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Grigori Denisenko's arrival could start a dramatic ripple effect on the Panthers' roster

The feisty Russian winger is a threat to crack the NHL lineup in 2020-21, and it's probably not a coincidence he's signing just in time for two key Florida forwards to become UFAs.
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

With the NHL still on pause, it’s easy to sleep on blips in the news cycle, such as a 2018 first-round pick inking a three-year, entry-level deal this week. But Florida Panthers fans need to be wide awake on the Grigori Denisenko signing. Not only does he bring major potential to the fray right away, but the news of his impending arrival could have a significant impact on how GM Dale Tallon manipulates his roster going forward.

The Panthers nabbed Denisenko, a left winger who shoots right-handed, 15th overall in the 2018 draft. We were high on him at the time. In Draft Preview 2018, we slotted him a bit lower at 22nd but projected him as a surefire first-rounder with a feisty game reminiscent of Alexander Radulov’s. The analysis from one scout leapt off the page: “He’s a wild child. He comes 100 miles per hour. He hurts his team at times with penalties because he plays so aggressively. But that’s one of the things you like about him. If you tone him down so he won’t get kicked out, he’s going to bring a physical edge to a guy who has a good skill level and skating ability.”

All he’s done since draft day 2018 is confirm the scouts’ excitement over him. The KHL numbers are pedestrian, but that’s not a red flag at all, as the league rarely gives teenagers major roles and ice time. The more telling stats are those Denisenko has accrued against his peers and when trusted with a major role. He led the 2019 world juniors in scoring and captained Russia's 2020 squad. Our Future Watch panel of active NHL team scouts and executives rated Denisenko the sixth-best NHL-affiliated prospect in the world in 2019 and eighth-best in 2020, with the latter number especially impressive considering he was ranked against an additional draft class' worth of prospects.

We listed Denisenko at just 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds in his draft year, and he’s since beefed up to 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds. He’s still a bit undersized for someone who plays such a feisty game, but he epitomizes the cliché of someone who plays bigger than his size. As Panthers director of player personnel Bryan McCabe told our Panthers correspondent Erin Brown in Future Watch 2020, Denisenko “can play the game any way you want. He’s a stud.”

“Any way you want” matters in the context of assessing Denisenko’s NHL readiness. When it comes to high-end forward prospects below the “jump right to the NHL from the draft” tier, most coaches believe an offense-only player can’t join the big club unless he can find a spot in the top six. Think Aleksi Heponiemi. But forwards with well-rounded, two-way games can reach the pros quicker because they can slot in on any line. Denisenko could be just as effective in his early days on a checking line as he would on a scoring line, and that greatly increases his odds of being a Panther for 2020-21. They won’t want to rush him, as they’ve already had to rewind Henrik Borgstrom’s development, but Borgstrom came from the college ranks and only dipped his toes in the AHL before joining the Panthers in 2018-19, whereas Denisenko, 19, has already logged two seasons as a pro playing against men in arguably the world’s No. 2 league. So he should challenge for a roster spot.

And if the Panthers believe he’s a true threat to make the team in 2020-21, that really changes things for GM Dale Tallon.

The Panthers currently have $61.46 million committed in 2020-21 salaries. At this point, given all the revenues that will be lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can obviously forget the previously projected salary-cap increase to the $84-88-million range, and a static cap of $81.5 million looks optimistic, too. The Panthers, then, are likely to be working with $20 million or less – maybe a lot less, given the winter rumors that ownership wants the team to slash $10 million in payroll.

It just so happens that two of Florida’s top six wingers, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, are UFAs. Given their consistently strong offensive production, they could combine to command $15 million in cap space on their next deals.

Meanwhile, Denisenko comes to town, Borgstrom might be ready for another shot at the NHL level, and another first-round prospect, goal-scorer Owen Tippett, had a great season in the AHL and will push to make a jump in 2020-21.

So the Panthers have two expensive UFA forwards; probably not enough money for both of them; and three first-round prospects knocking on the door of the NHL. On top of that: we know Tallon has been looking for help on defense behind Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle. How Mike Matheson fits into the long-term vision right now is foggy considering Joel Quenneville deemed him worthy of an experimentation at forward this season.

The 2020 UFA class isn’t the sexiest but happens to be strong in the defense department, at least for now. Alex Pietrangelo remains unsigned, as do Torey Krug, Tyson Barrie, Sami Vatanen, T.J. Brodie and even Dustin Byfuglien, who won a Cup playing for Quenneville (albeit a forward).

Connect all the dots, including the Panthers’ eagerness to sign Denisenko, and perhaps we have a hint at Tallon’s off-season blueprint: let at least one of Hoffman and Dadonov walk, hand the keys to the young forwards and use the available cash to chase a top-four defenseman.

The arrival of Denisenko, then, will shape the future in more ways than one.

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