As this piece is written, the Florida Panthers have some important players who have not yet been signed to new deals, and are inching towards "free-agent" day while shedding some salary. This has some pundits mighty suspicious that the team may look to add a big piece or two via trade or free agency. There are also reports that the team is looking to sign some of its young stars to extensions, and perhaps that is what the savings are being aimed at. With this in mind, can we make some well-reasoned guesses as to what the Cats are in the hunt for? By taking a look at who they already have signed to contracts for 2016-17, and who is likely to be re-signed, we can get a better idea of what the Panthers might do come draft and free-agent days.
Who is already signed?
The roster of signed players at the NHL level for 2016-17 looks like this:
Keith Yandle, Dave Bolland, Nick Bjugstad, Jussi Jokinen, Jaromir Jagr, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Huberdeau, Derek MacKenzie, Shawn Thornton, Aleksander Barkov, Jared McCann, Dmitry Kulikov, Jakub Kindl, Alex Petrovic, Aaron Ekblad, Steven Kampfer, Roberto Luongo, Mike McKenna, and now Reto Berra
Panthers 2016-17 Forwards Depth Chart, at this point:
Lets go ahead and put the forwards on a depth chart:
|Jonathan Huberdeau||Aleksander Barkov||Jaromir Jagr|
|Jussi Jokinen||Nick Bjugstad||Reilly Smith|
|Derek MacKenzie||Shawn Thornton|
Obviously, there are some significant holes there, but we will address that momentarily. I did not put Bolland on that list, because first: I don't want him on that list, second, he is likely to never be on that list again, and third, the team may buy him out....if they can (medical reasons may interfere). The bad news on that front:
Well, Bolland hasn't played since Dec. 12 and is dealing with a lower-body injury. Sportsnet has learned that Bolland did not pass his physical. This would make him ineligible for buyout. The Panthers might slot him into Savard's vacated spot on LTIR instead.
Panthers 2016-17 Defensive Depth Chart, at this point:
For defense, the depth chart as of now looks like this:
|Keith Yandle||Aaron Ekblad|
|Dmitry Kulikov||Alex Petrovic|
|Michael Matheson||Steven Kampfer|
The defense has no holes right now, but it is not necessarily a formidable group for 2016-17 with that line-up. It is a very young group with Matheson and Petrovic (and with Ekblad in the first unit also). Kindl seemed to lose the confidence of the coaching staff during the playoffs, when he sat in favor of rookie Michael Matheson. Kampfer has consistently held his own, but has not had to do so for a full season for the Panthers. Matheson and Petrovic may very well turn out to be fantastic defensemen (I would be willing to bet on that), but they are both young and have development still to do. The Panthers have signed Ian McCoshen out of Boston College. McCoshen will likely need a year of AHL duty to continue his development, but he is an excellent left-handed defenseman with what appears to be a great future ahead of him. Tom Rowe was quoted as saying he thinks McCoshen may make the team out of camp this summer as a replacement for Erik Gudbranson. This is curious, as McCoshen is left handed and played the left side at Boston College, as well as the fact he has not yet played a professional game. With McCoshen and Matheson on the left side, the future looks very solid, the team just has to get there first.
Keith Yandle brings potent offense, that may not out-possess Brian Campbell, but does out produce him. Yandle's signing means Campbell is as good as gone, but it also solidifies the left side as a formidable group with great potential, as long as Matheson plays to expectations.
Panthers Restricted Free Agents:
Lets turn now to restricted free agents that the Panthers may seek to re-sign. Those players include: Vincent Trocheck, Logan Shaw, Garrett Wilson, Quinton Howden, Corban Kinight, Dylan Olsen, Jonathan Racine and Gregg McKegg.
The Panthers are reported to be working furiously to re-sign Trocheck. If we assume that the deal gets done, we can adjust our depth chart and move Nick Bjugstad to the 3rd line and Trocheck into the 2nd line center slot (although Bjugstad played fantastic with the 2nd line wings during the playoffs).
Third and Fourth Line Issues:
We can assume that a player taken in the draft this year at 23rd or later is not going to step into the NHL next season, so we will not count on the draft to fill NHL positions next year. The help on the 3rd and 4th lines will have to come from within, or via trade or free agency. One thing is for sure, and that is that the 3rd line will need to produce at a far more steady pace next season than it did this last season. Newly acquired forward Jared McCann will likely slot into the 3rd line on left wing. Hopefully, he will be all that the Panthers expect him to be. Scott Cullen at TSN had this to write about him recently:
There were rumblings that McCann might not have been the most popular with teammates, but he’s young and should have a decent opportunity to develop his game and mature in Florida. At the very least, he’s an inexpensive depth forward, but with some upside, maybe McCann could develop into more than that.
Cullen obviously has his sources, but McCann has his fans as well, and will not be thrust into a top-6 role with the Cats. In an interview on XM Home Ice on June 15th, he sounded less than thrilled about a move to wing, but let's be optimistic and hope for the best. Obviously we are hoping for more than "depth forward," as we have plenty of those in the system already.
Shawn Thornton is not expected to play a great deal of games next year for the team, so we can also expect that the Cats will look to add two 4th line forwards to surround center Derek MacKenzie with. We may be able to safely assume that some combination of Shaw, Wilson, Brickley, and Howden will be re-signed to fill that role. Howden has size and speed, but he seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff and both Shaw and Wilson played over him in the playoff series against the New York Islanders. Tom Rowe sang Garrett Wilson's praises this off-season, so it is a good bet that Wilson may be one of the 4th line wings next season. It seems more likely that Shaw will be the other 4th line wing next season at the NHL level. The injury call-up pipeline to Portland was a busy one last season, and the re-signing of Conner Brickley will help on that front in 2016-17. The Cats would be wise to include Knight, and McKegg in their depth planning as well.
That leaves a 3rd line wing position that must be filled. Lawson Crouse is expected to fill that role, although like McCann, he is left-handed. Crouse can not play in the AHL next year, and that frustrating fact may land him an NHL role whether he is the man for it or not. Simply put, Crouse will gain nothing, as big as he is, going back to play against kids. The concern is this:
Viewed by some scouts as a big player who dominated junior hockey due to his size advantage
Crouse will learn nothing more by overpowering younger players, but he still needs to develop the use of his size against bigger and stronger players. Crouse is also not a speedy player. He is strong and smart, and big, and can play two-way hockey. Physically speaking, he has the size to play at the NHL level. Experience-wise, he is not ready. This puts the Panthers in a difficult position, do they really want to roll out a 3rd line with rookie Lawson Crouse and a youngster with a season's worth of experience in Jared McCann, who most everyone agreed should have been returned to juniors last year? This would not necessarily be the ideal pair of wings to surround poor Nick Bjugstad with, and is more of what the big center saw along side him last year (albeit with more talent than he had next to him last season).
If Jayce Hawryluk were to have a better camp than Crouse, perhaps it is conceivable that as a right-handed forward, he would have the upper hand? Hawryluk had a fantastic season in the WHL, where he scored 47 goals in 58 regular season games. Let's compare that with another former CHL standout:
The numbers used above come from each player's final CHL season. Trocheck played in the OHL and finished there in 2012-13. Hawryluk played in the WHL and just finished this spring. The games played and numbers used are all from regular season stats, and do not include playoffs. Hawryluk certainly looks as though he possesses similar offensive ability, and he is already well known for providing a great deal of "grit." Like Trocheck, it is likely that Hawryluk needs a season in the AHL before he is ready to contribute at the NHL level. Much like Crouse, Hawryluk would be another rookie on Bjugstad's wing. Still, he is a player to keep an eye on for the future, and may afford the Cats the opportunity to sign a temporary piece in free agency.
Kyle Rau is signed for next season, and he impressed the coaching staff and fans in his appearances at the NHL level last season. Rau is also left-handed. Rau has great chemistry with Bjugstad, and now has 70 games of AHL experience under his belt to work from (with 34 points). But the biggest boost for Rau may come from elsewhere: 5'11" forward Bryan Rust had a great playoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins, showcasing speed and tenacity, to go along with timely goal-scoring. Similarly, Pittsburgh got fantastic production from 5'9" forward Conor Sheary. Both Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh relied upon smaller players with speed for a great deal of success. Pittsburgh did so in particularly spectacular fashion against a big-bodied San Jose team. Rau fits a similar bill:
Rau is an agile and quick skater with impressive hockey sense. His ability to anticipate plays allows him to consistently find the one place on the ice where the puck will go and where he can have the greatest opportunity to score. His defensive play is underrated, and despite his smaller frame he plays a tough, physical game. He has quick hands around the net, and is a tireless worker.
It may be time for the Panthers to take a hard look at Rau's contributions. Tom Rowe and Scott Allen are both fans of this hard-working forward who actually ended up as a solid penalty-killer for the Pirates last season.
Free Agent Right Wings:
With the salary cap space opened up via the Marc Savard trade, the end of the Kris Versteeg payments, as well as the end of Willie Mitchell, Jiri Hudler, and Teddy Purcell's contracts, the team does have some space to add a free agent right wing. Kyle Okposo and Loui Erikkson are the highest profile UFA right wings this summer. The others are mostly older players, much like Purcell and Hudler (more on that in a moment). There are concerns that Okposo's production has much to do with playing alongside John Tavares, and if a team is chasing the Pittsburgh Penguins' system of speed, he is not the fastest player. Okposo will also be in high demand, with many teams seeking a big, high-scoring right wing. Other unrestricted free agent right wings, in addition to bringing back Hudler and/or Purcell, who could fit the bill if the team wanted to go in a more experienced direction:
Radim Vrbata, Troy Brouwer, Alex Tanguay, Jason Cjhimera, P.A. Parenteau, Lee Stempniak, and Dale Weise.
Examining the defense:.
Most Litterbox readers are aware that the defensive issues scare me far more for next season, especially on the right side. I like Steven Kampfer quite a bit, but I am not sure that Alex Petrovic is ready for a top-4 defensive role, and I am not convinced that Ekblad is ready to play a full defensive role for the team. Most indications are that prospect Jonathan Racine will top out as an injury call-up. If Dylan Olsen is re-signed the Panthers will have solid left-handed depth on defense. Brian Campbell is now expected to leave in free agency, as it has been reported that he and the team are not close on a contract number. Yandle's signing makes that more inevitable.
The Panthers made a splash signing UFA defenseman Keith Yandle. The Rangers got a 6th round pick plus a conditional 4th round pick in the 2017 draft. Yandle is a fantastic offensive defenseman, putting up points consistently throughout his career. He is also left-handed and 29-years old. Kulikov is likely a better defensive player than Yandle (who, despite putting up points consistently returns minus ratings on plus/minus). With Yandle, it could be that Kulikov will push to the 2nd pair, and Matheson to the 3rd, and Kindl will become the odd-man out. Brian Campbell has likely played his last game for the Cats.
None of that helps the team on the right side, though. Linus Hultstrom is a Swede who may impress, and if so, he is right-handed. Of course, Mike Matheson will be with the Panthers next season, and will likely play well, albeit with the normal growing pains new defensemen feel at the NHL level. Matheson could fill the 2nd pair role on the left side, but it would be good for the Cats to re-sign unrestricted free agent Brian Campbell if possible.
What do we make of Soupy? Campbell is still a great puck-moving defenseman, it's just that his role needs to change. He needs to play fewer minutes, stop playing on the penalty kill and play less on the power play. There are now plenty of moving parts on the left side of the defense, but the right side needs help.
Right-handed free agent defensemen:
Ideally Campbell would be re-signed for a lot less money, but the Yandle signing probably means that's it for Soup in Sunrise, and Matheson will push Kindl into more of a fill-in role. But the Cats could also use an established right-handed, top 4 D-man to lock things down next season. The available free agents break down like this:
Luke Schenn, Jason Demers, Tom Gilbert, Roman Polak, Ben Lovejoy, and Yannick Weber.
The free agents on that list are likely to be gobbled up by their present teams quickly, if the price can be contained. The Kings could have trouble affording Schenn with their present cap issues, so it is possible he could come on to the market.
As it presently stands, the Panthers could still re-sign Campbell and hope that Petrovic and Kampfer can hold down the right side. Once again, it is likely no draft pick the Panthers take this June will appear in the NHL at defense next season. Perhaps Hultstrom will impress us at camp and we can put this concern to rest.
At goalie, Roberto Luongo returns, along with AHLer Mike McKenna. Al Montoya will be an unrestricted free agent. After the veteran McKenna, there are no goalies in the pipeline ready for full-time NHL duty, or even full time back-up responsibilities. Sam Brittain has been re-signed to a one year contract and will hopefully garner more starts next year in Springfield. Colin Stevens is signed, but saw mostly ECHL duty last season. It is unclear what the team has in either one of these young goalies, as Stevens has not played any consistent AHL time, and Brittain only saw roughly 25 starts last season. The franchise is bullish on Samuel Montembault, but he is still several years away. If the Panthers decide to explore free agency for a goaltender, the following keepers are on the market:
Kari Ramo, Ben Scrivens, James Reimer, Chad Johnson, Jonas Enroth, Carter Hutton, Jeff Zatkoff, Jonas Gustavsson, and Anders Lindback.
It is not clear that any on that list are far better than Montoya, although many are younger. Several of those goalies could be adequate stop gaps to buy Montembault time to continue his development.
Update: The acquistion of Reto Berra means goaltender is probably not a position the Cats will need to address in free agency.
Prospects within the Panthers system:
Among the prospects, the Panthers can call on Rocco Grimaldi and Kyle Rau, both of whom are signed, as well as depth player Brickley. Rowe did not mention Grimaldi recently when talking about young players who will compete for a spot on the Panthers next season. Whether this was a simple slip, or they have already written him off we don't know. Rau was a player that Rowe mentioned, along with Shane Harper, as individuals who will compete for an NHL job this season. Rowe did not mention Quinton Howden as a player who will compete for a job next season in his comments either.
MacKenzie Weegar is signed for next year, but it does not appear he is ready for NHL duty. After that group, the team must re-sign players capable of filling in for injured players on the NHL roster, such as Knight, Shaw, Olsen, McKegg, and perhaps Racine. The new crop of youngsters who have graduated to the AHL level will need some experience before they are likely ready for NHL duty. That list includes Michael Downing, Dryden Hunt, and Juho Lammikko.
The fantastic news is that the team looks like it can already send out two top forward lines, even before Trocheck is re-signed, that are excellent, and a first defensive pair that is also very solid (Kulikov's bone-head moments aside). The 4th forward line could be put together very easily. Matheson also presents an excellent defensive option, and Petrovic is, at a minimum, an excellent 3rd pair option, and could develop to be a 2nd pair option (we hope). The question marks remain on the 3rd line (on the wings if Trocheck is re-signed, and at all 3 spots if not), and one right side D-man. Finally, questions abound at the goalie position, where the team will once again pray for Roberto Luongo's health and athleticism to hold up.
What this tells us is more or less what we knew: the Panthers are still thin at wing, and now have a weakness at right side defense. The gap between the present and future in goal is also an issue. Look for the team to try and grab a big right wing via trade or free agency, try to snag a right-handed defenseman who can play top 4 minutes, and look for a mid-term goalie that can start stealing starts as early as next season. With the defense as presently constructed, we can also count on a 2nd power play unit that features 4 forwards and one left handed defenseman.
Some make or break changes are likely to be made this summer, as exhibited by the front office's moves already. If Gudbranson was indeed traded for money reasons, and we now see that the team went out and shed Marc Savard's contract, we can see that one of two things is about to happen: either the team is going to extend some of its top-level youth early, or they are about to make a free agent splash. It should be an interesting late June and July in Sunrise.