If you could say nothing else about the 2016-17 Florida Panthers, you could likely say they were a disappointment.
A year after a playoff berth, things were looking up for the boys in red. Many even picked the so-called “Fancy Cats” (due to their heavy reliance on analytics) to be dark horse Eastern Conference, and in some cases, Stanley Cup Champions.
With 25 games left in their season, the Panthers posted this online, feeling a little cocky:
Report: The Panthers are actually good. pic.twitter.com/fn1tVEuxR1— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) February 19, 2017
They then picked up 17 points over the final stretch of the season, missing the playoffs badly. So here we are.
From an outsider’s view point, that was the second best moment of their season, topped only by this, which occurred after the Gerard Gallant firing.
What a bizarre scene outside PNC Arena tonight. An NHL head coach, garment bag in hand, waiting on cab while his team is headed to airport.— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) November 28, 2016
Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Alex Barkov, and Keith Yandle form the “core four” of Florida’s future, and present, for that matter. It’s not the best core in the league, but there’s nothing inherently concerning about it. Huberdeau was hurt for most of the season as he played in just 31 games, while Barkov was only able to play in 61. Vincent Trocheck emerged as the team’s top scorer this season with 54 points. No slight on him as a player, but I can’t see too many teams with him as their top scorer making the playoffs.
Looking at Ekblad’s HERO chart, he’s already quickly showing himself as one of the league’s top defenders. The biggest issue for him might be his concussion history, but there’s really nothing you can do about that other than pray and hope and be safe and smart about it.
Yandle is on the wrong side of 30 and might be signed for a few years too many, but has been a top defender in the league for a while. Maybe he’s out of the top-10 these days, but is still a consistent enough contributor who’s yet to hit the proverbial wall.
I won’t go into everyone, but the Panthers have some solid pieces up and down the lineup. Jaromir Jagr outscored his age by one as he put up 46 points in his age 45 season. Jonathan Marchessault led the team with 31 goals after being cast off by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Thomas Vanek put up 10 points in 20 games after a trade deadline acquisition, but you can’t really expect him to be back.
Reilly Smith had a down year with just 37 points in 80 games. Call him an X-factor for next season. If he has a good year, it could be a key influencer in the team making the postseason.
Florida does face some issues on the blueline, as they average 31.3 shots against/60 minutes at 5v5 this year, the 26th best rate in the league. However, as none of their defencemen who played over 40 games had a CF% below 49, it’s hard to really single out where the problem lies. They’re an average blueline as a unit with a good top pairing, who likely had a bad year. If there’s an upgrade there, you make it, but there’s no one who clearly needs to be shipped out of town.
Even though it was an ugly collapse, I honestly don’t think we should read too far into the team’s poor performance this year.
Conclusion: The Panthers have some very skilled offensive players, high-end goaltending, and serviceable but not great defence. If they’re going to be a contender, definite changes need to be made. That being said, they’re closer to being competitive than this season’s record indicated. Injuries and a late collapse decimated their season, but they don’t need to make massive changes to find themselves back amongst the league’s top 16.
The Panthers have basically decided the four players they want to run their franchise over the next half-dozen years or so. Barring any trades, the aforementioned “core four” will be the so-called leadership group in South Beach, or Miami, or Sunrise or wherever the heck this team actually plays.
So they’ve got those guys on lock. It’s hard to say if they’re good or bad deals so early in each of their contracts, but clearly the Panthers management group has put a lot of trust into four players who have each proven themselves as strong impact players. Then again, if Huberdeau and Barkov can elevate their play to the 70-80 point range, $5.9 million for each of them could easily be a steal.
Reilly Smith, as already mentioned, needs to do a little bit more to earn his $5 million per year until 2022. If it’s just a down year, he should be fine, but if it’s a longer term trend, it won’t exactly be great value.
24-year old Michael Sgarbossa is their only RFA forward. He scored seven points in 29 games this year. Future (AHL) all-star?
All in all, they’ve got ten forwards under contract, and signs point to them re-signing Jagr. Which means he could just as easily go sign in Vegas. Who knows with that guy? Thomas Vanek is also a UFA.
On defence, they’ve got two RFAs in Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk. Neither will be a huge contract, and likely not too long on term, either. 30-year old Jakub Kindl is set to hit the UFA market, and while he could come back for another year, they probably could do with giving someone else a shot.
Roberto Luongo is still under contract until 2022, while James Reimer is under contract until 2021. There is a possibility either goes in the expansion draft, but the longevity of their deals probably scares away possible suitors.
They’ve got a bunch of minor league deals expiring as well, which you can go dig into if you want over at nhlnumbers.com if you want to stress about nothing.
Conclusion: The Panthers have a stable cap situation. There’s no key re-signings this June, they’ve got two (good) goalies signed as well as their four main stars, and have just enough money to re-tool a bit this offseason. They were able to rid themselves of a bad contract in David Bolland, but they’ve basically got no margin for error with their top two defensive pairings. If either falters to far below market value, things could get ugly fast.
Offseason Game Plan
Number one: Re-sign Jagr until he can’t play stand up. It’s no secret that he wants to play for a long time, and is probably cool with coming back.
The next step is to make sure there’s six competent defenders, but they’ll be looking for options likely in their bottom rather than their top three.
They have $12 million to spend on about 4-5 roster spots, depending on if they decide to call up a player. Florida isn’t exactly jam-packed with studs as they’ve been out of the top-5 of the draft for a few years now, but Jared McCann should be a nice supplementary piece. Maybe he’ll be a full-timer in the NHL next year?
If they wanna be bold, maybe they make a free agency splash and try to fill the team with a few players on cheaper entry-level deals?
Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the team’s farm system, but there’s no real standout names in the pipeline. With a 21st place AHL team, their development cupboards could be restocked and while it’s a cliche, this should be a very important draft for them. Backed by former Canucks Army analytics focus as some of their key prospect specialists, it’s always interesting to see what kind of hidden gems they might dig up.
Conclusion: Florida could be a good bet for a return to the playoffs if things go their way next season. They’ll have a little bit of flexibility to be creative and have their core pieces signed, so there’s no reason why they can’t splurge a little bit for a short-term push.