The Florida Panthers missed the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs by 14 points, a fairly significant margin. One of the key reasons for that was the amount of games their star players missed. Jonathan Huberdeau was out 51 games with an Achilles injury. Aleksander Barkov missed 21 games. Top defenseman Aaron Ekblad also did not dress for 14 contests. Another speed bump in the season came with the firing of head coach Gerard Gallant who was replaced by then-general manager Tom Rowe.
The Florida Panthers Off-Season Plans
Despite missing the playoffs, the team is in a good position moving forward with the amount of young players on the rosters. Five of their seven leading goal scores are under the age of 26, while only one of their six defencemen is in his 30s. The Panthers on the right track to becoming a consistent playoff team, and with the right off-season moves, they can continue in the right direction.
Bring back The Legend
Since the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr from the New Jersey Devils at the 2015 trade deadline, the future Hall of Famer has fit in perfectly with the young sunshine cats in Florida. In 181 career games with the Panthers he’s scored 49 goals and a total of 130 points. Not bad for a guy in his early-to-mid forties.
From the moment the Czech was paired with Huberdeau and Barkov, the three developed an obvious chemistry. In the 2015-2016 season, the line combined for 184 points and was a big reason why the team finished with 103 points and an Atlantic division banner. This year was no different. When the line was reunited on February 3rd, they didn’t miss a beat, accounting for a total of 53 points with one another in only 31 games.
This past season, the 45-year-old ranked second on the team in Corsi For% (55.12) and first in Fenwick For% (54.05). He also played in all 82 games and had the second most ice time among Panthers forwards.
In addition to all the ways to measure his value using statistics, Jagr offers something one can’t measure: leadership. He has been a great mentor and presence for the younger players in the dressing room. Just imagine the example he sets with his incredible work ethic and ability to play at a high level at his age.
All this suggests that there are reasons for the Panthers to bring him back for this off-season, for another year. Jagr’s contract was very reasonable this season with a cap hit of just four million.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello hit the nail on the head when he said that teams tend to overspend at the trade deadline and free agency. The Panthers need to make sure they don’t fall into this trap when free agency begins on July 1st. There aren’t too many big names in the field, which should force them not to repeat the Dave Bolland incident of 2014. Florida has around $13.5 million of cap space.
The major aspect holding the Panthers back this year was their inability to put the puck in the net. They scored 29 fewer goals this year (210) compared to last year (239) when they won the division. Of course, the injuries to Huberdeau and Barkov didn’t help the cause. However, a club needs depth scoring in order to consistently compete for the playoffs.
They do have a few options in front of them that can address this problem while not breaking the bank.
Florida can re-sign Thomas Vanek. The team acquired the forward’s services from the Detroit Red Wings at the trade deadline. During his short time down south, he piled up 10 points in 20 games. No matter your opinion on Vanek, he is a proven scorer. The Austrian has produced a total of 209 points in his last 300 games. And thankfully, his services won’t come with too a big price tag: Vanek’s last contract was a one-year deal worth $2.6 million.
Another player that can fill this need at a low cost is Drew Stafford. He had a tough season, but has a history of producing when given consistent ice-time. In 2015-16 he netted 21 goals for the Winnipeg Jets. This season he had just four goals, before being sent to the Boston Bruins in March. He made an immediate impact. In just over 14 minutes of ice time per game, Stafford put up eight points in 18 contests. He added two goals in their first round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators.
The one thing the Panthers should not do this off-season, however, is sign a defenseman. With the shallow free agent pool, they should avoid getting into the bidding war for Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner or Cody Franson. Florida already carries a number of young defenseman that are starting to hit their stride. Michael Matheson, Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic are all showing their potential.
Add skill in June
The Panthers hold the 10th overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft, and there are two players in particular that may not help them right away but down the road can be a great addition to the roster.
Kometa Brno’s Martin Necas is a skilled forward, and possesses a scoring touch as well as passing abilities. The Czech has the speed to play at the next level but more importantly has the smarts. He plays the full 200-foot game. He also has experience both at centre and on the wing. Necas jumped off the screen at the 2017 World Juniors with six points in eight games. The 18-year-old is a perfect piece to complement this young team. He can help add the depth scoring they will need down the road.
If the Panthers do want to continue to add to the back end, the best fit would be Callan Foote. The Son of former NHLer Adam Foote, Callan is a big (6’3″) defenseman that plays both ends of the ice well. In his two years with the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL, Foote has significantly improved his ability to read plays and impact the game offensively. He saw his stats jump from 36 to 57 points. Foote isn’t the most physical force on the ice, but he uses his size to his advantage. He is rarely out of position. The young defenceman is only going to continue growing and improving.
For more on the draft, check out Ben Kerr’s Prospect Profiles and Scouting Reports.
The Panthers are probably in their best spot as a franchise in their 23-year history. They have stars on their team that haven’t reached their full potential and are very close to being a force in the Eastern conference on a year-to-year basis. The Sunshine State club is still a few pieces away. They can address those needs in the off-season. Do not be surprised if they are back in the mix as early as next season.
PHILADELPHIA, PA – JUNE 28: Dale Tallon, General Manager of the Florida Panthers, speaks on the phone on Day Two of the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)