Over the next few weeks we will be breaking down each team’s situation as it pertains to the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. Which players are eligible, and which will likely warrant protection or may be on the block. Each team is required to submit their protection lists by 4pm CDT on June 17th. The full rules on eligibility can be found here, and CapFriendly has provided a handy expansion tool to make your own lists.
After cracking 100 points and winning the Atlantic Division in 2015-16, injuries and overall under-performance sent the Panthers tumbling back to Earth in 2016-17. Florida finished with over 20 points less, at 81, good enough for sixth in the division and a top-ten draft slot. Yet, hopes remain high in Sunrise, FL as the Panthers are still a team built around young stars that has just begun to reach its potential. With Huberdeau, Trochek, Barkov, Bjugstad, Ekblad, and Matheson forming a core group under 25 with top prospects like forwards Henrik Borgstrom and Adam Mascherin and goalie Sam Montembeault still on the way, Florida only has to worry about adding complementary pieces to a talented young group.
Yet, the shadow of the Expansion Draft still looms large over the Panthers. With so many good, young players under contract, the expansion process will not be easy for the Cats. They may be able to protect their best young players, but they are nearly guaranteed to lose a solid complementary veteran.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad, Jussi Jokinen, Derek MacKenzie, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault, Steven Hodges, Michael Sgarbossa, Graham Black
The Panthers don’t have an easy decision to make at any position group. They face the risk of losing a prominent forward, defenseman, or goalie if they don’t read the Vegas Golden Knights correctly. Perhaps the biggest name who may be left unprotected in net: potential future Hall of Fame goalie Roberto Luongo. Many were surprised when the Panthers brought back Luongo, and with him the remainder of a 12-year, $64MM contract, in 2014. Even more were surprised when, nonetheless, Florida signed James Reimer to a five-year, $17MM contract on July 1st of last year. That move seems like it has partly been leading up to this point. While Luongo and Reimer each started 39 games in 2016-17 with very similar records, Reimer had the edge on Luongo in performance statistics. While this was their first season sharing the net, it is now the second season in a row in which Reimer has outplayed Luongo. It seems very unlikely that Florida will choose to protect the 38-year-old Luongo, who is under contract at $5.33MM per year until the age of 43, over the 29-year-old Reimer, with a more reasonable $3.4MM cap hit over that same span of time. Luongo will thus likely be one of the biggest names under contract and available to Vegas, but don’t expect a new team to take on that contract. Should they expose Reimer instead, the chances are much higher that the Knights will select a Panther goalie, but chances are both keepers are back in Florida next year regardless.
Among the forward corps, there is a lot to sort out. To get the easy ones out of the way, young scorers Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad are almost surely safe. Assuming the Panthers go with the 7/3 scheme, that leaves them with three forwards left to protect. If they do go 8-skaters, then those four would represent all the protected forwards. After a breakout campaign in which he led the Panthers with 30 goals, 26-year-old Jonathan Marchessault is also highly likely to be protected. This leaves just two spots left for four valuable veteran forwards: Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Colton Sceviour, and captain Derek MacKenzie. Luckily for the Panthers, all four meet the qualifications (having played 70 games over the last two seasons or 40 games last season and be under contract) to meet the two-forward quota, so whoever the GM Dale Tallon wants he can have without having to consider other expansion criteria. With the free agent status of Jaromir Jagr up in the air, the leadership value of Jokinen and MacKenzie must be considered by a young Florida team. However, MacKenzie has not scored more than 20 points in a season since 2010-11 and is likely not of interest to Vegas and can be left unprotected. So who of Jokinen, Smith, and Sceviour will join him in the Draft? The 25-year-old Smith has the best chance to be the best producer for the longest amount of time in Florida. This also could be a way for the Panthers to dump the five-year, $25MM extension they signed him to last summer before it even begins. As he did with the Boston Bruins, Smith had a great first season with Florida in 2015-16, but just as he did in Boston, Smith fell off significantly in year two. The Panthers will have to re-sign Bjugstad and Marchessault and give non-entry level deals to Denis Malgin, Jared McCann, and others before that contract expires. Can they afford the weight of a $5MM annual cap hit for an average player? If Smith has scared them off, expect them to expose him and hope Vegas takes the risk. If not, it comes down to Jokinen and Sceviour. Again, the 33-year-old Jokinen has the leadership and experience and is just one year removed from a 60-point season. Sceviour can’t boast that kind of career production, but at $950K to Jokinen’s $4MM and Smith’s $5MM, he gets the Panthers more bang for their buck.
Defense is the real nightmare for Florida. Keith Yandle’s No-Movement Clause makes him automatically protected, though he would be protected regardless after signing a seven-year deal last year that began with a nice 41-point season. Aaron Ekblad is also as close to a sure thing as their is in the Expansion Draft as far as protection. The 2015 Calder Trophy-winner struggled a bit last season, but is still a top pair defenseman at just 21 years old. That leaves defensive spot left in the 7/3 scheme and three stalwart defeseman to choose from: Jason Demers, Alex Petrovic, and Mark Pysyk. Unfortunately, unless circumstance change, Demers is out of the equation. With Yandle and Ekblad protected and Petrovic and Pysyk as restricted free agents, Demers is the only defenseman on the roster who can meet the 70-40 quota. It is possible for Florida to re-sign and expose Petrovic, Pysyk, or impending unrestricted free agent Jakub Kindl and then protect Demers, but their hesitation to do so yet seems to imply that they won’t be. Thus, Demers will be exposed and stands a very high chance of playing in Vegas next season. As for Petrovic verus Pysyk, both are similar in age and have great ability, but little to show for it on the score sheet early in their careers. The Panthers brass know best which 25-year-old fits best on the team, and likely both will remain in Florida, but don’t be surprised if they give the homegrown talent Petrovic the nod.
Projected Protection List
Every team has a few risks that they must take in the Expansion Draft. As extraordinarily unlikely as it is, losing Luongo would be a blow and would cause the Panthers to have to change their off-season priorities to focus on helping Reimer in net. Smith being selected could come back to bite them if his $25MM deal pays off in Vegas. Being stripped of their captain would be rough on the locker room and they will likely hold out hope that there is no interest in MacKenzie. Having Pysyk taken from them after he was the centerpiece of last summer’s Dmitry Kulikov trade would feel like a waste.
So what sets Florida apart? Exposing Demers barely qualifies as a risk. The 28-year-old was one of the prizes of free agency last summer and just finished the first season of a relatively affordable five-year, $22.5MM deal. He scored 28 points this season, the second best campaign of his career and a level of production closer to that of his time back with the San Jose Sharks. He also has seen a steady climb in shooting percentage as the years have gone on and could easily break double digits next season, regardless of where he plays. However, the best thing about Demers for the Golden Knights is that he is a safe pick. He can lead their defense, can easily play 20+ minutes per night, can hit and block shots, and is signed long-term, meaning he can become a franchise player and potentially the team’s first captain. Unless the Panthers go 8-skaters or extend a current qualifying defenseman to then protect Demers, they face a real risk of losing a very solid player for nothing after just one year.