The Florida Panthers may have found their replacement for Aaron Ekblad on the right-side, as they dealt a 3rd round pick in 2021 to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for twenty-seven year old defenseman Brandon Montour. Today, the team agreed to terms with forward Nikita Gusev on a one year, one million dollar deal after he had his contract terminated by the New Jersey Devils earlier this weekend.
Since the injury to Aaron Ekblad on March 29th, the Panthers have a 4-3 record, which has caused them to fall out of the top spot in the Central Division. Currently, they are two points back of the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning for that top position, however Tampa Bay has a game in hand on the Panthers, and Carolina has two games in hand. Ekblad was on pace to finish the season with back-to-back positive individual AB numbers, something he hasn’t done since his rookie and sophomore seasons in the league. Under Coach Joel Quenneville last season, he had his best individual AB score since his sophomore season with a +3.62. At the midway point, he had a +0.11 score, and remains the leading scorer among Florida’s defense group with eleven goals and eleven assists for twenty-two points. His strong play and the early success of the Panthers didn’t go unnoticed, as Ekblad’s name appeared in many early Norris Trophy conversations.
Replacing Ekblad for a potential playoff run certainly is no easy fix, however, the Panthers’ addition of Montour puts them on the right track in our eyes. Brandon Montour has a -0.19 career AB score in four seasons of data. He has registered positive individual scores in three of those four seasons, including an impressive +2.89 score on last year’s Buffalo Sabres team. He was one of six positive players on that team and held the best score by a defenseman as well. He was also an outstanding +13 last season, which was the highest of his team. In addition to this, he registered the third highest score of anyone on the Buffalo Sabres last season. In 2016-17, Montour had the fourth highest score of anyone on the Anaheim Ducks at +4.65, which was the best by any defenseman on the roster. In 2017-18, Montour had the second highest score by a defenseman on the Ducks at +5.95 and the fifth highest score on the roster. Anaheim traded Montour to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Brendan Guhle, as well as a 2019 1st round pick (Brayden Tracey) on February 24th,2019.
As most hockey fans are aware by now, the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres are having an incredibly rough year. A team that tied the NHL record for most consecutive losses with eighteen straight, have seen a massive decline in individual AB scores all across the lineup. Montour is unfortunately a victim of this at the midseason point, as his individual AB score is a -12. He has five goals and nine assists in thirty-eight games to this point and is a -13 +/- wise during that span. Buffalo as a team currently has a -99.12 combined score. There are only five players on the entire Sabres roster who have registered positive individual AB seasons at the midseason point (Rieder, Sheahan, McCabe, Lazar, Thompson) which puts into perspective just how much they have struggled. This unfortunately isn’t the first time a massive decline like this has impacted Montour, as he registered a career-worst -14.24 individual score (the only negative score of his career) on the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres, who missed the playoffs after winning ten straight games in the earlier part of the season. We believe that with a fresh start with a new organization, who have established coaching and solid players to surround him with, that Brandon Montour can play up to the levels that he did his entire career excluding the 2018-19 campaign. At the time of this article, we believe this trade is one of the sneakiest, most interesting, underrated trades of this deadline season. Credit to Panthers GM Bill Zito for taking a gamble and we will follow it closely to see if it pays off for him. No salary was retained in this deal, and Montour is set to become an unrestricted free-agent at seasons end.
Nikita Gusev last season had a promising campaign on the score sheet for the New Jersey Devils with thirteen goals and thirty-one assists for forty-four points in sixty-six games. However, he had the sixth lowest individual AB score for the twenty Devils players we have data on with an abysmal -6.91 score. This season, Gusev has a slightly better -5.90 score at the midseason point, but the point production has decreased significantly. Gusev only scored two goals and registered three assists for the Devils this season in twenty games played. Across this span he was -12 +/- wise as well. For a million dollars for the remainder of the season, Gusev is a bigger gamble for the Panthers than Montour is in our eyes. We will see in time if he can find his footing and return to the 40+ point form he was in last season. We can’t help but think Florida has some more tricks up their sleeve this trade deadline eve, and we will be certainly monitoring the state of their team throughout the course of the Monday deadline. Much more to come.