Does Strachan deal signify major move on horizon for Panthers blueline?

The Florida Panthers signed defenseman Tyson Strachan - recent scorer of his first NHL goal in 75 career games - to a one-year, one-way contract extension on Wednesday. He's the prototypical solid-if-unspectacular blueliner whose had some offensive success in the AHL since being drafted in the fifth round in '03 by Carolina. Several stints with St. Louis gave him the lion's share of his big league experience, making him an attractive enough option for the Panthers when they signed him to a one-year deal in June. The thinking was obviously geared toward the opportunity he'd receive with San Antonio, and he delivered: 12 points (3G) and a plus-5 in 32 games with the Rampage.

As injuries began to pile up on Florida's backend in recent weeks, Strachan was recalled on December 30, providing 3 points (1G) in eight games for the Cats with mostly limited minutes. Congrats and all to the guy on securing a somewhat surprising re-enlistment after a rather short audition. Why the "surprise" aspect? Because the Panthers have a pretty significant decision to make regarding their defensive corps heading into the final days before the trading deadline.

Forgetting injuries - and both are expected back soon - Florida has nine blueliners available: Brian Campbell, Keaton Ellerby, Jason Garrison, Erik Gudbranson, Ed Jovanovski (IR), Dmitry Kulikov (IR), Colby Robak, Strachan, and Mike Weaver.

Robak will be returned to San Antonio upon Jovo's arrival, and presumably Strachan follows when Kuli hits the roster. An Ellerby reassignment pares the list down to coach Dineen's Original Six of Campbell, Garrison, Gudbranson, Jovanovski, Kulikov, and Weaver.

Back to that "significant decision"...

2011 - Dmitry Kulikov 46 4 20 24 -5 28 2 0 1 80

Kulikov, 21, is already in his third pro season, with RFA status looming. See those numbers up there? Compare them to his stats from a year ago: 6-20-26. In 72 games. That's ridiculous improvement at such a young age. He can be streaky, but when his confidence is high he's a ball to watch.

2011 - Jason Garrison 54 13 10 23 6 14 8 0 2 113

Having a similar breakout season Garrison, 27, has smashed his previous highs in every category, due in large part to a rocket from the point, though clubs have countered his act effectively of late; he's collected 5 points (2G) in his past 15 contests before a foot(?) injury. A UFA in July, Florida's lowest-paid blueliner will be seeking a major raise.

Are both in the plans? Can they possibly be? Each is due a significant bump in pay, obviously, though Kuli will be cheaper in the short-term. Garrison is older and steadier, but is management ready to reward an admittedly killer single-season performance - which has slowed of late - with dollars and term which could become a tremendous stumbling block to contracts for a few of the organization's A-1 prospects down the road? Not to mention any UFA forwards they may wish to pursue...

Subtract one of these guys and Strachan has a legitimate role with the big club next year, depending upon what is done with soon-to-be RFA Ellerby. With a one-way deal, management is (very transparently) going to make the space to accommodate him. And Dineen doesn't dress seven defensemen.

The reality breaks down to this: do you sacrifice Kris Versteeg (himself an RFA deserving of a ginormous new deal) for Jason Garrison? Hint - Steeger's going nowhere, and quite probably neither is Kuli.