Panthers must take care of their own before dipping into unrestricted free agency

New deals for the Sams on front burner for Bill Zito

With the 2021 NHL Entry Draft completed and a 5 p.m. deadline for qualifying your own restricted free agents approaching, the Florida Panthers still have quite a bit of inhouse work to do before they dip their toes into the murky pond that is unrestricted free agency on Wednesday. They are going to have to make decisions on some key contributors from last year’s squad who need new deals, as well as come to terms with big draft weekend acquisition Samson Reinhart. Let’s take an updated look at where the Cats stand as we approach the NHL’s annual free agent frenzy, which kicks off on Wednesday.

NHL Roster Forwards

Restricted Free Agents

  • Samson Reinhart (2020-21 Cap Hit: $5.2 million)
  • Sam Bennett (2020-21 Cap Hit: $2.55 million)
  • Juho Lammikko (2020-21 Cap Hit: $725K)
  • Lucas Wallmark (2020-21 Cap Hit: $950K)/

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Alex Wennberg (2020-21 Cap Hit: $2.25 million)
  • Nikita Gusev (2020-21 Cap Hit: $1 million)/

The key players in this bunch are Sam Bennett, who fit in quite nicely after coming overt from the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, and former Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart, who was just acquired for a conditional first round pick in 2022 and goalie prospect Devon Levi. Bennett quickly found chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau on the second line and produced six goals and 15 points in 10 regular season games with the Cats. Bennett added a goal and four assists in 5 playoffs games against the Lightning. He was suspended for Game 2 of the series. Reinhart led the lowly Sabres in goals (25) and points (40) and whether he ends up playing right wing  on the first or centering the second line, and potentially bumping Bennett down to 3C, makes the Panthers top-six even deadlier.

In his first season running the Cats, Zito brought over a known commodity in Alex Wennberg and the Swedish center rewarded him with one of his best regular season performances after being bought out by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Wennberg suited up in all 56 games and set a new career-high with 17 goals. This weekend’s acquisition of Reinhart probably ended any chance of a reunion, but Wennberg’s strong showing might’ve priced him out of Florida budget anyways, as I’m sure they are going to be other interested suitors come Wednesday.

After appearing in 40 games with the Panthers in 2018-19, Juho Lammikko spent the next season and a half in Europe before returning to the fold. Lammikko scored his first four NHL goals and added an assist in 44 regular season games. A nice depth piece, look for the Cats to try to re-sign Lammikko to a league minimum, two-way deal with a high AHL salary to keep him in North America.

The Panthers have acquired Lucas Wallmark twice now, but It doesn’t look like he is in their future plans. After returning to Sunrise via a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on April 8, Wallmark played four scoreless games with the Cats and spent the rest of his time on the Taxi Squad. On June, 15, Wallmark signed a one-year contract with KHL powerhouse CSKA Moscow. The Panthers will need to qualify Wallmark to retain his NHL rights. Might be best to simply cut bait here.

After coming down with COVID-19 early in the season, Nikita Gusev couldn’t duplicate the success of his first North American campaign, putting up just two goals and five points in 20 games with the New Jersey Devils, leading to the termination of the remainder of his contract. The Panthers added Gusev to its roster on April 11, and he put rebounded somewhat to produce two goals and five points in 11 games played. If the Cats can get the 29-year-old to sign another deal around the $1 million mark, he’d be worth taking a flier on.

  • Update: Sam Bennett has been re-signed/

Minor League Forwards

  • Scott Wilson (UFA), Patrick Bajkov (RFA), Brad Morrison (RFA with arbitration rights)/

Not sure any of these three players are worth bringing back. Wilson, who put up 3 points in 8 games with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, is now 29-years-old.

Patrick Bajkov seems stuck at the ECHL level, where is a pretty effective scorer, and only appeared in 2 of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits 8 playoff games.

Brad Morrison, acquired from the Blackhawks in the Vinnie Hinostroza trade, is a former fourth round pick of the New York Rangers who has struggled to establish him as an AHLer yet.

NHL Roster Defensemen

Unrestricted Free Agents

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

The Panthers bought out the final two years of the expensive Keith Yandle contract and head to August in an much better spot in regards to its defense after re-upping the emerging Gustav Forsling and protecting him in the expansion draft. The team has reportedly tried to shed the final year of Anton Stralman’s deal and will probably try to continue to make that happen to gain additional cap space.

With the playoffs approaching, Florida acquired Brandon Montour from the 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, and appeared in all six of Florida’s postseason games. Montour did pretty well in his time here, but with new deals needed for Reinhart and Bennett, and Stralman still on the roster, a raise on the $3.85 million he made last season will be a hard fit.

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.

  • Update: Carlsson has been re-signed/

Minor League Goalies

Restricted Free Agents

  • Sam Montembeault (2020-21 Cap Hit: $850K)
  • Ryan Bednard (2020-21 Cap Hit: $817.5K)/

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Philippe Desrosiers (2020-21 Cap Hit: $700K)/

Sam Montembeault posted a 8-4-1 record, 2.86 GAA and 1 shutout in 13 appearances with the Syracuse Crunch last season. Montembeault now has four years of pro experience under his belt, including 25 NHL appearances, and would slot in as the number one goalie for the Charlotte Checkers if he returns. He’s a pretty good insurance policy to have around in case Spencer Knight isn’t quite ready to be a full-time NHLer.

Former Bowling Green Falcon Ryan Bednard has been impressive over the course of two ECHL campaigns with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Last season, Bednard went 20-6-8 with a 2.43 GAA and .917 save percentage. Look for the Cats to retain the towering 24-year-old with a two-way deal and move him up to Charlotte to share the net with Montembeault. He’s earned it.

The Panthers rewarded Philippe Desrosiers, who spent the entire season the Taxi Squad, by dressing him for the team’s March 3 game against the Dallas Stars, where he backed up Knight and donned an NHL jersey for the first time. The 25-year-old has been a good soldier for the organization, but re-signing him, if Montembeault comes back, would mean pushing Bednard back down to the ECHL, which isn’t the right move. The only way I see a spot for Desrosiers is if the Cats decide to move on from Montembeault.