2021 Florida Panthers Offseason Primer

Florida Panthers offseason
As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Florida Panthers offseason.

2021 Florida Panthers Offseason Primer

Pending Free Agents

At the end of the day, the 2020-21 season went down as quite a breakthrough for the Florida Panthers. Their offseason will focus on building on that. After naming Joel Quenneville to the head coach prior to 2019-20, the team really didn’t get going until this last season. They reached the expanded Qualifying Round of the playoffs that year. However, they were likely going to miss altogether before COVID-19 abruptly paused the hockey world. Before that, Florida only qualified for the post-season twice in 18 long seasons. They churned through 12 different coaches in that span, too. Despite drafting a dynamic young core group of players in that time, they continued falling short.

Now, the Panthers come off their strongest season by points percentage in their history, at .705%. Their 37-14-5 record landed them in second in the Central Division. The team took a real step towards legitimately contending for a championship. They wound up losing to the defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a six-game whirlwind series to start the post-season. In fact, Game 1 of the series (a 5-4 loss at home) was arguably the most exciting game of the 2021 postseason thus far. The Sunshine State rivalry could finally culminate into something legitimate after their first ever postseason series.

With all of that said, sophomore General Manager Bill Zito has his offseason work cut out for him. The last time the team qualified for the post-season (2015-16), they over-tinkered with the roster in the following summer. Their drastic changes wound up putting the team back on the outside facing in until the past couple years. Zito will try to learn from the franchise’s past mistakes, but has plenty of Restricted and unrestricted free agents to make decisions on. Namely, Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Juho Lammikko, Gustav Forsling, Lucas Carlsson, Noah Juulsen, Chase Priskie, and Sam Montembeault all reside on the RFA list. Plus the team has Alexander Wennberg, Nikita Gusev, Scott Wilson, Brandon Montour, Brady Keeper, Chris Driedger, and Philippe Desrosiers on the UFA list.

Salary Cap Outlook

Despite the lengthy list of pending free agents, the team already has $75.7 million spent on their remaining players for next season. That leaves just $8.86 million in estimated cap space, per CapFriendly.com. The team won’t have tons of flexibility to add to the roster outside of trying to retain its own free agents, barring a trade. One thing that could help with cap space will be the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft in mid-July. However, the Kraken could just as likely claim someone with a cheap contract. This offseason, the Panthers have to manage their cap gently to avoid sacrificing future success for immediate gains.

The primary problem Florida has on its books going forward is Sergei Bobrovsky and his mammoth contract. For the next five seasons, the team pays the goaltender $10 million per season. That equates to 12.3% of the team’s salary cap. For a goalie who has underperformed expectations that contract appears to be an albatross. Luckily for them, rookie Spencer Knight appears ready for regular NHL action after going 1-1 in the playoffs this year. Both those games were elimination games against Tampa Bay. His contract runs two more years at just $925,000 per season, but Bobrovsky’s income could absolutely help the team elsewhere in a flat cap environment.

Major Likely Departures

Lucas Wallmark

This name was omitted from the free agent list above, because his future is already decided. Wallmark signed a deal in the KHL in mid-June, so he certainly won’t be back in a Panthers uniform. Wallmark arrived in Florida at the trade deadline for a second consecutive season., but was largely unproductive. He only dressed in four games, notched no points, and was scratched all post-season.

Nikita Gusev

Another trade deadline acquisition, Gusev arrived in Florida in hopes to bolster the team’s depth heading down the stretch. While his production trended slightly upwards from what he produced earlier in the year with the New Jersey Devils, it probably wasn’t enough to garner interest going forward. He didn’t dress in any of the Panthers postseason games, either.

Brandon Montour

Yet another player who came prior to the trade deadline, Montour could be the biggest impact player the Florida Panthers lose this offseason. Montour carried a $3.85 million cap hit last season. Unfortunately, he would likely have to take a pay cut to remain a Panther. Florida could try finagle a deal to offload Anton Stralman ($5.5mil per) or Keith Yandle ($6.35mil per). Whether such a move would be possible to pull off in a way that makes sense seems difficult to imagine. Barring that, the team can’t tie up more money on the blueline. Besides, Montour’s acquisition only happened because star defenceman Aaron Ekblad went down with a season-ending injury a few weeks prior. He will be back next year, so the top four could comfortably revert to what they deployed for the first couple months of last season.

Anthony Duclair

In his first year with Florida, Duclair’s blistering speed made him a regular on the team’s first line all season long. He played less with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe come playoffs, but could definitely slot right back in on their wing next year. The only concern with Duclair could be the salary he expects to make, as he only earned $1.9 million last season. If he wants a significant raise, the team may expose him to the Kraken in expansion, and could lose his services there. Especially with young talent like Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett itching for more opportunities, Duclair may become expendable.

Scott Wilson

A 29-year old pending UFA, Wilson did not dress for the Panthers at all this past season. A depth forward, he only played eight games at the AHL level too. Likely past his developing years, Wilson seems destined for a career in the AHL barring a breakthrough next season. Unfortunately, odds don’t point towards that opportunity coming with the Panthers.

Chris Driedger

The surprising goaltender turned a lot of heads over the past year. It wasn’t long ago that Driedger was starting games in the ECHL. However, focus and determination landed him a shot late in 2019-20 with the Panthers. His consistency and ability to make big saves at opportune moments earned him a promotion to become Bobrovsky’s regular backup in 2020-21. He wound up starting 23 games, just seven shy of Bobrovsky’s total.

Florida, though, is handcuffed by Bobrovsky’s no-move clause, and thus must protect him in expansion. A smart move may be for Zito to re-sign Driedger with the sole intention of losing him via the expansion draft. However, he may be enticing enough of a goaltender for Seattle to claim him, even as a UFA. And if Driedger winds up being the player lost in expansion, it becomes much more likely that Duclair remains with the Panthers.

Major Likely Re-Signings

Sam Bennett

Bennett ranked as probably the top deadline acquisition across the entire NHL last season. A former first-round pick of the Calgary Flames, Bennett shocked the hockey world when he arrived in Florida. Many had written him off as a bust. But, an increase in usage and a regular slot with Jonathan Huberdeau at his wing suddenly awakened the centreman. He scored 15 points  in just ten games with Florida. Bennett added five points in five playoff games to boot and signing him is first priority.

Alexander Wennberg

Wennberg spent most of the season as the team’s second line centreman until Bennett arrived. However,  he performed exceptionally well on the third line. The team may be forced to choose one of Noel Acciari, Duclair, and Wennberg to protect in expansion. Its hard to justify leaving Wennberg, who scored a career-high 17 goals despite the shortened season, unprotected. However, the team also loves what Acciari brings to the table, and Seattle could very well scoop him up to help build their identity. Wennberg remains a piece this team would love to bring back.

Gustav Forsling

Zito may have to do some gymnastics to keep Forsling safe from the expansion draft. The team will protect Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar. Adding Yandle’s no-move clause gives the Panthers their three defencemen. However,  Forsling stepped up tremendously to fill Ekblad’s shoes. He and Weegar wound up being a tremendous pairing, and Forsling turned a lot of heads with his vision and ability to join the rush and make plays.

Since he is a pending RFA, the team may opt to re-sign him only after the expansion draft occurs. That way, Seattle might be less inclined to draft him out of concern that he demands more money than anticipated. The Kraken would retain control since he’s an RFA, so Zito might be forced to trade another asset Seattle’s way in order to ensure he loses the asset he finds most expendable. Zito can’t protect everyone, and Florida will undoubtedly lose a quality player one way or another.

Juho Lammikko / Lucas Carlsson / Brady Keeper / Sam Montembeault / Philippe Desrosiers / Chase Priskie

This chunk of players did not receive a whole lot of ice time this past season with the big team. In fact, Priskie, Montembeault and Desrosiers only played in the AHL, and Carlsson arrived via trade midseason and never dressed a game. Lammikko played 44 games and provides good depth presence for the team. Keeper only played once, but will likely return to bolster the depth at defence. All six could just as likely walk via free agency. The team needs some less-expensive options to fill out the depth on their roster.

Florida Panthers Offseason – Potential Free Agent Additions

A lot hinges on the expansion draft when it comes to the kinds of free agents the team will target. Ideally, Florida loses Driedger in expansion, because they’re best set up going forward at the goaltending position to weather that loss. However, if a forward or defenceman is claimed, a hole suddenly appears on the roster. They could promote from within; Denisenko, Aleksi Heponiemi and Eetu Luostarinen could all receive opportunities to become lineup regulars. But defensively, there may be more concern.

Ian Cole

Florida already has Ekblad, Weegar, Stralman and Gudas with right-handed shots. However, the left side of Yandle, Markus Nutivaara, and Forsling leaves something to be desired. If Forsling isn’t able to be retained too, this side of the ice becomes significantly weaker than the other. Ian Cole, a pending UFA with the Minnesota Wild, could shore things up. Plus, he adds a veteran presence, shot-blocking prowess, and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’d provide literally everything that Patrik Hornqvist does, but on defense. This could be an awesome signing, regardless what happens with the Kraken.

Jamie Oleksiak / Alec Martinez / Brendan Smith

Should Cole fall through, one of these players would be a solid next-best option. The decision, as always, will likely come down to the dollar amount and term. The important takeaway though; Florida should go get an experienced, steady left-shot defenceman.

Phillip Danault / Zach Hyman / Cedric Paquette / Mathieu Perreault

Another expansion-dependent position, the Florida Panthers may need a centre this offseason. Should either Wennberg or Acciari depart, either a third- or fourth- line vacancy will appear. This group of centremen all feature as strong two-way guys who can play up and down in a team’s lineup. Any of them would fit nicely. However, dollar and term will factor in greatly to these decisions, as the team truly doesn’t have tons of money to expend.

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