2011 NHL Free Agency Pool, Part 1 of 3: How Will Tallon Dive In?

With the recent salary purge of the Florida Panthers, it’s no secret that Dale Tallon, Mike Santos and fellow Panther brass want to completely remake this team. Tallon has shown no hesitation in erasing what has been a decade of relative futility and in the process has both frightened and inspired Cats fans with his immediate cleansing. Through his recent housecleaning, Tallon has freed up close to $40 million in space, giving him more flexibility and maneuvering room during the 2011 NHL free agency spend-fest, and it gives the club more than enough to sign any RFAs or UFAs they wish to retain. Players like Keaton Ellerby, Marty Reasoner, Niclas Bergfors, Michal Repik, Shawn Matthias, Mike Santorelli… and the list goes on. The organization can choose to keep some, all or none of these players, and continue to reshape the franchise on the ice beyond what many fans expected.

Photo courtesy of NHL.com.

Many of us know the value of many of the current Panther players from the 2010-2011 season. Guys like Mike Santorelli and Marty Reasoner have more than proven their worth to the franchise this season, and both management and fans alike seem interested in re-signing some of these players during the offseason. It’s seems almost definite that Santorelli, Reasoner, Ellerby and Matthias will be re-signed. Santorelli has matured into a hard-working two-way forward with a scoring touch, Reasoner has played tough minutes all season and posted career numbers in the process, Ellerby continues to mature into an all-around solid defenseman, and Matthias seems to fit the mold of the type of forward Tallon wants to fill this franchise with long-term. However, as Tallon has shown so far, no one is a guarantee, so it will be interesting to see how many of these players, and also the younger and more unproven players such as Repik or Jack Skille, are retained.

The bigger question, though, is what Tallon will do with the extra money he’ll have during the offseason’s free agency period. In part one of this three-part series, we’re going to take a look at the forward position, the area the Cats need the most help in. Feel free to comment on who you think Florida should pursue!

Brad Richards, C: Probably the biggest fish in the free agency pool this summer, Richards is a premier NHL center with great playmaking ability. For a team like the Panthers, who many fans feel lack a true top-line center, Richards would be a welcome sight in a Cats jersey. His current cap hit with the Dallas Stars is $7.8 million, so expect a similar salary elsewhere. Richards will be courted by many teams in the offseason if Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk does not re-sign him, and many are already projecting the New York Rangers to get involved.

Will he become a Panther?
Not likely. Richards is in the latter half of his career and likely will want to go to a team that isn’t deep in the trenches of a rebuild. It’s also likely Tallon will not want to commit that much salary to a single player during the rebuilding process, and other teams will pay a premium for his services.

Tim Connolly, C: Blessed with some of the best hands in the NHL, Connolly has had a lot of trouble staying healthy over his career. When healthy, though, Connolly is a solid playmaking center and a decent two-way forward. He’s also a big body, though is not known for his physical play.

Will he become a Panther?
Not likely. Due to all of his injury issues, and the fact that he isn’t much of an upgrade (if any) from Stephen Weiss, it seems doubtful that Tallon will pursue Connolly in the offseason.

Brooks Laich, LW: A strong, quick forward, Laich has had a lot of success in Washington playing with guys like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Laich is a big body, able to create havoc around the net, and has posted more than 20 goals three times in his career. Panther fans are familiar with Laich and know he’s a hard-working centerman who would fit the mold of big, fast players that Tallon is trying to build in Florida.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. As long as the price tag for Laich doesn’t get too high, he could provide some depth to a very young roster next season, and matches the type of player Tallon has drafted so far. However, in a weak free agency period this July, Laich is one of the big names out there and as such his asking price will be higher than his actual value.

Tomas Kopecky, LW: Tallon’s familiarity with Kopecky should be well-known; it was Tallon that signed Kopecky as a free agent while in Chicago. Kopecky is another player who could come at a reasonable price and would provide much-needed depth at left wing. He is a hard-working physical player and has improved his point totals every season since entering the league with Detroit.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. Kopecky is a solid role-player and would provide some playoff experience and grittiness to a young team that is still unsure of its roster for next season. As long as he can sign him at a reasonable price, look for Tallon to pursue Kopecky in the offseason.

Milan Hejduk, RW: Hejduk may be approaching his 36th birthday next season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his production has dipped drastically. Hejduk posted a respectable 56 points in 71 games last season on a Colorado team that had a lot of issues defensively. He would definitely be a first-line player for the Cats.

Will he become a Panther?
Not likely. Hejduk is likely going to be looking to move to a contender that needs a skilled yet aged forward, and he’s still able to really contribute offensively, so teams will be interested in his services if the price is right.

Erik Cole, RW: The 2010 season marked the first time in Cole’s career that he played a full 82 game season, so there’s certainly an element of risk in signing Cole via free agency. However, when healthy Cole is a solid point producer and a very smart and valuable player. He would also be a top line winger for Florida if picked up, but the injury concerns will hurt his value on the market this summer.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. Canes fans would weep to see him in a division rival’s sweater. But Cole’s a solid player and the Cats could use an offensive talent like his.

Ville Leino, LW: Flyers Danny Briere Mike Richards Jeff Carter Claude Giroux

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. Aside from his silly blueline turnovers in some of this postseason’s playoff games, Leino is a solid competitor and would provide some good depth for the Cats.

Nikolay Zherdev, RW: There’s no denying that Zherdev is a very talented player, but there is always a big question about work ethic and his ability to play a system-oriented game. I think we need to wait and see what kind of coach the Panthers bring in before we can guess if Zherdev is on Tallon’s radar.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. The Cats need scorers and Zherdev can score. It all comes down to contract terms and what type of coach Florida hires.

Pascal Dupuis/Maxime Talbot, RW/C: I’m grouping these two guys together because they both play a very similar style of hockey: hard working battlers, tenacious on the forecheck and with good enough hands to contribute offensively. Both have won the Cup, both are leaders in the locker room, and both can provide leadership to a young team like the Panthers. Sound like a good fit to you?

Will one or both become a Panther?
Possibly. The Cats could use a veteran leader, but I would see them leaning more towards Dupuis than Talbot due to Dupuis’ offensive numbers over the past several seasons. However, Talbot would provide solid depth at center as well.

Alex Tanguay, LW: Tanguay was supposedly coming to Florida during the 2009 free agency period, but opted to head to Tampa Bay instead, where he struggled. He returned to Calgary this season and posted great numbers, with 69 points in 79 games. He’s still young enough and is still an offensive talent when put with solid linemates, but his asking price will be high. Still, he’d provide a big boost to the Cats forward lineup if signed.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. Again, the Cats need scorers and Tanguay is coming off a 69 point season with 22 goals. Any offense is good offense on a team that historically has had trouble scoring.

Curtis Glencross, LW: Glencross has continued to improve every season since he broke into the NHL, and potted 24 goals last season with the Calgary Flames. He’s a solid two-way player and is good on the forecheck, and would be a very solid depth signing if he can be acquired at a reasonable price. He’d likely be a second-line player for the Cats.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. His production last year was intriguing and he could come at a pretty good value to the team, as he had a $1.2 million cap hit and would likely be asking for $2.5-3.5 million a year.

Michael Ryder, RW: Another player who is sometimes questioned in regards to his work ethic, Ryder is having a great postseason so far, and is driving up his free agency value for the offseason. He’s a two-time 30 goal scorer, but hasn’t produced more than 41 points in his last two seasons. He comes with some injury concerns as well.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. His $4 million cap hit is far too high for the production he’s had the last two seasons, and so teams will be low-balling him. Since the Cats have the most cap room of any team, they may be a desired destination for Ryder.

Chris Higgins, RW: In his brief stint in Florida, Higgins posted respectable numbers and was one of the forwards in the lineup who seemed to give it his all every time he stepped out on the ice. He was a bit of a fan favorite and many Panther fans would be glad to see him come back. As a fast power forward, he’d fit into the "blueprint" and could potentially be here long-term if the price is right.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. He seemed to enjoy his time in Florida but would need to commit to the rebuilding process, and sometimes that’s a tough sell. His playoff performance with Vancouver this postseason is driving up his value as well.

Alex Frolov, LW: Frolov is another natural scoring talent who has had some issues fitting into the systems that some of his previous coaches have implemented. However, there’s no denying the guy can produce, as he has scored 20 or more goals in five of his eight seasons in the NHL. Last season was cut short due to injury (torn ACL), but if he bounces back he could be a hot commodity.

Will he become a Panther?
Possibly. I think this is another free agent that depends on the coaching staff hired. The Panthers could really benefit from Frolov on the top line with Stephen Weiss though. Since the departure of Nathan Horton to Boston, the Cats haven’t had a top-line wing that has the type of scoring ability Frolov possesses.

Joel Ward, RW: Ward has matured into a very solid player for Nashville, and there’s a pretty good chance he will re-sign with the Predators. However, if they let him walk, Florida should definitely get in on the action. Ward is a big, strong winger with good hands and would be an excellent depth signing for the Cats.

Will he become a Panther?
Not likely. Nashville liked what they saw from Ward this season and will probably try to re-sign him.

Sean Bergenheim, LW: Bergenheim is having a fantastic playoff run with the Lightning, and is the kind of depth player Tampa Bay will need in the future to have solid depth in the roster. His regular season numbers weren’t astounding but he plays hard and could be a good depth signing.

Will he become a Panther?
Not likely. Tampa will look to re-sign Bergenheim after the season as a depth player.