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Florida Panthers and the salary cap: Forwards

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Money available but lots of open spots to fill

New York Islanders v Florida Panthers Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The Stanley Cup has been handed out and we are now just over a week away from the opening of the NHL’s annual free agent frenzy, although it’s happening in October this year instead of the usual July. What a weird world we now live in...

Taking a look at the Florida Panthers current financial situation, the Cats are projected to have $21,738,712 of cap space (thanks CapFriendly) to work with this offseason, the seventh-most in the league.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that the Panthers only have 12 players signed to the NHL roster, so new general manager Bill Zito is going to need spend wisely, especially if the plan is to craft a lineup capable of contending for a playoff spot.

Let’s take a look at where the Cats are at the forward position. As of right now, they have six players under contract at the NHL level. Those six forwards account of $24.8 million against the cap.

NHL forwards

Signed: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Patric Hornqvist, Brett Connolly, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari

RFA: Dryden Hunt, Aleksi Saarela, Dominic Toninato, Lucas Wallmark

UFA: Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Brian Boyle, Erik Haula

Non-roster forwards

Signed: Aleksi Heponiemi, Grigori Denisenko, Eetu Luostarinen, Cole Schwindt, Owen Tippett, Henry Bowlby, Rodrigo Abols, Patrick Bajkov, Jonathan Ang, Cliff Pu

RFA; Henrik Borgstrom, Mason Marchment

UFA: Joel Lowry, Paul Thompson, Danick Martel, Jack Rodewald, Ryan Haggerty

What’s the plan?

Zito can make short (and relatively cheap) work of filling out the rest of the forward group by simply re-signing his pending RFAs Hunt, Saarela, Toninato and Wallmark and promoting 2017 first rounder Owen Tippett, who had a pretty successful first turn in the AHL with 19 goals and 40 points in 46 games. Out of those four RFAs, only Saarela doesn’t carry arbitration rights. Taking that route would leave two or three (depending on if the Cats chose to carry 22 or 23 players) open spots to fill. Would that path leave the Panthers the financial wherewithal to bring back one of Hoffman or Dadonov to provide the club needed goals or, with Hornqvist and Tippett potentially replacing them in the top-six, would the remaining money be better spent on what looks to one of the more glaring holes on the roster, second line center? Is talented prospect Henrik Borgstrom, who took a step back while in Springfield last season, still in the mix for that job? Hell, is he still in the organ-I-zational mix at all? The pickings at center in unrestricted free agency are slim, with only Nashville’s Mikael Granlund cracking Sportsnet Top 20 UFAs and he has played more on the wing as of late. Addressing that spot by trade, or maybe even by offer sheet, could be the way to go.

What chance does dynamic 2018 first-rounder Denisenko have of grabbing a roster spot? Is 63 games of KHL experience and two starring turns at the World Junior Championship enough to bypass a stint in Charlotte with the Checkers? With the aforementioned lack of depth at center, wtill big-bodied Brian Boyle be back on the cheap? Boyle is getting up there, but he did provide some much-needed experience and made the Cats harder to play against when he was in the lineup last season.

It will be interesting to see how Zito handles this group as we currently have no idea whether the plan for this year is one of going young, assessing and clearing out bad contracts/dead wood or to try to close the gap on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs and grab one of those three guaranteed playoff spots. It’s early in the offseason, but so far the only rumors we have heard regarding the Panthers have been in regards to high-priced UFA defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Torey Krug. Adding a top-four defenseman would be nice, but with a lot of money already invested in the back-end, the Panthers can’t be too thrifty up front.