Building Blocks: How will Panthers retain the blueline?

Sean Leahy over at Puck Daddy posted an article up yesterday, discussing various topics with Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison. It's a good read, and is just another example of a new trend with the Florida Panthers: good press regarding the blueline corps. From Brian Campbell's 17 points, which puts him near the top of the NHL for points by a defenseman, to the now-otherworldly play of young Dmitry Kulikov, and the feel-good story of Garrison's late rise to success, there's a hell of a lot to be talked about so far this season, and almost all of it is positive. That's quite a stark contrast to seasons past, and is clearly a boon to a team still working on finding a long-term identity.

All is peachy and wonderful with the defense this season (for the most part), and good headlines abound on the interwebs, but let's not forget that both Kulikov and Garrison are nearing the end of their current contracts. What's going to happen after this season to the current darlings of the defense?

After this season ends and summer rolls around, general manager Dale Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos will have some decisions to make regarding the Panthers defensive corps, but thankfully, the play of several players is going to make those decisions pretty easy. Both Kulikov and Garrison will be free agents if they do not re-sign before their current deals end. Kulikov will be a restricted free agent, and due to his pedigree and his absolutely stellar play so far this season (barring some early season shakiness), he should be inked to a multi-year deal, keeping him in Florida for the foreseeable future. His maturation as a player is still continuing, but if he's already playing this well at this age and at this point in his career, the sky is the limit. The real question will be how much Kulikov is going to cost, because if he continues on the pace he's on he'll finish in the top 15 in the NHL in scoring for defenseman and post a plus rating on the season. He'll likely be looking for a big payday after a performance like that.

Garrison is currently the cheapest blueliner on the roster, and it won't stay that way after this season, even if he cools off in the scoring department (which he's showing no signs of doing at this point). His defensive play has been just as solid as his offensive production, and he's seeing regular shifts on special teams, including pairing back up with Mike Weaver to handle penalty killing duties as they did so well last season. Garrison's value to the team is unquestioned, and he will also be in line for a hefty raise, though maybe not to the level of Kulikov.

The Panthers will have almost $14.5 million committed to their defensive corps already next season, between Ed Jovanovski, Campbell, and rookie Erik Gudbranson. Those three alone are about 27% of the current salary. The difficult choices that Tallon and Santos will have are to sign Kulikov and Garrison and keep the defensive core together while not breaking the bank, leaving enough pennies in the jar to retain much of the forward talent (such as the currently-smoking-hot Kris Versteeg). The Cats are currently around $10 million below the cap, so they certainly have room to move, and knowing that the Cats are currently sitting a defensive player in the press box every night (either Gudbranson or Keaton Ellerby), you can expect to see either Ellerby or Weaver as an odd man out next season, freeing up some more cap space to commit to Garrison or Kulikov.

This does present an interesting topic for Panthers faithful and pundits alike to discuss: How much money should Florida sink into the defense? For a team that's traditionally been pretty weak at scoring from the forward position, it's been a huge boost to the team that the blueline has supplemented the forwards with such solid scoring figures from the back end. But should the Panthers commit potentially 35% of their salary to the current deals and re-signing Kulikov and Garrison? Would it be smarter, knowing some of the defensive prospects in the pipeline, to deal one of these guys while their value is elevated and get some scoring punch in return?

Time will tell how Tallon and Santos handle these situations. Florida is no doubt a team on the rise, and the depth in the minor leagues is slowing surfacing to the NHL, making some of the existing roster players expendable in the future. Guys like Colby Robak, Alex Petrovic, Rasmus Bengtsson and Jonathan Racine are all solid defensive prospects likely to have a shot at making the NHL roster someday, while the forward position is very bright with Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Jonathan Huberdeau and others set to fight for a spot on the team in coming seasons. Perhaps Tallon, knowing he's got some NHL-caliber players waiting in the wings (and on the cheap thanks to entry-level contracts) will move one or more of Florida's current defensive assets and build from within, obtaining either more forward scoring or supplementing the future with additional picks.

No matter how it shakes out, Florida has a great problem: too many quality blueliners and not enough roster spots. There's no doubt we'll be following the status of Garrison and Kulikov and their respective contracts closely this season, and it will be interesting to see how the Panthers architects control their fates despite the fantastic play of both this year.