Free Agency in 2014: Where do the Panthers look?

Matt Niskanen is a veteran defenseman whose name has been tossed around in free agency talks. - Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Several big name UFAs are available this summer, but is that where the Panthers should put their money?

With the season already long over for the Panthers, the focus of Tallon Inc. is directed to the offseason, which includes both the upcoming 2014 NHL Entry Draft (where the Panthers hold the first overall pick) and free agency.  Free agency is obviously an essential part to building a cup contender in the NHL; not only is it important to sign your own restricted free agents (RFA: players become unrestricted when they are over the age of 27 or they have played in the league for at least 7 years.), but it's also very important to add key pieces to your team in the form of unrestricted free agents (UFA). Though we know that trying to build an entire roster through free agency doesn't necessarily build a cup contender, we do see that teams can add key pieces to their roster before making deep Cup runs (i.e. Hossa in Chicago, Iginla with Boston, etc).

What the Panthers have to avoid is being sucked into the free agency trap.  Paying too much for a free agent who will not produce as needed in the upcoming season (i.e. Clarkson/Toronto, Horton/Columbus, Weiss/Detroit, the latter two due to injuries) can be poison to both a salary cap and a roster.  Florida has a solid core of budding young stars, having to give one up due to a destructive contract given to a player who produces nowhere near what he is being payed for is essentially the worst case scenario.

Obviously, money will have to spent if proven talent is to be imported to Sunrise.  Notable names that fit in here are Marian Gaborik, Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek, Mike Cammalleri, Ales Hemsky, Milan Michalek, Andrej Meszaros, Brooks Orpik, Radim Vrbata, Matt Niskanen. The ever-reliable CapGeek has the full list if you're really interested in plowing on through it.

Of the names above, a couple that really stick out in terms of whom the Panthers could pursue include Marian Gaborik, Thomas Vanek, Ales Hemsky, Andrej Meszaros, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Radim Vrbata,

  • Gaborik - Talented winger, proven goal scorer.  Fills glaring need for the Panthers if signed.
  • Vanek - Same as Gaborik, though currently with a lower cap hit.
  • Hemsky - Lower cap hit than Vanek and Gaborik, though maybe not as talented.  Again, fills organizational need of a scoring winger.
  • Meszaros - Rugged veteran defenseman who will pick up Stanley Cup playoff experience this year with Boston.
  • Orpik - Experienced defenseman who can pick up defensive minutes for Brian Campbell and mentor younger defenseman.
  • Niskanen - Sturdy back end player, putting up great numbers with Pittsburgh this season.  Also, Niskanen is 27, and thus has about 2-3 years before his statistical drop off starts to become glaring.
  • Vrbata - Scoring winger who isn't as talented as the aforementioned, but would be cheaper and doesn't seem to mind playing in a Sunbelt locale.

Each of these players is on the downside of his career, as shown by looking at how age affects scoring in the NHL.  Signing them is a risk; the trick for Tallon is to bring in veterans who can mesh enough with the young guns to produce in the next couple of years, before Luongo either 1) retires or 2) sees a huge decline in play.

On the flip side, the Panthers can always search for unproven talent.  Bringing unproven talent to South Florida wouldn't be expensive, just incredibly difficult.  Out of the multitude of minor leagues and college leagues comes an even more vast multitude of players to sift through in an attempt to find a "diamond in the rough", a player with the skill set to play and produce at the NHL level.  There's also a good number of players who simply need a change of scenery to best utilize their skills; they are also included in the list of players that would classify as unproven talent that should be sifted through when looking for potential free agent signings.

Players who have been signed in recent years that were undrafted but still contribute at the NHL level include Torey Krug, Tyler Johnson, Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Kunitz, and Josh Gorges.  All five of those players play for current playoff teams; finding diamonds in the rough can be key to producing a cup contender.

As for talent that other teams have ignored/overlooked, players such as Andre Benoit, Valtteri Filppula, Nate Guenin, Benoit Pouliot, Maxim Lapierre, and Nick Holden all have made contributions to their teams after being signed from others. (coincidence that Colorado has three defenseman who have seen significant ice time this season, and that their defensive woes have been fixed?...  No.  Varlamov has been great, yes, but the defensive corps do deserve some credit.)

Finding this type of talent can be even more game-changing for a cup contender, as the influx of cheap talent can add extra dimensions to a team's game.  Kunitz is one of the few players who truly has great chemistry with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh.  In Boston, Krug helped revamp the power play.  Filppula and Johnson saved Tampa's season after Stamkos went down early in the year.  Benoit, Guenin, and Holden have helped Colorado's defense revive itself.

Where then, should the Panthers look for unproven, higher risk, cheaper free agent talent?  Obviously at the pro level.  If there are players that Tallon has seen over the years whose play he likes, even though the production hasn't been there, now would be the time to grab that guy.  Also, the NCAA level should be looked at, as well as the CHL and other leagues in Europe that can sometimes have players slip under the radar of NHL squads.  Making a list of these types of players is borderline impossible; most of them won't even have pages that show how they play, merely stats such as goals and assists.  It's up to the scouting department to find these types of players, and to convince Tallon that signing them is worth the time and money of the Panthers organization.

In my humble opinion, the Panthers shouldn't be spending too much on the free agent market.  Overspending on long-term deals for players in the declining years of their careers can be disastrous for the team's potential to make a Stanley Cup run in the near future.  It would make more sense for the Panthers to bring in one or two experienced veterans on nice, fat contracts, and then find talent elsewhere for cheaper that gels well into the team and the system.

Regardless, the Panthers have options.  They can spend money and bring proven talent to the organization, or save money bringing in unproven or uncertain talent to South Florida.  Regardless of what is brought in, there is always the risk of having the players not produce as expected or needed.  This seems to be the trick to success at the NHL level; finding players who produce, and sticking a bunch of them together at the same time.  There is no true surefire recipe for success; it's up to Tallon, Inc. to figure it out this offseason for the Panthers.

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