2021 NHL Free Agency, Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair, Florida Panthers, Free Agents, Sam Bennett

Panthers Need to Clear Some Cap Space This Offseason

After a disappointing end to their season at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, general manager Bill Zito goes into another offseason full of plans and options. In his first season, he got this team on the right track by bringing in players with playoff experience, toughness, and goal-scoring touch. But he needs to find a way to hang on to his guys and bring fresh blood to perfect his lineup. The way he can achieve this goal is by shedding some salaries.

Find a Way to Get Yandle, Bobrovsky and Stralman Off the Books

Defenseman Keith Yandle, who was signed in 2016 by general manager Tom Rowe, brings in points and elite power-play movement. However, throughout his time in Sunrise, he’s been a defensive liability both in the regular season and postseason. This past season, he had a minus-8 rating through 56 games. In this playoffs, he had a minus-2 rating and was scratched for three of Florida’s six games during the series. Even at the beginning of the season, there were rumors of his regular-season iron man streak possibly ending. So it’s obvious they plan to phase him out at some point.

He currently carries a $6.35 million cap hit for the next three seasons. However, his contract carries a full no-movement clause (NMC). If they can at least get him to waive it, they can not only look to move him but use his protection on someone else for the upcoming Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

Keith Yandle Florida Panthers
Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Current starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, signed in 2019 by former general manager Dale Tallon, was brought in as goaltending leverage due to the departure of James Reimer and the retirement of Roberto Luongo. He became the second-highest-paid goaltender in the NHL behind Carey Price at $10 million a year when he was signed.

Unfortunately, Bobrovsky just has not played to the potential of a two-time Vezina Trophy winner like he was in the past. Through 81 games with the Panthers, he’s honed a record of 42-27-8 with a .902 save percentage (SV%) and a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.10. In these past playoffs, he was even more horrendous, going 1-2-0 with a .841 SV% and a whopping 5.31 GAA. Much like the case with Yandle, the biggest thing is getting his NMC on his contract moved. If they can do that, the possibilities are endless for what can be done in free agency. With the rise of Spencer Knight and Bobrovsky being outplayed by his teammate Chris Driedger, this move is not entirely farfetched.

Related: Panthers’ Bobrovsky Experiment Has Gone Terribly Wrong

Defenseman Anton Stralman, also signed back in 2019 by Tallon, was brought in to bring experience and leadership to the young defensive core. However, in his first two seasons with Florida, it was clear he was a shell of his former self. Last season, he finished his season with a minus-6 rating. This past regular season, he finished with a minus-1 rating, was sent down to the taxi squad, and scratched multiple times this season. He would see postseason play this season, where his game would improve slightly. However, it would not be enough to make an impact as he finished his playoff season with no points and a minus-1 rating.

Stralman’s contract currently carries an annual average of $5.5 million a year that runs into the end of next season. With him being 34 and at the backend of his career, it’s more than likely his contract will be bought out. However, Zito could send a package deal to a team to get some draft picks in return. Either way, his contract must come off the books in some way this upcoming offseason if he wants to re-sign core players or make a splash in free agency.

Get Barkov Extended

The captain, Aleksander Barkov, has continued to impress the NHL as a yearly Selke candidate. This year was no different as he led the team in goals with 26 and was second on the team in points with 58 through 50 games in the regular season. In the playoffs, he finished second on the team in points with seven (a goal and six assists) through six games. It’s obvious though that he would love to get another crack at it in the future.

“I can say we learned a lot from Tampa,” Barkov said. “They won the Cup last year, they know how to do it, they have a good team. We learned from them how to win those games. The way they played, the way they kept winning games, you’ve got to learn from those teams and put that in your own game and do that the next time you’re in the playoffs. But getting in the playoffs is really hard and we did that. Playoffs are a different world, and we got a lot of experience from that, lots of learning from that, so we’ll get some rest and get back at it even stronger next year.”

-Aleksander Barkov

However, next season will be the last season on his current deal. As of now, he currently makes $5.9 million per season. Barkov has become one of the faces of this franchise, and Zito should be willing to open the checkbook and pay him whatever he wants. Either way, it’s clear he wants to stay here, and both sides want to come together in the hopes of future success.

Bring in a New Veteran Defenseman

The defense is solid with a nucleus of defensemen like Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Montour, and Radko Gudas. However, the third pairing has typically been a turnstile of players for this Panthers team as they’ve played Stralman, Yandle, Brady Keeper, Kevin Connauton, Markus Nutivaara, and Matt Kiersted throughout the 56-game regular season and six-game playoff series. In addition, there have been nights where they’ve dressed seven defensemen, including postseason play.

Related: Panthers Need to Trade for Seth Jones

If Zito manages to clear enough cap space this upcoming offseason, he should look into bringing in a veteran defenseman to solidify that third pairing. Additionally, it is unknown if Montour or Forsling will be back in Panther uniforms, so bringing in a guy during free agency could replace that small void. Furthermore, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones just recently announced he does not play to re-sign. Could a potential reunion with Zito be in the works?

Get Bennett, Duclair, and Forsling New Contracts

Since being acquired at the trade deadline, forward Sam Bennett has been nothing short of incredible for this Panthers squad. Through his first 10 regular-season games as a Panther, he tallied up 15 points (six goals, nine assists), which passed the legendary “Russian Rocket” Pavel Bure for the most points through their first 10 games with the Panthers. In the playoffs, he put up points for his squad as he had five points (a goal and four assists) through five games. However, he was suspended for one game after a charging call against him in Game 1. Bennett enters this offseason as a restricted free agent (RFA), which means Zito will have the rights to him for potential contract talks. This will give the Panthers a massive edge at bringing him back for some more.

Sam Bennett Florida Panthers
Sam Bennett, Florida Panthers (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Forward Anthony Duclair came into the picture after being signed to a one-year deal this past offseason. He has brought playmaking and speed to this lineup every single night, and his stats show for it. Through 43 games, he’s tallied up 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) and had the second-highest rating on the team with a plus-27 rating. That rating also makes for seventh-best in the NHL. Additionally, his versatility and adaptivity should also be noted as he’s played up and down the lineup, including the top line with Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. Much like his teammate in Bennett, Duclair will also be an RFA this upcoming offseason. With the overall success he’s had in South Florida, contract negotiations should go well for bringing him back.

After being acquired from waivers last offseason, Forsling has developed into a plug-in every night into the Panthers lineup. This year, he tallied up 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) through 43 games in the regular season. In the playoffs, he posted one goal and one assist. His only goal of the postseason helped tied game 3 that would lead the Panthers to an overtime victory. Just like Duclair and Bennett, he is entering the offseason as an RFA. With the way he solidified himself this season, he is arguably the most deserving of a new deal.

This Offseason Will Be Crucial for Florida

Florida heads into this offseason looking to build off of a great regular season with a playoff berth. However, how Zito handles his current situation will be crucial. Moving contracts, especially those with full NMCs, is tricky. But, there are ways to get it done. Potential deals with the Kraken could be put in place to prevent players from getting plucked. Perhaps a trade to retain some salary to get a bad contract off the books is also in play. Either way, fans should have faith in Zito for years to come. It’s clear he has a plan, and it seems like it’s working.

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