Florida Panthers and free agency: Defensemen

Cats look to retain and move some pieces in this group

The Florida Panthers enter the offseason with over $13 million (according to CapFriendly’s current lineup) in cap space, but before they dip into the murky pond that is unrestricted free agency on July 28, they are going to have to make decisions on contributors from last year’s squad who need new deals. Let’s take a look at where the Cats stand with their defense corps as we approach the NHL’s annual free agent frenzy.

NHL Roster Defensemen

Restricted Free Agents

  • Gustav Forsling (2020-21 Cap Hit: $700K)
  • Noah Juulsen (2020-21 Cap Hit: $700K)/

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Brandon Montour (2020-21 Cap Hit: $3.85 million)     /

The Panthers head to the offseason in an interesting spot in regards to its defense. The team currently has five NHL-level blueliners signed, but would love to shed the burdensome Keith Yandle contract as well as the final year of Anton Stralman’s deal in order to remake the group and bring back to anywhere from one to all of the three players on this list.

Florida claimed Gustav Forsling off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes prior to the start of the season and the move paid big dividends. The 25-year-old Swede ended up playing in 43 regular season games and posted five goals, 17 points and a +17 rating while averaging close to 20 minutes of ice time per game. He played in all six games of the playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and produced a goal and an assist. Re-upping Forsling is a no-brainer, the question is, how do the Panthers view him long term? If they see him as a fixture in their Top-4 going forward, they must use the 8-1 protection scheme to protect him in the expansion draft (unless Yandle waives his NMC). If they don’t, they can use the 7-3-1 format, protect more forwards and hope Seattle takes a different player or if they select him, move on. If the Cats actually value hard-hitting Radko Gudas over Forsling, losing Gustav to the Kraken would be somewhat of a positive outcome, I suppose.

With the playoffs approaching, the Panthers acquired Brandon Montour from the Buffalo Sabres for a third-round pick on April 10, to help offset the loss of Aaron Ekblad. In 12 regular season games with the Cats, Montour scored two goals and added two assists while averaging 20:19 TOI. Like Forsling, he appeared in all six of Florida’s postseason games. Montour did pretty well in his time here, but with so much cap space already committed to the aforementioned Yandle and Stralman, a raise on the $3.85 million he made last season would be a hard fit. If the Cats can jettison one or both of the overpriced duo, than the chances of Montour would markedly increase.

Another waiver claim, Noah Juulsen joined the Panthers on January 11, after being let go by the Montreal Canadiens, who selected him in the first round (26th overall) of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. The 24-year-old did not see much ice time this season, appearing in just four NHL games with the Panthers, and five AHL games with the Syracuse Crunch, where he picked up his only point, an assist. Juulsen is a worth re-signing to a two-way deal at the NHL minimum with a raise at the AHL level. He is no longer waivers exempt, so the Cats would be at risk of losing him when sending him down or recalling him from Charlotte. That’s a risk worth taking in my opinion.

Minor League Defensemen

Restricted Free Agents

  • Chase Priskie, Jake Massie, Lucas Carlsson, Alec Rauhauser/

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Brady Keeper. Tommy Cross, Ethan Prow/

With prospects Matt Kiersted, Max Gildon, John Ludvig, and Vladislav Kolyachonok, as well as veteran Kevin Connauton, already under contract, and Juulsen potentially coming back, and on top of that, Florida set to share the Checkers with the Kraken, I’m not sure how many of the Panthers’ minor league free agents warrant a contract as AHL spots will be more limited than usual. Chase Priskie and Lucas Carlsson are productive players at the American League level, so they would have the best chance of returning to the organization. Now a Group 6 UFA, Brady Keeper will likely want to move on to an organization that gives him a better shot of making it to the NHL. It’s time for AHL veterans Tommy Cross and Ethan Prow to move on, and the same likely goes for 24-year-old ECHLer Jake Massie. Former Bowling Green Falcon Alec Rauhauser split time between the Slovak Extraliga and the Swamp Rabbits to middling results, using a contract on him doesn’t seem warranted.