Free agency opens exactly three weeks from today and teams are well on their way to evaluating both their own impending free agents and those likely to reach the open market. There are quite a few prominent players expected to be available as unrestricted free agents, while many key restricted free agents will be looking to sign new contracts with their current squads. Here is a breakdown of the Florida Panthers’ free agent situation.
Key Restricted Free Agents: C Jared McCann – At age 22 and heading into his fourth NHL season, McCann is still a very raw talent. The 2014 first-round pick often thinks the game faster than he plays it and is prone to mistakes. He plays little special teams role for the Panthers and struggles with many of the defensive aspects of the game at the pro level. McCann is also well below average at the face-off dot. With all that said, his offensive upside is still tremendous. McCann set a career-high with 28 points in 68 games this year and for the first time was a plus player in the league. He has great vision, a strong skating game, and a good shot. When he is on his game he can be dominant; when he is off of it, it’s easy to see why the Vancouver Canucks didn’t hesitate to trade him late into his rookie year. McCann needs to find some consistency and pace to his game and he will flourish, but that still may take some time.
So how should Florida handle that contractually? McCann will understandably want a considerable raise from his entry-level contract, but he also has a fair amount of developmental concerns that he continues to deal with. McCann very well could turn out to be a long-term star for the Panthers, but this situation seems far more likely to warrant a short-term bridge deal for “show me” money. McCann needs to display far more of his impressive offensive ability and far fewer mental lapses and disappearing acts if he wants to command greater salary and term.
LW Frank Vatrano – It’s never an easy situation to sort out when a restricted free agent is acquired mid-season. Florida could not have asked for a better start from Vatrano, who came over from the Bruins at the trade deadline after falling out of favor in Boston. After putting up just two points in 25 games with the Bruins, Vatrano posted eight points in the final 16 games with the Panthers and seemed to fit in well in the team’s top six. Vatrano showed in his first pro season that he has a ton of scoring talent: the undrafted UMass product was the goal-scoring champ of the AHL with 36 goals in 36 games, put up another eight goals in 39 games in Boston, and even recorded eight points in ten games with Team USA at the World Championships. However, Vatrano lacks much depth to his game outside of having a knack for finding the back of the net. Injury and inconsistency over the past two years with the Bruins limited his scoring chances and exposed his lack of an all-around game. When playing with Florida’s finest, his scoring ability came back and those flaws faded into the background. However, Florida is now being asked to evaluate him on just those 16 games.
Like McCann, Vatrano has not earned a long-term deal. The Panthers hope that they get the player they saw down the stretch and gave up a third-round pick to acquire, but there is also the risk he will revert to the mistake-prone, one-track-mind player he was in Boston in recent seasons. Vatrano could be an important piece for Florida moving forward but he could also have a ceiling as an elite AHLer and nothing more. Only time will tell, but because of that risk, expect Vatrano to earn a relatively cheap, one-year deal (even if it has to come through arbitration).
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: None. Congratulations to Florida on entering free agency with literally nothing to lose. The team has five impending free agents and one, veteran winger Radim Vrbata, has already announced his retirement. The other four played little role in the successes or failures of the Panthers in 2017-18 and would be unlikely to make much of an impact if they were to be re-signed. Connor Brickley is the most notable name, as he recorded 12 points in 44 games on the team’s fourth line. However, Brickley spent no additional time in the AHL, simply watching from the press box for the much of the season. The 26-year-old forward was a 2010 second-round pick, but seems to have developed into a checking winger with limited offensive upside, the exact type of player that is easy to replace. The loss of fellow 26-year-old forwards Chase Balisy (8 games) and Alexandre Grenier (0 games) would mean even less. Third-string goalie Harri Sateri, 28, returned from Europe to play for the Panthers this year and performed well enough in nine appearances, but with two high-end veteran goalies in the mix, Florida hardly needs to stress over their AHL starter. Young Sam Montembeault will likely be just fine if Sateri is not re-signed.
Projected Cap Space: The trade-off of having no unrestricted free agents to worry about is that you don’t have much salary coming off the books either. When you have your top five forwards, your top four defenseman, and two starting-caliber goalies locked up long-term, things can get expensive. The Florida Panthers got off to a slow start last season and narrowly missed the playoffs, but don’t be fooled: this is a solid team without a ton of holes and their cap situation reflects that. The cap ceiling is expected to rise this off-season to somewhere between $78-$82MM. At the midpoint of $80MM, the Cats will have around $14MM in space to work with. While that is a decent amount, it still puts the team in the bottom third of the league in terms of flexibility.
Assume that McCann gets a substantial pay increase and Vatrano and potentially one or both of Petrovic and Weegar get a fair amount in their new contracts, and the Panthers will likely be operating the free agency market with around $8-$9MM or so in space. Is that enough to add the top-six forward that they desperately want and need? Probably, but they would strapped for cap space after that. Expect Florida to be players on the trade market this summer as a result.