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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.
36-32-14, 86 points (5th in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify
We can debate back and forth about the merit of a seven-year, $70 million deal all day. What you can’t argue is the fact that the Panthers have taken a massive step toward competing with the big boys in the Atlantic Division.
It makes yet another season of playoff-less hockey a little easier to stomach after how aggressive Dale Tallon has been. It’s had pretty much become a given that the Panthers wouldn’t make the playoffs over the past two decades. They’ve reached the postseason just twice in the past 18 years, an undesirable trend in a market that struggles to put butts in seats.
It’s tough to get anything done with inconsistent goaltending and lackluster team defense, two lowlights of Florida’s fifth-place showing the Atlantic last season.
Even with the ninth-best goals-per-game as a team, the Panthers couldn’t outscore their problems from the blue line backward. They collectively allowed the 28th most goals out of the league’s 31 teams.
Stralman coming in should help that, as should the system Quenneville installs along with Bob’s goaltending.
There’s also plenty of secondary scoring off the sticks of Evgenii Dadonov, Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano. All three could conceivably reach the same mark. Trocheck had 31 the year before but was limited to 55 games because of injury last season. Dadonov was two shy with 28 and Vatrano had 24. Brett Connolly, too — and if healthy — showed he can reach at least 20 after playing 81 games last season. He hadn’t played more than 71 in any of his previous seven seasons prior.
And Connolly, a Stanley Cup winner with the Washington Capitals two seasons ago, adds playoff experience, along with Stralman (two Stanley Cup Final appearances) and Acciari (one Cup Final appearance.)
The days of perennial losing in Florida might just be over.
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.
“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.
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?
Florida might be better off trying to find the next Robin Lehner, rather than risking Bobrovsky having a contract as scary as that of Carey Price or … well, their other two goalies.
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.
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.
Facing a three-point deficit in the Wild Card race entering Saturday the Florida Panthers are still clinging to their playoff chances. If they are going to complete this incredible late season run and earn one of those spots they are going to have to do it by getting through some of the toughest teams in the league.
Of their remaining six games, four of them come against two of the NHL’s top-three teams, the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators.
Florida began that run on Saturday afternoon when they visited the Bruins, and it did not go well in a 5-1 loss. The Panthers were able to get on the board first thanks to a Jamie McGinn goal just five minutes into the game. That would be the highpoint of the day for the Panthers as Boston stormed back for five consecutive goals, including a pair from Jake DeBrusk in his return to the lineup.
After Saturday, they still have two games remaining against Boston (with another one, the regular season finale, being in Boston) and one game at home against the Nashville Predators. In between all of that they have games against Buffalo and Carolina thrown in.
That is not going to be an easy run to navigate, especially with the Bruins still having something to play for. They entered Saturday just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference) and jumped back into first place with their win over the Panthers.
Here is where the standings in the Eastern Conference sit entering play on Saturday.
When it comes to the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff race, the second and third spots in the Metropolitan Division are still up for grabs with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets occupying those spots respectively. With the Panthers’ loss in regulation, the Pittsburgh Penguins can clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Montreal Canadiens in any fashion.
Columbus could also leapfrog the Penguins into the second spot with a win over Vancouver and a regulation loss by the Penguins.
The New Jersey Devils, currently the owners of the second Wild Card spot, are also in action on Saturday night when they host the New York Islanders. The Devils could move five points ahead of the Panthers in the race for the second Wild Card spot with a win.
[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]
Meanwhile in the Western Conference..
The Predators can clinch the Central Division with a win over the Buffalo Sabres and if the Winnipeg Jets lose in regulation to the Toronto Maple Leafs. If all of that happens and Vegas loses to San Jose the Predators would also secure the top spot in the Western Conference.
Speaking of that Sharks-Golden Knights game, it is a pretty big game for both of those teams as well. The Golden Knights can clinch the Pacific Division crown if they get at least one point against the San Jose Sharks. That game is also big for the Sharks because a win in any fashion will clinch a playoff spot.
When it comes to the Western Conference Wild Card race only one of those teams is in action on Saturday night when the St. Louis Blues, who just had their six game winning streak snapped on Friday night with an overtime loss in Vegas, will visit the Arizona Coyotes. By earning that point on Friday night the Blues were still able to maintain their hold on a Wild Card spot but find themselves tied in the standings with the Colorado Avalanche at 92 points. The Blues currently hold the playoff spot by way of a tiebreaker.
If you still think the Dallas Stars have a fighting chance, entering the day in 10th place, six points out of a playoff spot with only four games remaining, they are taking on the Minnesota Wild. But given the way things are going for them probably are all but eliminated.
Draft Lottery Watch
Big day at the bottom of the standings with Arizona, Buffalo, Ottawa, Vancouver, Detroit and Montreal all in action. The Red Wings and Senators game on Saturday afternoon takes on some importance if you are keeping up with the NHL’s tank battle as the two teams enter the day separated by just four points in the standings.
The Sabres seem to have the NHL’s worst record locked down at this point sitting five points behind the the next worst team, while the Canucks and Coyotes are still winning enough games to improve their spot in the standings and lower their lottery odds. The Canucks enter Saturday’s game against Columbus having won three in a row and four of their past five, while the Coyotes are 15-8-2 in their past 25 games.
If The Playoffs Started Today
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Anaheim Ducks
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Saturday’s Key Games
Boston Bruins 5, Florida Panthers 1
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Vancouver Canucks, 4 p.m. ET
Winnipeg Jets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
New York Islanders vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m ET
Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Buffalo Sabres vs. Nashville Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Minnesota Wild vs. Dallas Stars, 8 p.m. ET
St. Louis Blues vs. Arizona Coyotes, 9 p.m. ET
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 10:30 p.m. ET
If you’re not too familiar with the Panthers it might seem like a pretty significant investment (and to be fair, even if you are familiar with the Panthers it is a significant investment) but since the start of the 2016-17 season no player on the team has played more even-strength minutes than the 23-year-old Matheson.
He is clearly a player that the organization trusts and one that it sees as a long-term building block.
Now that he is locked in through the end of the 2025-26 season, let’s take a look at the long-term salary cap outlook for the Panthers.
Six of those players are age 25 or under. The only three that are not are Yandle, Reimer, and Luongo.
Together that group of nine players accounts for $47.3 million in salary cap space.
Most of them look like solid investments
While the Panthers have a significant chunk of their roster locked in for at least the next three or four years they don’t really have many deals that look like they will be a problem in the future.
The only two players on the team that carry a salary cap hit of more than $6 million per season are Ekblad ($7.5 million) and Yandle ($6.3 million).
They are also the only two players on the roster that crack the top-75 salary cap hits in the NHL.
Assuming Ekblad bounces back from what seemed to be a bit of a regression a season ago his contract could look like a steal. In the future. A young, top-pairing, all-situations defender that can play at the level Ekblad showed in his first two years in the league not only doesn’t come cheap, they usually end up costing more than what his $7.5 million cap hit is.
Yandle’s deal carries a bit of a risk simply because of his age. He is already 31 years old and signed for five more years after this one.
Up front Nick Bjugstad ($4.1 million per year through 2020-21) needs to stay healthy to get his career back on track, but Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck will only cost the Panthers $16.7 million per season for the next four years. All of them are legitimate 25-goal, 50-60 point players when healthy.
No more core players are in line for a new deal anytime soon
Because the Panthers were so aggressive in getting their young players signed, and because they have so many young players on their roster, they have a ton of cost certainty over the next few years. The only players that will be unrestricted free agents after this season are Radim Vrbata and Colton Sceviour, while the only restricted free agents are Jared McCann, Connor Brickley, Alex Petrovic and MacKenzie Weegar.
Giving Matheson an eight-year deal could be understandable if it meant huge savings. Handing him almost $5M would be reasonable if you instead wanted a bridge deal to see if he’s really worth that money. The Panthers giving Matheson both is where things get hairy, and many reactions boil down to Matheson being good, but the contract being bad.
I like Matheson, in fact I wanted the Leafs to pry him out of FLA but that contract is…..its not good
Now, it’s better to overpay a talented player than it is to say, give precious cap space to a more limited defenseman like the Panthers once did with late-stage Ed Jovanovski.
It’s one thing to lock up a player early in a contract year when that person is a huge part of your marketing plan and could very well cost you a ton of money a year later. There’s a reason why teams like the Buffalo Sabres are proactive with the likes of Jack Eichel.
Even as a prominent member of the Panthers’ defense, it’s a bit baffling to imagine that they wouldn’t want a bigger sample size before handing Matheson almost $5M per year. This is a guy coming off of a 17-point season. Would a strong 2017-18 season really hurt that Panthers that much in the wallet?
Matheson's a fine enough top-four guy but I'm not convinced there's upside and I can't explain the urge to lock him up until 2026. pic.twitter.com/qtsmJqZyMc
Now Matheson is opened up to potentially painful comparisons. Look at the Anaheim Ducks, who have one proactive deal that looks better (Josh Manson) and one strenuous RFA situation that fell very nicely for them (Hampus Lindholm).
The Panthers have already seen a promising defenseman struggle under the weight of a lofty new extension.
It’s plausible that Aaron Ekblad will get things back together, and a star defenseman is often worth the $7.5M he’s receiving – and then some. Still, at the moment, people feel a lot worse about Ekblad’s deal than they did before, and that was a more agreeable decision in the moment.
Between Ekblad, Matheson, and Keith Yandle, the Panthers will devote $18.725M to three blueliners beginning in 2018-19.
Overall, it’s tough not to criticize this process, even if there are still some things to like about Florida’s roster, and that includes Matheson. Did they really need to cut ties with Jaromir Jagr, Jason Demers, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault so rapidly? Did this Matheson deal need to get done right away? It also feels a little slap-dash.