For the first time since the spring of 2012, the Florida Panthers are playoff bound. Though they haven’t mathematically clinched a playoff berth yet, they’re as close as you can get to a lock without the math. This fact puts Panthers general manager Dale Tallon in the enviable position of trade deadline buyer, rather than seller. Between now and February 29, Tallon has some tough decisions to make: What is Florida’s most pressing need? Which players on the market might meet that need? And last, but not least, how much am I willing to pay?
The Panthers’ most pressing need is clear: At least one forward who can drive puck possession. At even strength, only two Florida forwards, Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith, boast a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) above fifty. Taken as a whole, the team’s even strength CF% of 47.3 ranks 26th in the NHL. The Cats are quite solid defensively, but the benefits of spending more time in the offensive zone are obvious.
A smart shopper goes to the grocery store with both a shopping list and a budget in mind. Before going “shopping,” Tallon has to have an idea of how much he’s willing to spend. In January, the GM spelled out some parameters for any trade deadline deals. In a nutshell, he said the Panthers wouldn’t mortgage the future for “a quick fix,” and any acquisition shouldn’t have a long-term impact on the club’s salary cap flexibility.
Taken together, those statements could be interpreted to mean Tallon’s in the market for a cheap “rental” player. That interpretation must be weighed against the desperate need to grow the fan base by winning at least one playoff round, something the Panthers haven’t done in twenty years. With that in mind, Florida’s management must consider the following four forwards as trade deadline options:
Winnipeg Jets…Left Wing…Age: 30…Salary Cap Hit: $4.4M…Contract Status: UFA July 1.
Stats: 56 Games Played…13 Goals – 17 Assists – 30 Points…Even-Strength CF%: 51.92…Relative Corsi (CF%Rel): -0.06.
Why: Ladd’s history with Tallon is well-documented. The winger would bring additional leadership, as well as a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree, to the Panthers. Ladd, whose six power play goals are tops in Winnipeg, could help Florida’s 27th-ranked power play. He could work as a rental, and his relationship with the Panthers’ GM might lead him to stay in Sunrise beyond this season.
Why Not: Though his Corsi is above fifty, it’s a -0.06 relative to the rest of the team, meaning the Jets are slightly better as possessing the puck when he’s not on the ice. Put another way, his positive Corsi number could be a product of Winnipeg’s system, rather than his own skills and style of play. Also, his shooting percentage has declined steadily since the 2012-13 season.
Edmonton Oilers…Right Wing…Age: 25…Salary Cap Hit: $6.0M…Contract Status: Signed through 2019.
Stats: 45 GP…18 G – 15 A – 33 Pts…CF%: 50.28…CF%Rel: 2.22…Team-leading 6 PPG.
Why: Like Ladd, Eberle would provide a boost to the Panthers’ power play. The Oilers’ first round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft is in his sixth season and already has one 30- and two 20-goal campaigns under his belt. His Corsi numbers are good on a poor possession team, comparable to Jokinen and Smith. The 25-year-old Eberle, who has not yet peaked, would fit nicely with the young Panthers. The Edmonton winger would seem to be on Florida’s radar, as they had scouts present earlier this week:
Teams with scouts at Oiler game tonight : Stars Preds Sabres Habs Flames Panthers Leafs Bruins Jets Coyotes Jackets Rangers Wings
— Ryan Rishaug (@TSNRyanRishaug) February 17, 2016
Why Not: The Oilers will demand a big return for Eberle, and rightly so. Edmonton desperately needs quality defensemen. It’s safe to assume Aaron Ekblad and Erik Gudbranson are off limits, so any deal would involve Dmitry Kulikov, plus a combination of draft picks and prospects. With both Gudbranson and team captain Willie Mitchell sidelined, Florida’s blueline depth is already being tested. Dealing Kulikov now would be a huge risk. For the Oilers part, keeping Eberle until the draft makes sense: If they win the draft lottery (again), a package of Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could net Edmonton the number one defenseman they so desperately need.
Columbus Blue Jackets…Left Wing…Age: 33…Salary Cap Hit: $4.75M…Contract Status: Signed through 2019.
Stats: 56 GP…18 G – 19 A – 37 Pts…CF%: 50.46…CF%Rel: 3.92…Team-leading 8 PPG.
Why: Hartnell is exactly what the Panthers need: A gritty, two-way winger who isn’t afraid to muck it up in the corners or battle in front of the net. He’s also a possession driver on a poor puck-possession team, and is tied for the Blue Jackets’ scoring lead. With Columbus up against the cap and no playoffs in sight, it’s time to shed salary. The Jackets should be motivated sellers.
Why Not: The left wing’s age, combined with the three additional years on his contract, are major concerns. Before the end of Hartnell’s deal in 2019, Florida has to re-sign Jonathan Huberdeau, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Alex Petrovic, Ekblad and Gudbranson, just to name a few. Aleksander Barkov’s new contract kicks in next season, eating up almost $5M more in cap space than his current deal. Like Edmonton, Columbus would probably want at least one NHL-ready defenseman in return. A package of Brandon Pirri, Alex Petrovic and a draft pick would probably be the minimum necessary to get the deal done.
Carolina Hurricanes…Center…Age: 31…Salary Cap Hit: $8.25M…Contract Status: UFA July 1.
Stats: 57 GP…9 G – 21 A – 30 Pts…CF%: 56.76…CF%Rel: 5.70…Tied for 5th on team in PPP.
Why: Staal is the top puck-possession driver on the fifth-best (tied with Montreal) possession team in the NHL. Florida is a different team without franchise center Sasha Barkov in the lineup, going 6-8-2 this season when he’s hurt and 27-10-4 when the young Finn is healthy. Though Trocheck is having an eye-opening first full season in the league, he’s not ready for top line minutes and responsibility. Nick Bjugstad, meanwhile, is struggling to find his game after a lengthy absence due to migraines. Adding Eric Staal at the trade deadline, combined with Barkov’s expected return to the lineup, could catapult (pun intended) the Panthers from playoff team to Stanley Cup contender.
Why Not: Eric Staal is mired in a terrible slump. In the last thirteen games, he has just two points, both assists. His shooting percentage of 6.7 is almost three points lower than last season, and it’s tied with his rookie campaign for the lowest of his career. While the Hurricanes’ captain does have a Stanley Cup ring, he hasn’t played playoff hockey in seven years. Despite his struggles, Staal is still the face of the franchise, so Carolina will put a premium on his services if they choose to move him. And trading Staal is by no means a foregone conclusion, as the surprising ‘Canes are currently just four points out of a playoff spot. Carolina’s asking price could easily be far above what Florida should pay for a player who would almost certainly be moving on come July 1.
While the Florida Panthers have other options (Loui Eriksson, Jiri Hudler and Milan Lucic all come to mind), these four players seem the most likely suspects for Dale Tallon to pursue. Will he or won’t he? Sometime between now and the afternoon of February 29, we’ll find out.