Over the next couple of months, I will be taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the Florida Panthers.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
UFA: Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Krys Barch, John Madden, Jason Garrison, Scott Clemmensen
RFA: Wojtek Wolski, Kris Versteeg, Dmitry Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby, Michal Repik
Rostered players signed for next season: 16
Available cap space: $29.7M
The cap space above (taken from capgeek.com) consists of 11 forwards, four defensemen, and one goaltender. Of these, Fleischmann, Upshall, Weiss, Campbell, and Theodore all have NTC’s, and Erik Gudbranson is the only player signed to a two-way contract. The rostered players are relatively weak, but there are some decent blue-chip prospects working their way up the ladder.
On offense, last season’s combination of Fleischmann, Weiss, and Versteeg proved to be a huge success, and it is very likely they will remain Florida’s top line next season. This will require Dave Tallon to re-sign Kris Versteeg, who is a pending RFA with a huge value spike after last season. The good news is that if Tallon wants to keep Versteeg, he has the cap space to do so. If he does not wish to spend that much money on Versteeg, he also has the option of letting him go via offer sheet or trade, both of which options bring a return value, as opposed to letting a player walk via unrestricted free agency.
Toward the end of the season, the second scoring line for Florida consisted of Bergenheim, Goc, and Samuelsson. The first two are still under contract for next season, but Samuelsson is set to become a UFA, and is unlikely to return. That leaves one top-six spot open for one of Upshall, Kopecky, Santorelli, Matthias, or Skille. If he were to be re-signed, Wojtek Wolski might also have a shot. One other possibility could be a prospect, by way of Huberdeau, Shore, or Howden. Another option would be that Bergenheim and Goc are merely holding top-six roles until someone is able to unseat them, in which case the entire second line would be fair game.
More than likely, Florida will ease a few prospects into top-six roles and wait for one of them to stick. This will ultimately feature a top-six that includes Weiss, Versteeg, Fleischmann, Bergenheim, Goc, and one of the options discussed last paragraph (or potentially three of the options if Bergenheim and Goc are bumped to the third line, which is a very realistic possibility, but for the sake of this article, I draw the line saying that the second line of last season will continue to be the second line next season). Third and fourth line minutes will be divvied up among Upshall, Kopecky, Santorelli, Bradley, Matthias, Skille, and Smithson, depending of course on who cracks the top-six and what roster moves are made this summer.
From the prospect pool, Jonathan Huberdeau has been heavily rumored to almost be guaranteed a roster spot in the fall. He has been highly touted in the DobberHockey community since his draft year, and he will certainly have an opportunity to show he is ready to make an impact. For those of you who have fallen under the common positional trap, remember this – Jonathan Huberdeau is not a center. He is a left wing. Another player who has made the jump is Drew Shore. Shore was a phenomenal player at the collegiate level, most recently finishing fourth overall in NCAA scoring while serving as captain of the University of Denver. He will likely need a year or two of AHL seasoning first, but he could get a couple cups of coffee or even push some of the other prospects through competition. A third potential challenger will come in the shape of Quinton Howden, who also turned pro last season, although he was only able to dress for four playoff games, going scoreless. All three players will likely have opportunities to at least see some NHL action next season, and potentially infuse some talent into the Florida offense.
On defense, Brian Campbell had an outstanding season, finishing tied for second overall in points by a defenseman. While he was paired with many different players throughout the year, Campbell finished the season paired with Jason Garrison, the only pending UFA from the Florida blue line. Garrison also had a strong season, scoring 33 points and finishing second among Florida blue liners, so I’ll assume that not only will Tallon bring him back, but that he will also start the year on the top pairing. That leaves Dmitry Kulikov (a pending RFA) to pair with Mike Weaver on the second pairing and Erik Gudbranson and Ed Jovanovski occupying the third pair. The Panthers organization has been raving about Kulikov ever since his draft year, so his contract will almost certainly be top priority for the Panthers.
In terms of competition from San Antonio, the Panthers have their second round selection from the 2008 draft, Colby Robak, coming along quite nicely. Robak entered his second season of professional hockey last year and ran with it, leading Rampage defensemen with 39 points (a 15-point increase from his rookie season) and shifting his minus-12 rating into a plus-15. He continued his strong play into the postseason, where he scored five points in eight games. The only other promising prospect at this point is Florida’s 2010 second rounder, Alex Petrovic, who turned pro after finishing up with the WHL just this last season. Petrovic, a 6’4” force, scored six points in nine playoff games while adding 14 penalty minutes. Petrovic could likely add a few pounds before entering a full time NHL gig, but he has the potential to put up points and PIM whenever that time comes.
In goal, Jose Theodore played above and beyond all expectations. His save percentage was his best since 2004 in Montreal (albeit by a slim margin), and his GAA was his best since 2008 in Colorado, which was also the last time he posted three shutouts in a season. Theodore is locked in for one more season at a cap hit of $1.5M, but backup Scott Clemmensen is a pending UFA and it is likely time to move on. The highly touted Jacob Markstrom is coming off a strong campaign in the AHL, where he posted a 0.927 save percentage, and the Panthers have to be thinking about finally bringing him into the NHL full time. In Markstrom’s limited exposure to the NHL level last season, he performed admirably, finishing with a 0.923 save percentage and 2.66 GAA in seven games.
Biggest holes to fill: Florida is lucky in the regard that they don’t have a ton of holes, per se, that need to be filled. Based on their strategy, most of what needs to be done is simply to sign their expiring contracts. They have a few forward positions that need to be filled, two or three defensemen spots, and one goaltending spot that all need to be locked up.
Priorities: Florida’s top priorities should be to re-sign Versteeg and Kulikov. Kulikov is arguably more important because there are fewer options available to replace him than Versteeg. Still, both RFA’s should be the most urgent priorities.
Next, the Panthers need to decide if they are ready for Jacob Markstrom to be in the NHL. If so (which would be the right decision), Clemmensen can walk freely, and the Panthers will be set for next season. This comes with a caveat however, as the organization will need to look at solidifying a third-string goaltender.
Lastly, the Panthers need to decide how their offense will look next season. They have so many marginal forwards that it might be tough for guys like Huberdeau, Shore, and Howden to make an impact. Depending on how well these prospects develop, Florida might have to start cutting the fat one year earlier than expected.
Overall, Florida is built as a mediocre team that is simply waiting for their prospects to emerge. They don’t have any true superstars on the roster yet, but that may change soon. From a fantasy perspective, the top line will be very desirable, but beyond that the contributions will be few and far between. Even if Huberdeau were to make the team and play well, it is unlikely he scores more than 40-45 points on this team (although that may change is there are significant acquisitions). On defense, Campbell will continue to be a top performer, while Kulikov and Garrison are also strong options. Gudbranson will be a strong hit contributor and Jovanovski will continue to be a shadow of his former self, mentoring the younger defensemen. The goaltenders on this team will both be worth owning, either as a second or third option. As good as Theodore was, there will certainly be better fantasy options to invest in as primary and (hopefully) secondary goaltenders. Either way, Theodore will likely make a great depth option, especially if the team can win a few more games next year. Markstrom obviously carries a ton of long-term value, but will likely begin the year as backup. Not to worry though, as Theodore typically does not play more than 50-55 games a season, which could potentially open the door for Markstrom to overtake Theodore as the top goalie in Florida.
Got anything to add? Feel free to add your opinion below.