If I were Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon I would approach this offseason hoping to make big strides towards getting the team back into the playoffs. It was only three years ago that the Panthers won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs only to lose in the first round to the Devils but very little is left of that roster and the coaching staff is completely different. Hell, even the coaching staff that replaced that coaching staff is gone! But with Roberto Luongo on the team now and with just two years left on Brian Campbell’s contract it’s time to make some progress and even if you don’t make the playoffs you at least have to be in the conversation and stay within shouting distance through the trading deadline. It’s still a long-term project, though, no doubt about that.
Players to Keep:
Did you know that of the players currently on the Panthers the leading goal scorer last year was Brad Boyes with 21? Did you know that their leading point scorer was Nick Bjugstad with 38? I say again…the player that led the Panthers in scoring last season had 38 points! 38!!! In an 82-game season! 38!!! Woof!
When you hear those stats it sounds crazy to say I’d keep anyone. When nobody is good then everyone should be expendable. That said, there are some players that I would keep on the roster if I were Dale Tallon.
Most of the Panthers best players are guys that are on deals that expire soon. Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Sean Bergenheim will all be UFA after the 2014-2015 season. I’d be talking to their agents to see if they wanted to re-sign in Florida and, if so, I’d try to get a deal done as soon after July 1st as possible to make the team as attractive as possible to free agents this summer (to at least show signs of roster stability). If they did not want to re-sign in Florida I would absolutely trade them before the trade deadline, unless a miracle happens and the Panthers are in a playoff position come the deadline.
The Panthers have eight veteran forwards under contract for next year for a total cost of $19.094 million and another two are RFAs. I’d re-sign the RFAs (Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Pirri) which would leave me three open roster spots on forward and I’d let the prospects fight it out for one spot and fill the other two via trade or free agency.
On defense I’d be pretty happy with the group I had. They have four veteran defenseman under contract for a total of $12.737 million with three others as RFAs (Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen and Dmitry Kulikov – all former 1st round picks). I’d re-sign all three RFAs . The Panthers defense is a good mix of youth and experience right now with some good prospects as well so while I’d like to add to what I had I certainly do not want to get rid of anything I have.
In net they’ve got Roberto Luongo and Dan Ellis under contract for a total of $5.433 million. Perfect combo for this team, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Since this is a long-term project I’d be reluctant to get rid of any prospects that I thought had a future in the NHL but if someone wanted to give me a veteran that was of value in exchange for some prospects I’d hear them out. The Panthers have to add veteran talent to this roster and it’s going to be very tough to attract players in free agency (small hockey market, no tradition of winning, awful roster, etc.) so trades are your best option and you have to give to get.
Players to Get Rid Of:
There are three UFA forwards on the team, Scott Gomez, Jesse Winchester and Krystofer Barch. Best of luck in free agency, boys. The only UFA on the blueline is Tom Gilbert and I’d let him leave. I don’t think I’d use my compliance buyout on anyone so that would be about it for players that were not welcomed back, at least on the NHL roster. I could see buying out Ed Jovanovski, at least on paper, but he’s only got one year left on his contract, he’s the captain of the team and he’s one of the few NHL players that has really embraced the franchise and the community so it would be bad optics to buy him out.
The Panthers have about $30 million to spend under the cap with five RFAs to re-sign. Assuming those five cost you a total of about $9 million a year to retain (none should be very expensive as none had a good year last year) that leaves you with about $21 million to play with and not a lot of open roster spots, at least on paper, to fill. Panthers owner Vinnie Viola told Tallon to spend to the cap limit this summer so that’s exactly what I’d do in free agency. I’d pursue every free agent I could with a generous offer. Marian Gaborik, Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek, Paul Stastny, Ryan Callahan, Milan Michalek, Ales Hemsky, Mike Cammalleri, Matt Niskanen…they’d all get an offer. Few, if any, would sign with Florida but I’d at least make them think about it and I’d be willing to overpay to get them. My primary targets would be Stastny, Michalek, Niskanen and Callahan. The Panthers need players that can score, they need people to be dangerous when they go over the boards and they need some leadership beyond Jovanovski and Campbell. They also need a better PP and that’s where I’d go after Niskanen.
Amazingly, the only Panthers player that is signed beyond the 2015-2016 season is Roberto Luongo. I’d start filling out the future roster in free agency this summer and I’d do so with some fat checks.
The Panthers farm system is ok. Nothing great, but it’s ok. I’d draft the best players available with each pick I had but I’d also be actively shopping those picks at the draft in exchange for active NHL players. If someone really wants the 1st overall pick it can be had but the price would be steep. Every other pick, though, is absolutely on the table. I’ll let Mike Murangi speak to whom the Panthers should take with that 1st overall pick but personally I’d take someone that I expected to be on my NHL roster in October.
When the owner tells you to spend to the cap you do it and when your team has only made the playoffs once in 14 years it’s not the time to be patient, especially in a market that is struggling to draw fans to begin with. This is a big offseason for the Panthers and they have to find a way to add veteran talent at forward and at least one veteran defenseman. Those additions, as well as a potential franchise player with the 1st overall pick in the draft, could finally get this team moving towards the playoffs again. First, though, they have to hire a head coach. Personally I’d hire Ron Wilson but that could be the Mighty Ducks fan in me talking.