Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.
Hockey nerds, would you like a fun activity? C’mon, the season is far away, you know you want one …
[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three questions]
Ask yourself a question: what are the best contracts in the NHL, under two parameters:
1. The contract must have some term on it. It was a great run, Erik Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, and Max Pacioretty. (Pours one out for John Tavares‘ ridiculous, recently expired deal.)
2. It can’t be a rookie contract, because that’s cheating.
Waits some more …
Pencils up, you can stop scouring Cap Friendly now.
For my money – it’s not my money, I can barely afford to run a team in DFS – the best contract in the NHL is probably that of Nathan MacKinnon. He was a (deserving) Hart finalist for the low-low price of a $6.3 million cap hit. If that wasn’t enough, MacKinnon is somehow just 22, and his dirt-cheap cap hit runs for five more seasons.
(Joe Sakic just took a second to stop smirking about the Matt Duchene trade to smirk about MacKinnon’s contract.)
One can debate this topic from dawn until dusk – heck, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall‘s deal is in the discussion, too, though not for much longer – but I’d argue that the Florida Panthers rank among the teams who boast the most great contracts.
Specifically, this franchise is doing a wonderful job of signing fantastic forwards to equally fantastic deals. They’re paralleling what the Nashville Predators are doing with their defensemen: sign guys, usually with proactive extensions, to fairly long-term deals before they’ve fully blossomed.
The result: a slew of contracts that give a budget-conscious team a real chance to compete.
(Yes, it’s more than a little bit amusing that the Panthers biffed the expansion draft by giving away Reilly Smith [a nice $5M value even then] and Jonathan Marchessault [who signed a team-friendly deal in the middle of his first Vegas season, also for $5M per year], yet Florida still boasts so many great deals. There are advantages, you see, to being bad for a long time, not to mention operating in a state that gives sports teams certain tax advantages.)
Take a look at the great deals, and ones that at least qualify as good.
Aleksander Barkov – Panthers fans might have been screaming “Barkov” during that MacKinnon/Hall/etc. discussion, and with good reason. You could make a strong argument that the rising Selke-caliber forward’s deal is the biggest steal at $5.9M through 2021-22.
Like MacKinnon, Barkov is just 22, as he was selected one spot after the speedy Avs center. It turns out Florida was quite smart in doing so, despite the mild surprise.
Barkov set a ton of career-highs (27 goals, 51 assists, 78 points) despite seeing his usage flip-flop from beginning about 60-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone before to beginning close to 60-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2017-18.
He’s a legitimate, tide-turning top-line center, and Barkov’s making a relative pittance. He’s also not alone in being a bargain, even if he’s the best value of this bunch.
Jonathan Huberdeau‘s cap hit matches Barkov’s $5.9M, although Huberdeau’s deal runs through 2022-23. In this way, Huberdeau-Barkov parallel Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan as players with similar deals, with both being great values, even if one shines brighter than the other.
We’ll probably move Huberdeau up the bargain rankings more if he can stay healthy, as he did in playing all 82 games in 2017-18. So far, he’s shown the ability to drive puck possession in his own right, seeing a similar increase in defensive work last season. He matched Barkov’s 27 goals, and while he didn’t score as many points, 69 is still a new career-high.
Vincent Trocheck – For a while there, Trocheck was Florida’s other best-kept secret, behind Barkov.
It’s going to be tough for the underrated center to slip under the radar if he matches or exceeds last season’s 31 goals and 75 points, though. Trocheck’s possession stats slipped after some masterful years, yet those could very well go up if Huberdeau stays by his side, as was the case late in last season.
Trocheck is another fantastic steal at just $4.75M through 2021-22.
Evgenii Dadonov – It might seem weird for a 29-year-old to break through, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider how fantastic Dadonov was during his first season after a KHL sojourn.
Other GMs might not feel like it makes sense – or is fair – that a guy who just scored 28 goals and 65 points is making just $4M per year for two more seasons, but it fits into the pretty picture Florida is painting.
Nick Bjugstad – You could knock Dadonov, and also Bjugstad, for enjoying their best days when they landed on Aleksander Barkov’s line. It’s certainly a factor to consider, as Barkov clearly makes his linemates better.
Should the Panthers really care, though? Like Dadonov, Bjugstad suddenly seems like a bargain if he can stick on one of those top lines, maybe more so than trying to carry a line by himself. Bjugstad’s season totals weren’t amazing (19 goals, 49 points), but consider that he scored 10 goals and 27 points in just 35 games following the All-Star break.
Cooking with fire once he landed with Barkov suddenly makes his $4.1M for three more seasons look like quite the boon.
Mike Hoffman? – It’s too early to tell how Hoffman will fit in with the Panthers, as discussed in greater detail here.
Still, a guy who’s scored 20+ goals for four straight seasons and at least 56 for three consecutive years is probably at least a solid value at $5.188M per year (through 2019-20). Chances are, if Hoffman hits the Barkov lottery – or clicks with Trocheck – then he’ll look like a steal, too.
So, to review, here are the good-to-great forward deals:
Barkov: $5.9M, four more seasons
Huberdeau: $5.9M, five more seasons
Hoffman: $5.188M, two more seasons
Trocheck: $4.75M, four more seasons
Bjugstad: $4.1M, three more seasons
Dadonov: $4M, two more seasons
This gives the Panthers quite the window to compete, and maybe thrive at a level many aren’t expecting. That’s especially true if these steals coincide nicely with rookie contracts for Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, and if the veterans on this team can hang on for a few more seasons.
Panthers management received well-earned ribbing for mismanaging the transition back to GM Dale Tallon, and Tallon’s stumbled a time or two.
Even so, between “The Computer Boys” locking up some good contracts, and Tallon helping with a Dadonov here and Hoffman trade there, the Panthers are in an awfully interesting position.
Now they just need to actually put it all together, and preferably for a full season, instead of a few months.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.