beijing and in 2019 at the IIHF World Championships in Slovakia for Team Finland, and if the Panthers can go all the way, Lindbohm can join that exclusive club. The most recent player to make it was former Panthers and Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester who joined the club after capturing the Stanley Cup with the Blues in 2019.
With the trade deadline approaching, many expect Bill Zito to make a move. Countless defenders have been linked to Zito’s club, including Jakob Chychurn, Calvin De Haan and Mark Gioradano. If Zito is unable to make a deal, I do think we are okay if Lucas Carlsson keeps the spot. Carlsson has continuously improved, and could potentially be the next Gustav Forsling. How Lindbohm will work out in the NHL is uncertain, but with Markus Nutivaara reportedly skating again, perhaps Nutivaara is able to return for the playoffs.
If there is one thing I’ve learned, never underestimate Bill Zito