The Florida Panthers wrapped up quite the up-and-down season back in April. For the year’s first half, they occupied a spot in the bottom five of the league. Then, they finished just one point shy of a playoff spot. Because of the drastic improvement they made, yet still failing to qualify for the post-season, their off-season should be intriguing.
On one hand, this is their second consecutive season outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On the other, the team made enormous improvements and held the league’s second-best record after the All-Star break.
Dale Tallon‘s To-Do List: Florida Panthers Off-Season
Unfortunately, their awesome finish still fell too short to make up for such a lacklustre start. There is little doubt, however, that this team took massive strides from start to finish in 2017-18. Therefore, maybe less work is needed than what you’d typically expect for a non-playoff team in the off-season.
Below is a walkthrough of all the items that the Panthers must address over the coming months, followed by a projected 2018-19 roster at the bottom, should they achieve their off-season goals.
Florida Panthers Summer Plans
Although it has only just begun, the Panthers already made one move this off-season. General Manager Dale Tallon negotiated a one-year deal with Bogdan Kiselevich. The Russian defenseman is a nine-year KHL veteran and has represented Russia internationally six times over that span. At 28-years-old, he appears to be a strong candidate for 2nd or 3rd defensive pairing slot on next year’s roster.
Beyond this, nothing much has been done so far. Considering the fact that the draft is later this month and free agency doesn’t begin until July, there’s still plenty of time to make moves.
This team had a few holes last year that any general manager would ideally want to find a fix for during the summer months. Their scoring wasn’t very spread out, as Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, and Evgeni Dadonov did nearly all of the heavy lifting. While young and inexperienced on defence, they grew tremendously at that position over the year. Kiselevich, while not an NHL veteran, does bring some experience to that group too. Goaltending is an area for concern, as Roberto Luongo isn’t getting any younger; he’s also growing increasingly prone to injury. While he’s had his moments, James Reimer may not be as capable of taking over for Luongo as some may have hoped.
With a small amount of expiring contracts to worry about, and still over $9 million in cap space, the guys in charge in Florida are going to have options. Here’s the best of them:
Contracts to Re-Negotiate
On their current roster, the Panthers have five contracts set to expire this off-season. When including non-roster and AHL players, that number increases to 12. Of those names, the Cats need to get to work on retaining forwards Jared McCann (RFA) and Frank Vatrano (RFA), defenseman MacKenzie Weegar (RFA), and maybe goaltender Harri Sateri (UFA) at the very least.
Vatrano, acquired at the trade deadline, brought some much-needed scoring depth to the bottom six. His shot makes him a potential candidate for promotion should he continue to improve (and he’s only 24 years old). McCann is even younger at just 22, and posted career-highs last season in most categories. His development, although not yet complete, was finally noticeable this last year.
On the back-end, 24-year-old Weegar just wrapped up his rookie season and will look to take a bigger role next time around. In net, Sateri shined in a brief mid-season call-up while Roberto Luongo and James Reimer suffered from injuries. His play over that week and a half earned him a Star of the Week recognition by the NHL and may have been enough to warrant another contract.
All four of these players to retain should only cost the team roughly a combined $3 million too. That is the high-end too, as Sateri’s salary is unlikely to hit the books since he’ll be in the AHL primarily. The other three have never earned even $900k in a season either. While they may have improved last year, it wasn’t at a rate that would warrant significant pay raises. Their contracts all will likely be bridge deals, one to two years in length.
Players to Trade or Let Walk
The non-roster players all may or may not receive contracts, but none of them (aside from Sateri who is already mentioned above) are guys that will likely have any impact at the NHL level. This leaves only Connor Brickley and Alexander Petrovic, the two players from the 2017-18 roster that are unlikely to be there again in 2018-19.
Brickley is an obvious candidate to let walk. He only suited up for 44 games, few of which came after January too. Furthermore, he possesses little production value, and considering the wealth of prospects vying for ice time, he’s an easy odd-man-out.
Petrovic, on the other hand, is not as obvious. Just one year ago, he was protected in the Vegas Expansion Draft, leaving first line winger Jon Marchessault available. Everyone knows how Marchy’s story ended, as Petrovic regularly watched games from the press box for the Panthers.
Options for Moving Alex Petrovic
Since the Kiselevich-signing, it appears highly likely that Tallon and head coach Bob Boughner have the group that will represent the Panthers next season. Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Mike Matheson, Ian McCoshen, and Mark Pysyk are all still under contract. Assuming Weegar is re-signed, plus Kiselevich, you now have seven guys fighting over six spots on any given night.
Petrovic simply doesn’t fit anymore.
Because he is a pending RFA, the Panthers still hold a lot of the bargaining power here. The team could do a sign-and-trade with him, or even just trade his negotiating rights to another franchise. Again, the Panthers could really benefit from a middle-six scoring forward who could play alongside Trocheck on the second line. A savvy move would be to package Petrovic to land a 2nd or 3rd line winger with a proven scoring touch.
Potential Targets: Pens’ Kessel and Habs’ Pacioretty
According to Bob McKenzie, Petrovic has been made available for trade by the franchise. Given the recent rumors about Pittsburgh Penguins winger Phil Kessel, maybe a package that featured Petrovic, Nick Bjugstad and a quality prospect or draft pick would be enough to entice the Pens to give up Kessel. They could definitely benefit from the cap relief, and the Panthers have the financial flexibility to add his contract and even retain some of Bjugstad’s salary if necessary to sweeten the deal.
Another name frequently tied to the Panthers back around the trade deadline was Max Pacioretty, who would add that same scoring prowess. Maybe now, given the extra time the off-season provides, we could see that type of deal go through with the Montreal Canadiens. According to Eliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column on Sportsnet, the Cats are team kicking tires on a deal to acquire Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes. If Tallon prioritized adding this type of player, whether it be Kessel, Pacioretty or Skinner, the team would immediately become an annual contender.
Shoring Up the Goaltending
Finally, we come to the most important position on the ice, one that Florida thought it locked down last summer. Unfortunately, Reimer hasn’t been entirely worth the $3.4 million cap hit he carries. His worst performances came while splitting time with Luongo, a position he’ll be in again next year as Luongo continues to play outstanding hockey at 39 years old. The problem, though, is Luongo’s durability shrinks each season. Reimer hasn’t produced the same win percentage Luongo has been able to, and after two years it is hard to know if he’ll suddenly rise to the challenge.
Re-signing Harri Sateri, again, is a good play, but mostly at the AHL level. While he did a good job for a few nights in the NHL last year, it is hard to argue that he proved able to replace Reimer entirely. With such a small sample size, it is unfair to assume this to be the case.
Its likely Florida will roll with the Reimer/Luongo duo again and hope for the best there. Sateri is probably strong enough as their third to step in when injuries occur. If the trend continues, though, and Luongo misses even more time, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Panthers desperate for another goalie sometime during the season. This will be especially true if Reimer struggles as he has.
Potential Goalie Targets?
Now, if Tallon really wanted to go all-in, he could go after another goalie this summer. I believe adding someone like Andrew Hammond would be the smartest move. He is someone who could spend the year splitting with Sateri in the AHL, but also shine in a call-up thanks to a decent amount of NHL experience. This is exactly what he did in Colorado last season, and maybe Florida should take notice considering the Avs have a similar injury-prone starter situation with Semyon Varlamov.
Plenty of other solid options exist this summer too for the role of 3rd string goalie. Carter Hutton or Chad Johnson would be solid choices too, but they may be expecting more of a regular backup position at a bare minimum.
Projected 2017-18 Panthers Roster
Now, let’s entertain the above thoughts and put together a roster should Tallon follow this to-do list. We’re assuming a trade occurs that sends Petrovic, Bjugstad, plus one or more non-roster pieces out. Then they’d sign one free agent and re-sign multiple of their own pending free agents before they hit the market. These off-season decisions would adjust the roster as such:
Huberdeau – Barkov – Dadonov
Kessel/Pacioretty – Trocheck – Henrik Borgström
Denis Malgin – McCann – Vatrano
Ekblad – Yandle
Matheson – Pysyk
McCoshen/Weegar – Kiselevich
When all is said and done, this team could still take a huge step forward without making any trades or additional free agent moves this off-season. If they elect to sit still, a lot more would depend on how much Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom contribute and grow. The alternative (making a trade for a proven winger) gives those two more time to develop. Ultimately, the core of this team is entering their prime. Adding a strong forward or two would really open their window at a Stanley Cup. They should be an annual threat, so hopefully management works to give the team the tools needed to reach their potential.
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)