The Florida Panthers were expected to do far better this past season than they ultimately did. Not unlike their Floridian rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, many were looking to this franchise to dominate a week Atlantic division. Looking back on a season with a coaching change, losing streaks, an lots of turmoil, how does the team recover and adjust their roster going forward?
Florida’s offensive core as of this moment consists of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck, with Nick Bjugstad, Reilly Smith, and the surprising Jonathan Marchessault feeling content in their roles. Their defensive core is essentially just Aaron Ekblad, with a decent if unremarkable group surrounding him. Keith Yandle has looked adequate but nowhere near worth his $6.35 MM contract, locked in until 2023. Unfortunately, that contract looks like an albatross that is there to stay. Jason Demers was solid if unremarkable, and the group as a whole struggled with consistency. With Thomas Vanek likely to look for a payday elsewhere, a declining Jaromir Jagr, and a brutal internal cap, it bodes questioning whether Florida will be able to compete for a playoff spot next season. Their youngsters performed above offensive expectations, with the notable exception of Huberdeau. Barkov, Trocheck, and Marchessault all broke 50 points. Yet the team still finished 14 points out of the playoffs, giving up .46 more goals than they scored in an average 60 minute game.
Florida needs to spend a moderate amount of money to acquire solid 3rd-line point producers. Minor league callups can fill the gaps on the fourth line to an extent, but rolling with only two viable offensive forward groups is a recipe for disaster in today’s NHL. They absolutely need a game-changer up front to provide run support for the young core. They might also look to bolster their D. Here are some potential targets the Panthers should consider for 2017-18, instead of spending precious dollars on the fading Jagr:
F – Ilya Kovalchuk – UFA/KHL
As mentioned by colleague Holger Stolzenberg, Ilya Kovalchuk is a definite possibility for Florida. They have the cap space to accomodate the sort of money he will be looking for, and they have a talented young group that could easily compete for a playoff run given the right moves. There are few players more dynamic with the puck on their stick than Kovalchuk. His savvy and remarkably consistent point production would be tailor made for the Panthers team in need of a true #1 threat as Barkov continues to progress. Jagr is that no longer, but replacing his insight and experience would be difficult to do. Kovalchuk hits all the checks in terms of need for Florida, and would help launch them back into the playoff conversation single-handedly.
D – Dmitry Kulikov – UFA
Kulikov had an absolutely awful season for the Buffalo Sabres, but he would be a very cheap reclamation project for his old stomping ground. He didn’t exit the Panthers with a good performance, either, posting only 17 points in 2015-16 and a terrible 46.8 Corsi For Percentage. Kulikov had one year remaining with the Sabres at $4.3 MMl, and posted a 5 points and a -26 through 47 games. And yet, he was part of the group that propelled the team into the post-season and a Game 7 that could’ve gone either way. He’s a smooth skating 26 year-old defenseman who moves the puck with a decent offensive hockey IQ. He makes mistakes in his own zone, but he pushed the pace of the game in a way that is difficult to replace. His contract would be dirt-cheap and there is always the possibility he finds his groove back in the Sunshine State.
F – Matt Duchene – Colorado Avalanche
Matt Duchene is another talented player who had a truly down year. Duchene was rumored to be moved for months, but come deadline, GM Joe Sakic didn’t find the pieces he was looking for. In Florida, there is a definite fit if the Panthers are willing to take the risk. They have the defensive pieces the Avalanche would want in return, and Duchene would provide another dynamic offensive force to a struggling offense. Sakic is almost certain to pull the trigger eventually, so the Panthers GM will simply need to be persistent. Duchene can set up plays with the best of them when he is on his game. His speed and infectious energy would also fit in well with the group of youngsters down south.
F – Justin WIlliams – UFA
WIlliams is almost certain to be a top commodity in a weak UFA class. However, his wealth of playoff experience would come in quite handy for this team and hasn’t showed signs of slowing down. He would add an element of grit to the lineup, as well, rounding out their offense. He would be a wonderful mentor for the likes of Barkov, Trochec, and oothers. He can slot up and down the roster and is practically a lock to score at least 20 goals as a 35 year-old. If the Panthers find their way into the first round, a player of his mold would be certainly welcome in close contests. The main obstacle to this getting done is of course the price, which may prove too steep for a team in rebuild, low-cost mode. He also could want term at this stage of his playing career, and that could be a risky proposal if longer than 2 or 3 years.