If you were hoping for another huge free agent day from the likes of Dale Tallon and Mike Santos, it might be a good time to knock your expectations down a few notches. It's not that the Florida Panthers management doesn't have a few tricks up their sleeves to rehash their squad, but the likelyhood of any major signings seems pretty low given current conditions. Expect a free agency like those of years past; a few players will knock on the door but in the end the roster wont change much from year to year. But this year it will be for entirely different reasons, he silence on the free agent front shouldn't be from a lack of interest but rather from a lack of spots to fill and changes to be made.
If Florida wants to improve, they'll need more than just a player here and there to fill in the bottom six. In reality the Panthers need a true number one center and a powerful fourth line to compete to their full potential, but a lean free agent crop will ultimately awaken us from these sweet dreams. Trades will likely come, but besides the odd package deal there shouldn't be any blockbusters stemming from Sunrise. An ample supply of fourth liners and healthy scratches give the impression Florida has more than enough depth for next season, but in reality the Panthers need a new definition in their lower lines. The options are out there, but they aren't quite as flashy as one would hope. In many ways, this will be the summer of the overlooked and under-appreciated; the summer of the Jay McClements across the league.
Over the last two weeks some of the more enticing free agents have been taken off the market, but it seems a new face has entered the room. 29 year old centerman Jay McClement is set to hit the market, according to Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater. Now I know what you're all thinking, how will adding another center to the current 6(!) options create anything but more problems? The answer lies in the likely future of McClement's would-be competition. Stephen Weiss and Marcel Goc are safe, but the disappointing development of young players like Shawn Matthias and Mike Santorelli have made them entirely expendable. Elder statesmen John Madden has yet to make the decision whether he plans to retire or not, and the versatile Jerred Smithson has shown willingness to play right wing if needed. This means after Weiss and Goc, the final two center spots can be manipulated to whatever Dale Tallon and Kevin Dineen wish.
So now, what exactly does a guy like Jay McClement bring that neither Matthias or Santorelli do? Stability, for one thing. There is no doubt that McClement is a full time, dependable NHLer. Santorelli looked far removed from his 20 goal season and sat out the playoffs while Matthias has never really impressed and had a horrid final stretch scoring just one point in his final 20 games. While both could make effective fourth liners, neither has shown the production or consistency to be given their spot on the third line. Third liners simply have to be better than what Matthias and Santorelli have shown. McClement has carved out a perfect fit on the third line in his seven pro seasons with similar point totals and a higher average faceoff percentage than either Matthias or Santorelli. If McClement just took the role of third line center, he'd be an upgrade. But he's proved to be much more than that.
Last season, Jay McClement finished 23rd in total short handed ice time per game, and third among the leagues' forwards in this category at 3:06. To put this into perspective, the Panthers highest SHTOI/G player was Mike Weaver at 2:55 (32nd) while the top Panthers forward was Marcel Goc at 2:00 (148th). With the likely loss of the Panthers' other PK specialist Jason Garrison, adding an elite penalty killer would be a wise move. Florida's penalty killing finished 25th in the league last season, a disappointing result after being one of the few bright spots in the 10-11 season and a bad sign for the future given the Panthers took the 5th fewest penalties in the league. Any increase in the number of penalties taken next season(read: full season by Sean Bergenheim) could make for an even worse killing percentage. As stated in Dater's article, the Colorado Avalanche's PK% jumped from 30th to 12th in McClement's full season with the Avs, an increase from a unit that made only a few changes between seasons. McClement earned the trust of the coaches as a reliable penalty killer, enough that they'd put a forward out there for more short handed time than their top PK defenseman. This distinction is only shared for two other players in the league, Phoenix's Boyd Gordon and former teammate Daniel Winnik playing with San Jose.
Along with his penchant for penalty killing, McClement has been a leader through his years as the assistant captain for the two teams he's played for. With the St. Louis Blues McClement first started wearing the 'A' as a 25 year old in December of 2008 and wore it regularly until he was traded to Colorado at the 10-11 deadline. With the Avalanche it didn't take long for him to earn it back, in November of 2011 he again donned his title of assistant captain. The Panthers have leadership here and there, but with an important season coming up and a young coach adding in more veteran leadership without replacing any can only help the Cat's cause. Bringing in a guy who's been a recognized leader for four years could be just what the doctor ordered for a team that struggled at times and still doesn't have a captain.
If the Panthers can't have their way by securing as much scoring power as possible, the next best thing would be bringing in a guy who can do it all at a reasonable price. McClement probably wouldn't set any career highs with Florida, but timely contributions off the scoreboard are just as important to a team's success as goals and assists. I wouldn't expect Tallon to claim such a signing to be the end of the scoring issue or even an upgrade in production, but it would be a step in the right direction for a well rounded special teams and locker room. No matter what is done to improve the team's offense, having a roster built for defensive play that finishes so badly in penalty killing is unacceptable, especially when one player could make a world of difference.