Free agency is now less than a month away and many teams are already looking ahead to when it opens up. There will be several prominent players set to hit the open market in mid-July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. Next up is a look at the Panthers.
Key Restricted Free Agents:
F Eetu Luostarinen – Acquired in the trade that sent Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes, Luostarinen established himself as a quality option for the Panthers this year, scoring nine goals along with 17 assists over 78 games. This season was the 23-year-old’s third in the NHL, but only his first full season, playing 44 games in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign, in addition to eight the year prior for Carolina. Now an RFA at the conclusion of his ELC, Luostarinen may not see much of a raise over his previous salary. However, with the Panthers in a difficult position relative to the salary cap, and his solid contributions last season, he may find himself in a somewhat elevated role with increased ice time and responsibility which could, if he can continue to build on his game, go a long way to his next contract.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents:
F Claude Giroux – One of the most sought after players at the 2021 trade deadline, Giroux is now one of the most prized free agents in the 2021 class. The Philadelphia Flyers legend was dealt to the Panthers at the trade deadline where he immediately clicked with an already stellar Florida offense, producing 23 points in 18 regular season games and another eight in 10 playoff games. Giroux will have his pick of teams this summer, and should have the freedom to choose his destination based on his priority. At age 34, having just finished an eight-year, $66.2MM contract that carried an AAV of $8.275MM, Giroux won’t again see that amount of term, but a contract with a salary close to his previous may not be out of reach. The issue for Giroux, specifically in the flat cap era, will be balancing whether or not he wants to maximize the financial commitment on this contract or go to a particular situation, perhaps a team with a real chance to win a Stanley Cup. If he wants to stay with the Panthers, who figure to be one of those teams with a real chance to win the Cup, not only will Giroux have to take a pronounced discount, but the organization itself may need to conduct some roster-reconstruction to make it happen.
F Mason Marchment – Amongst the most interesting breakout players in the NHL this year was Mason Marchment, a longtime member of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization who was dealt to Florida in February of 2020 for Denis Malgin. A large, imposing, physical forward, Marchment was never a major offensive weapon until this season, where he put up 18 goals and 29 assists in just 54 games, all career-highs by a wide margin. At age 27, Marchment hits unrestricted free agency coming off not only his best NHL season to date, but arguably his best season since he debuted in the OHL in 2014-15 with the Erie Otters. Given his recent and somewhat unprecedented breakout, Marchment may have trouble finding a long-term, big-money contract on the free agent market, but his blend of physical play with offensive production should provide him with plenty of options. Though Florida will have to make some tough financial decisions, a reunion with Marchment at a lower price may make sense, giving the forward another season in the middle of a dynamic offense to show that his impressive 2021-22 was his standard, and not a fluke.
F Joe Thornton – The future Hall of Famer turns 43 on July 2nd and despite battling injuries this season has not ruled out another year in the NHL. Thornton has seemingly had several different NHL careers, most recently playing the role of a bottom-six veteran willing to do what’s asked of him. Still without a Stanley Cup, Thornton signed with the Panthers prior to the 2021-22 season in the hopes of winning his first Cup, but fell short when Florida lost in four games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. Despite decreased production the past few seasons, Thornton has played well in his role and could very well join a competitive team, including Florida, on a league minimum salary, bringing valuable intangibles to the team’s dressing room.
D Ben Chiarot – Similar to Giroux, Chiarot found himself as one of the most sought after targets at this year’s trade deadline as a reliable shutdown defenseman. Also like Giroux, Chiarot found himself traded to Florida at the deadline with a first-round draft pick going the other way. At the conclusion of the three-year, $10.5MM contract that brought him to Montreal, the 31-year-old Chiarot probably won’t find the same salary Giroux is about to on the open market, but his play for the Canadiens and Panthers, which includes 42 playoff games, should earn him at least a similar deal from a team looking for a solid and sturdy left-handed defenseman.
Projected Cap Space:
According to CapFriendly, the Panthers enter this offseason with $3.074MM in projected salary cap space. The flat salary cap has put a number of NHL teams in a bind, meaning Florida is not alone and the limited space is understandable, however that does not make the number any easier to work with. This figure may be enough to bring back one or two of the players discussed, but won’t be enough to retain a marquee player like Giroux. Even aside from those players, Florida is likely faced with losing at least a couple of Acciari, Mamin, Hagg, Lindbohm, Nutivaara and Priskie, all of whom would have been expected to take on some of the responsibilities of those the team may already lose.
There are several options to create additional cap space, including a potential trade of Patric Hornqvist, who will be an UFA after 2022-23 and carries a cap hit of $5.3MM. Florida could also explore the trade market for former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, but it may require them to retain as much as half of Bobrovsky’s $10MM salary over each of the next four seasons, not to mention necessitating a replacement to back-up 21-year-old Spencer Knight, who has just 36 NHL games under his belt.