History is already repeating itself in an unpleasant way for the Florida Panthers, as they look all but certain to miss the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 seasons. You almost have to try to fail enough not to win a playoff series since 1995-96.
The good news is that the Panthers have amassed a tantalizingly talented group, and they can supplement that core with the right mix of luck and skill. You know, as long as they don’t keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.
GM Dale Tallon probably cringes at any mention of sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith out of town, but Panthers management sorely needs to think of those blunders if there’s any validity to rumors about Jonathan Huberdeau being shopped around.
TSN’s Frank Seravalli added Huberdeau to his trade bait list on Monday, citing the Panthers’ pursuit of pending Columbus free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. While Elliotte Friedman reported in 31 Thoughts on Wednesday that there are mixed messages about whether Florida would actually consider moving Huberdeau, the Panthers winger addressed said rumors to The Athletic’s George Richards on Tuesday (sub required), so they’ve at least registered to the forward.
“It’s a rumor, we don’t know if it’s true,” Huberdeau said on Tuesday. “I’m just going to play here for now. We’re trying to make a push for the playoffs and I am going to do everything I can. We’ll see what happens.”
Let’s dig into Huberdeau’s underrated value, the many questions Florida faces during a pivotal crossroads moment for the franchise, and the other, wiser routes they should take.
Huberdeau is a crucial building block
If the Maple Leafs have shown us anything with William Nylander and Auston Matthews (and soon Mitch Marner), it’s that young, high-end players aren’t going to be cheap on second contracts much longer. With that in mind, teams that do have high-end players locked up on bargain contracts should guard them as jealously as a child with ice cream.
Huberdeau is just 25, and his bargain cap hit is $5.9 million. That’s the same as Aleksander Barkov‘s deal, but Huberdeau’s contract runs one extra year (through 2022-23) than Barkov’s does (2021-22). Considering Vincent Trocheck‘s deal ($4.75M cap hit through 2021-22), the Panthers boast one of the most enviable cores in hockey because they could very well afford more pieces.
Not only that, but Huberdeau’s having a fantastic season while suffering from fairly bad luck.
His shooting percentage of 9.4 percent is his lowest since 2014-15, and his on-ice shooting percentage is 6.9 percent, the second-worst mark of his career. Despite not getting bounces, Huberdeau’s had a great season, generating 13 goals and 52 points in 55 games.
Honestly, if every GM made rules like “don’t trade a player when they’re experiencing some of their worst shooting percentages of their careers,” then a boatload of the NHL’s dumbest trades would never happen.
Yes, Panarin is better than Huberdeau, but the gap isn’t as big as you might expect, and who knows how many million more Panarin will cost than Huberdeau’s $5.9M? Will it be $10M per year, or $11M? Maybe more?
Huberdeau compares fairly well to Panarin, a full-fledged star. The Panthers shouldn’t move Huberdeau to get Panarin; instead, they should explore every avenue to get both on their team.
Looking at Panarin from a wide variety of angles, it’s resounding just how clearly he’s worth the hype. To an extent, it makes sense that some might see moving Huberdeau as a the price of doing business.
It’s just that the Panthers would be far wiser to pay a different price, as Huberdeau’s a gem.
This situation is especially dangerous if, say, Tallon is looking far too much at (gulp) plus/minus … which might have been a problem with Marchessault and Smith, too. Yikes.
What about Bob?
If the thinking is that the Panthers need to trade away Huberdeau to secure Panarin and Bob, the Panthers should do some soul-searching about Bobrovsky.
Don’t get me wrong. Goaltending has been the Panthers’ achilles heel, and while Bobrovsky’s .903 save percentage this season is troubling, Bob has a credible argument that he’s been the best goalie in the NHL since he joined the Blue Jackets.
Still, Bobrovsky is 30 and will turn 31 in September, and the Panthers already have almost $8M in cap space tied up in Roberto Luongo (39, $4.53M cap hit through 2021-22) and James Reimer (30, $3.4M through 2022-23). Yes, there are ways to alleviate some of the pressures; Luongo’s health might credibly land him on LTIR at some point in the semi-near future, and Reimer could be a buyout target.
This Panthers team might have a budget, though, and what if Bobrovsky trends closer to the backup-level goalie he’s been this season than the two-time Vezina-winner from the past?
Don’t force it
Moving Huberdeau to try to proactively lock down Panarin and Bobrovsky has some logic to it, but it would be a massive overpay.
Most obviously, the Panthers could just wait and see if Panarin and Bobrovsky would come to them via free agency, without costing them a single asset. If they’d sign extensions with Florida, wouldn’t they sign with them in July?
But the concerns about Bob bring up another possibility: maybe a Plan B would work better, overall?
The free agent market is reasonably robust with forwards. Maybe Mark Stone or Matt Duchene would want to soak up the sun and give Florida a boost? Overextending for Panarin and especially Bobrovsky could be a rough value proposition.
Move someone else
The Panthers also have plenty of other pieces to work with.
They could still get at least something for Derick Brassard and/or Riley Sheahan. Jamie McGinn’s $3.33M is about to come off the books, so that can help even if it just makes a splashy free agent more affordable.
(According to Cap Friendly, the Panthers currently have about $58.5M devoted to 13 players; if the cap goes to $83M, that would give them about $24.5M.)
Thanks to the Nick Bjugstad and Alex Petrovic trades, the Panthers have picks in every round again, including three fourth-rounders. Those picks might not be appealing to the Blue Jackets in a potential Panarin trade, but if the Senators decide to move Stone and/or Duchene, suddenly Florida could be in that mix.
If trading Huberdeau is as much about clearing money as anything else, then there are much better ways to ease financial tensions. Perhaps the Panthers could bribe someone to absorb the full cost of Reimer’s contract, even if costs a pick or two?
Status quo isn’t so bad
Trying to add a big player makes a lot of sense for Florida, but blowing up what they have by recklessly giving up Huberdeau in a sell-low situation isn’t the best way to get better.
And don’t forget, Florida could be on the verge of adding some other nice pieces.
Henrik Borgstrom isn’t setting the NHL on fire, but he’s just 21, and many believe the big forward has serious potential. Many scouts are also excited about Owen Tippett, who’s about to turn 20 on Feb. 16.
The prospect of those prospects making bigger jumps might prompt some to say “OK, then, trade Huberdeau; they can replace him.” Instead, it should inspire the Panthers to take a more zen-like approach.
If you’re going to move any fully formed forward, you’d be better off moving Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, as both are only under contract through 2020-21. Yet, even in those cases, they’re both cost-effective, quality players.
Tallon should instead envision Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck, Hoffman, Dadonov, Borgstrom, Tippett, and a free agent giving the Panthers a mix of high-end skill and unusual-for-2019 depth.
Really, the Panthers’ biggest question might be: is Bob Boughner the right guy as head coach? Publicly speaking, Tallon at least seems to think so.
Tallon, on @SiriusXMNHL, said the coaching staff has done a good job and he looks forward to many years with Boughner.
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) February 4, 2019
In summary: Don’t move Hubey
Overall, it makes sense that the Panthers want to add Panarin and Bobrovsky, or other big pieces. This team is getting impatient, and maybe doesn’t believe that it’s an option to sit idly by.
People make mistakes when they’re desperate, though, and the concept of a Huberdeau trade carries that stink. This doesn’t mean that there’s no scenario where it can work out for Florida … the odds are just higher that things would pay off if they did something else.
Decades of history argue that the Panthers won’t get this right, but they could very well build something special if they do. Good luck, Dale Tallon.