Today is the final day that contracts for the 2015-16 season are valid. Any player without a contract for 2016-17 season will become a free agent on July 1.
The window also closes today to exclusively negotiate with any player set to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA). The Florida Panthers have already signed their most important pending UFA, Keith Yandle to a long-term deal. Yandle is seen as the replacement for another UFA, defenseman Brian Campbell, who seems highly unlikely to re-up with the Cats. Another key player from last season, goaltender Al Montoya, is also expected to test the market. The acquisition of Swiss stopper Reto Berra from the Colorado Avalanche late last week has seemingly plugged the potential hole behind Roberto Luongo on the depth chart.
The Panthers have a few other veteran unrestricted free agents, Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell, who are expected to continue plying their trade elsewhere. Garrett Wilson is a younger player (25) who finds himself unrestricted due to his Group VI status. Wilson played in 29 regular season games and all six tilts of the club's playoff loss to the New York Islanders. Wilson has been singled out as a player the Cats would like back at the right price. Will Wilson choose to remain with the team that drafted him back in 2009, or will seek a bigger role and/or bigger money elsewhere? Rounding out the list of UFAs are five players who spent time with the Portland Pirates last season: Corban Knight, Brett Olson, Sena Acolatse, Rob Flick and Cameron Gaunce. It will be interesting to see if management feels strongly enough to re-sign any of these players, especially Knight, like Howden a Group VI UFA, who played 20 games with the Cats, to stock its relocated affiliate in Springfield, or if the Thunderbirds will get a substantial overhaul when it comes to AHL-veteran type players.
Let's move on to the Panthers restricted free agents. If a player is set to become a restricted free agent (RFA), then the team must simply tender the player a qualifying offer which states the team's intent to negotiate a new deal, and ensures that the player remains property of the club. If a player is not given a qualifying offer, he becomes a UFA and is free to sign with any team. The terms of the qualifying offer need to adhere to the following salary-based formulas. If the player's 2015-16 salary was:
- $660,000 or less: Must offer no less than a one-year offer worth 110% of that salary;
- $660,001 - $952,380: Must offer 105% of the player's salary;
- $952,381-$999,999: The club must offer $1M in salary;
- $1,000,000 or more: The club must offer 100% of the player's salary.
Far and away, the key name among the Panthers crop of RFAs is second-line center Vincent Trocheck, who broke out with 25 goals and 53 points last season. It's been reported that the two parties have been working on a long-term deal for weeks now. Let's hope that comes to a speedy and peaceful conclusion soon.
Quinton Howden (58 games), Logan Shaw (53 games) and Greg McKegg (15) are other RFA forwards that saw notable time with the big club in 2015-16. Shaw and McKegg strike me as players that the Panthers would tender. As for Howden, the Cats have said they'd like him back, but after five years in the system without making much of an impact, it might be time for the two sides to move on from each other. That said, signing Howden to a modest two-year deal and making sure he gets 22 NHL games in this season would make him one of the two forwards that fits the signed for 2017-18, 40/70 criteria need for next summer's expansion draft. So there is that to consider.
The three other RFAs in the organization are defensemen Dylan Olsen and Jonathan Racine and forward John McFarland. Olsen seemed well on his way to becoming a full-time Panthers in 2014-15 but a demotion, subsequent personal issue and his waiver staus have left him mired in the AHL. Racine has been marinating down on the farm for three years now. Are the Panthers going to cut him loose or tender him and finally give him a look at some point? McFarland has been in the system since 2012, with not a lot to show for it, although he did have his best AHL season last year and played three games for the Cats. I'd say he will be free to go elsewhere after today's deadline passes.
Trocheck is obviously the big name on the list (and has reportedly been tendered already), but what the Panthers decide to do in regards to their other restricted free agents will help clarify who will be in contention for the open spots in the bottom-six, especially when talking about who will be flanking fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie. In addition, these players who end up getting tendered will help make up the bulk of the 2016-17 Thunderbirds roster, so these are important decisions. We'll know a lot more when it comes to forecasting both Florida's and Springfield's roster after the RFA dust settles.