Keeping All-Star Jonathan Huberdeau in the fold a major priority for Panthers

Cats wing has earned himself a monster raise

In the summer of 2017, then Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon signed a 24-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau to a six-year, $35.4 million contract, making him a Panther “for the foreseeable future.” Huberdeau had just completed a two-year extension that paid him an average salary of $3.25 million and had been a Cat for five seasons. He was coming off a shortened year, limited to just 31 games, after suffering a gruesome Achilles injury in the preseason.

Now, in the fifth of those six contract years, the “foreseeable future” is no longer a distant dot on the horizon, but a rapidly approaching end point that looms larger for now general manager Bill Zito with each game passed and point collected this season. The Panthers have Huberdeau, the leading scorer in the NHL at the All-Star Break, for one of the best bargains in hockey.

For less than $6 million, Huberdeau is tearing opposing defenses to shreds. He’s an All-Star. He’s a legitimate Hart and Art Ross Trophy candidate. He’s the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and he’s signed… for one more year.

This season has been an absolute revelation for fans in Sunrise and Florida Panthers fans around the nation and world. Finally, the Cats are a top-flight NHL franchise, one of the most exciting teams to watch in any sport, and the success doesn’t feel fleeting. The pieces are in place, the culture installed, and the identity set for Florida to be a force in the Eastern Conference for the next half-decade. But, that may very well hinge on the discussions that Bill Zito and Jonathan Huberdeau begin having this upcoming summer. Huberdeau will be eligible to sign a contract extension on July 13 and he’s going to have a very strong negotiating position.

Since signing his last deal, Huberdeau has seasoned perfectly with each passing year. He is seventh in the NHL in points since the start of the 2017-18 campaign. He is currently on pace for a fifth straight year with at least 20 goals and offensive production that is better than a point per game for a fourth consecutive season. Forged into a fiery leader by Joel Quenneville and Andrew Brunette, Huberdeau is now playing in all situations and is the linchpin of the Panthers’ resurgent powerplay.

To say that Huberdeau is integral to the Panthers success is an understatement. He is the catalyst of the best offense in the NHL, registering a point in all but eight games played this season. Connor McDavid has more pointless games.

When his next contract goes into effect, Huberdeau will be 30. He will be at or near the very peak of his prime years. Comparatively, when long time teammate and friend Aleksander Barkov begins his new $10 million yearly salary next season, Sasha will only be 27. Years ago, Barkov and Huberdeau signed for the same value. Could this be the case again? Can the Panthers afford a third $10 million contract? Could Huberdeau garner even more on a free agent market that might have more flexibility a few years removed from the impact of COVID-19?

First, let’s look at the Panthers cap situation. Currently, the Cats have 11 players under contract for the 2023-24 season. Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Anton Lundell, Ryan Lomberg, Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling, and Sergei Bobrovsky, along with Keith Yandle’s buyout cost, combine for nearly $54.73 million in cap space. The salary cap has yet to be set for the 2022-23 season, let alone 2023-24, but going by the current cap that leaves roughly $26.75 million to fill a minimum of nine more roster spots. Additionally, the same offseason that Huberdeau becomes a free agent, MacKenzie Weegar and Radko Gudas would be set to hit the market and Spencer Knight would have his first crack at restricted free agency. Of course, prior to then, the Panthers will have to sort out the future of players like Owen Tippett, Mason Marchment, Eetu Luostarinen, and Maxim Mamin.

With two $10 million contracts already on the books, a third doesn’t seem to plausibly allow the Panthers to ice a competitive team with a potential of $30 million wrapped up in three players. Florida would need a significant increase in the salary cap over the next two years (which very well could happen with influential organizations like Montreal, Vegas, Tampa, Edmonton, Washington, Toronto all in similar situations).

However, Jonathan Huberdeau is proving that his value to this team goes beyond goals and assists. The nucleus of this recent success isn’t all on the shrewd additions that Zito has made to the roster, but the pillars by which this new front office used as support structures to build around. Barkov, Huberdeau, Ekblad. Those three are the foundation of the Panthers. Their early seasons in Sunrise were sacrificial for this franchise and that scarred past is a necessary element in the establishment of a new culture. The Panthers need the players like Barkov and Huberdeau to be central figures in this hockey rebirth because their desperation is a driving motivation.

But, money talks. And there will be plenty of fans whispering Huberdeau’s name in free agent fantasies. General managers keenly monitoring the negotiations; expect Montreal and Toronto to be bandied as potential destinations. There will be suitors, lined up, and they will pay. The Panthers need to be ready, plan in place, to keep Huberdeau in Florida.

Is he worth $10 million? Yes. Is he worth $12 million? A year and a half from now, he might just be. If Huberdeau keeps this up and etches his name on some prestigious hardware, his value will only go up.

And then there is term. Going into his age 30 season, how would the Panthers approach contract length? Since his Achilles injury, Huberdeau has been a model of health. He rarely misses a game, despite picking up his physical play in recent years. He’s developed and trained his body well, improving in nearly all aspects through his 20s. Vision, hockey sense, and playmaking are traits with some of the best longevity in the NHL, especially as the league cracks down on eradicating cross-checks and blows to the head. From a fan’s perspective, a five-year deal sounds fair. Huberdeau could be productive enough in his age 30-34 seasons to warrant a $10 million annual average, but it is a gamble. On the open market, Huberdeau might be able to get a six or even seven-year deal.

Here are the forwards that are making $10 million or more in the NHL right now: Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Jack Eichel, and Anze Kopitar. Of those players, only Tavares, Toews, Kane, and Kopitar are 30 or older. If Florida were to sign Huberdeau to a five-year deal, the Panthers run the risk of a Jonathan Toews-like regression, but also could still conceivably get Patrick Kane or Anze Kopitar-like stability. Keep in mind though, Kane’s deal runs out next year (age 34). Kopitar is on his contract through his age 36 season.

When looking at the salary number the Panthers have committed to 2023-24, it is easy for fans to stress about how Zito can afford Huberdeau and then pull hair out thinking about potential term. Nearly $55 million is a significant chunk for just 11 players. But, if the salary cap goes up just $5 million over the next two years, it would add significant flexibility to keep an All-Star like Huberdeau.

And remember, just because a contract is on the books now, doesn’t mean it can’t be dealt. Would you sacrifice Reinhart’s $6.5 million for a better chance at retaining Huberdeau and/or possibly Weegar? Would you forfeit the final year of Duclair’s contract to help the cause?

One of the best ways for the Panthers to potentially sign Huberdeau to a large contract is going to be the development of young players. If a few of Tippett, Grigori Denisenko, Logan Hutsko, Mackie Samoskevich, Ty Smilanic, Serron Noel, and other prospects begin to pan out and show top nine NHL futures, it doesn’t make Huberdeau expendable. It makes some of the depth players that Zito has signed to very tradeable deals expendable.

The key for Zito next summer is going to be prioritization. Last year, he prioritized a Barkov contract. That same effort needs to be applied to Huberdeau. With the depth that Zito has amassed, the Panthers could withstand losing Huberdeau. That is the type of culture that has been built, but letting a talent like Huberdeau exit the franchise would still be a massive blow.

This year is about enjoying the ride and finally doing some damage in the playoffs. As fans, we need not worry about the Huberdeau situation right now, but I can guarantee you that more and more eyes are gathering their focus on Jonathan right now. Looking at his contract. Looking at the Panthers cap situation. Looking at the players they might poach or have an opportunity to sign.

Make no mistake, Huberdeau is a very large domino for the 2023 offseason.