Entering the final stretch remaining in the 2018-19 NHL regular-season schedule, the Florida Panthers face long odds of securing a playoff berth. With 72 points in 69 games played, the Panthers sit seven points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
After coming within one point of a playoff berth in 2017-18, the Panthers entered this season considered a serious playoff contender. Their disappointing performance is generating the expectation they’ll be active in the free agent market.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has already signaled his intention to make some bold moves this summer. Following the recent NHL trade deadline, he told The Athletic’s George Richards he had freed up some money for free agency. “We are going to be very aggressive after the season. We have lots of (cap) room and a lot of picks,” Tallon said. “We will turn this into a positive thing.”
Cap Friendly indicates the Panthers currently have just over $61 million invested in 14 players for 2019-20, with all of their core players signed through next season. Assuming the salary cap reached $83 million as projected, Tallon will have over $22 million to work with, provided ownership has given him the green light to spend to the cap.
On Feb. 1, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported on the Panthers’ interest in Panarin and Bobrovsky. He suspected Tallon might prefer waiting until the offseason when he wouldn’t have to give up assets (players, prospects, draft picks) to land either guy.
Panarin and Bobrovsky might be open to signing with Florida this summer. The Panthers have a good young roster that’s on the rise, the climate is warm year-round and there’s no state tax.
Signing them, however, will be expensive, costing perhaps a combined $20 million per season. The Panthers could end up landing just one of them, or perhaps both decide to sign elsewhere.
If Tallon strikes out with Panarin, there are a handful of good forward alternatives worth considering.
Buffalo Sabres left winger Jeff Skinner could reach 40 goals and 65 points this season, which would be career highs in both categories. Given his strong chemistry with center Jack Eichel, the Sabres will attempt to re-sign him, though it could cost over $9 million per season to do so. If he’s available by July 1, however, Tallon could be among his suitors.
Blue Jackets center Matt Duchene could be enticing. The 28-year-old can also play left wing and could match his career-high in points (70) this season. Coming off a five-year, $30-million contract, he could seek around $8-million annually but would be more affordable than Panarin or Skinner.
San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski has reached the 60-point plateau for the eighth time in nine seasons. Like Skinner, he’s also closing in on 40 goals. However, he turns 35 in July and is likely to re-sign with the Sharks, who have a habit of retaining their veteran core players.
If those forwards aren’t available there could be several affordable depth options worth considering. They include Anders Lee and Brock Nelson of the New York Islanders, San Jose’s Gustav Nyquist, Dallas’s Mats Zuccarello, and Winnipeg’s Kevin Hayes.
Lehner has the best stats of the bunch this season, sporting a 2.19 goals-against average. a .927 save percentage, and four shutouts. He’s also completing an inexpensive one-year, $1.5-million contract. Because the Isles took a chance on Lehner after he sought treatment for addictions last summer, he could be amenable to staying on Long Island.
The Wings reportedly hope to re-sign the 35-year-old Howard, who’s expressed a willingness to remain in Detroit. Still, if they can’t get something worked out, he might be a viable short-term goalie option for the Panthers.
Varlamov and Smith are well-established starters. Both, however, also have lengthy injury histories. Considering how often Panthers veteran netminder Roberto Luongo has been sidelined in recent years, Tallon could prefer landing a more durable goalie.