As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The first batch of Offseason Primers will feature Atlantic Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the Florida Panthers offseason.
Florida Panthers Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
The Panthers are in a pretty nice spot heading into this offseason. They have a few higher-profile players hitting unrestricted free agency, but most of their core is locked up for the next few seasons. They have a couple young futures to re-sign as well, but Florida shouldn’t run into many issues overall. The concern with the Panthers, however, is around whether they’ll shell out the money to re-sign both Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, as the team is in a precarious financial situation. Their other unrestricted free agents include Erik Haula, Mark Pysyk, Brian Boyle, Joel Lowry, Paul Thompson, and Ryan Haggerty. Jack Rodewald and Danick Martel are both Group Six UFAs.
Most of the Panthers’ RFAs this offseason are, unfortunately for the team, arbitration-eligible. They include MacKenzie Weegar, Dominic Toninato, Dryden Hunt, Lucas Wallmark, Josh Brown, Mason Marchment, Emil Djuse, Thomas Schemitsch, and Philippe Desrosiers. Non-arbitration-eligible RFAs are Aleksi Saarela, Henrik Borgstrom, Brady Keeper, and Samuel Montembeault.
Salary Cap Outlook
Florida’s in a very interesting position this offseason. According to their CapFriendly page, the team has a healthy $20.96 million to spend this offseason. Take into account reports that the team has been asked to shed $10 million in salary, however, and that number drops to a less comfortable $10.96 million.
With the 10-million-dollar cut off, it became obvious rather quickly that one of their big pending free agents wasn’t going to be able to stay. Dadonov seems the more logical choice to let hit the open market. He’s older and likely to cost the team more money due to his elevated even-strength role.
He’s not being let go for performance reasons, however. ‘Daddy’ has three straight 25-plus goal seasons since returning to North America from the KHL. At 31 years old, however, he likely won’t get a super long-term deal on the open market. Nonetheless, the Panthers are having to give up a real gem of a player here due to financial constraints.
If Haula wanted to stay with the Panthers, or even if the team wanted to retain him, it’s irrelevant now. The Panthers simply just can’t afford to retain his services considering their internal financial state. Out of necessity, he’ll hit the open market.
Haula’s impact in Florida during the regular season was minimal, only posting two assists in seven games. His playoff performance will likely have a strong influence on his contract this offseason, as he’s played sparsely the past few years due to injury.
Is he a forward or is he a defenceman?
Pysyk had one of the most interesting storylines on the Panthers this season. Historically a second- or third-pairing defensive defenceman, Pysyk had the best offensive season of his career this year, posting nine goals and 18 points in 58 games. He also had the lowest usage of his career, only being played 12:45 a night. His previous ice time low was 15:54 a night back with the Buffalo Sabres in 2015-16. For the first time in his career, Cats coach Joel Quenneville utilized Pysyk in a fourth-line winger role for a solid portion of the season. He’ll likely fetch in a few million bucks a year on the open market, but like Haula, the Panthers can’t afford to have him hanging around.
You can already guess why the Panthers won’t be keeping Boyle around. However, Boyle’s play has dropped off too. Not even signing until after the season started this year, Boyle may have played his last regular-season NHL game.
If it’s all over for the 13-year vet, he had one heck of a run, posting solid numbers as a third or fourth-line centre throughout his entire career. He did produce some points for the Panthers this year though, netting six goals and 15 points in 39 games.
Even considering their financial hardship, Florida still needs to ice a competitive team. Hoffman has been a valuable contributor the past two seasons in Florida, netting 36 goals two years ago and would’ve undoubtedly netted 30 again this year had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s a power-play demon that provides invaluable secondary offence behind Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. The Panthers can’t afford to let him go this offseason as they try to become a perennial playoff team. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) projects a modest raise on Hoffman’s current deal, netting him a five-year $6.56 million extension. This leaves Florida with only $4.4 million left to spend due to their internal cap limit, however.
Weegar is another player that the Panthers absolutely need to retain. Now 26 years old, the seventh-round pick really established himself at an NHL level this year, playing over 20 minutes a night while grabbing 18 points in 45 games. His advanced defensive metrics were stellar too, one of the few players on the Panthers who can brag about such a thing.
The Panthers benefit here from Weegar’s underrated status but may struggle if the deal goes to arbitration. For now, however, EH projects a fair deal of four years at $3.83 million a season. It brings the Panthers only $570,000 away from their internal cap.
Although he’ll bring the Panthers over their theoretical internal cap limit, Wallmark gets granted an exemption here. The Panthers need a bottom-of-the-lineup centre after losing names like Haula and Boyle, and Wallmark is one of the more quality options in their price range. He’s an RFA too, so the Panthers hold his exclusive negotiation rights. While Evolving-Hockey projects a two-year deal, the Panthers likely will only give him one due to their financial restrictions. For that length, EH projects a cap hit of $1.77 million.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Unlike most NHL teams, the Panthers are forced to view this offseason as a chance to shed players instead of adding them. It’s a tough financial situation for owner Vinnie Viola to navigate, and the team’s next few years financially will likely make or break the franchise long term.
With that level of pressure on the horizon, don’t expect general manager Dale Tallon to make any free agent adds except for some AHL depth. The Panthers will be shelling out enough internally to retain their core, and won’t be able to afford outside help.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Atlantic Division:
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