Going into the 2015 NHL off-season, the Florida Panthers have got to be one of the better feeling teams among those who failed to qualify for a chance at Lord Stanley’s Cup. Although missing the playoffs by 8 points may not seem like an ideal position, the Panthers were the NHL’s most improved team from last season, jumping 25 total points in the standings and moving from 2nd last place to being in the top-20 as far as standings go. The Cats also opened the eyes of many around the NHL to the prospects that they’ve developed over the last few years since General Manager Dale Tallon began putting his stamp on the team. Now come the critical moments for the Panthers as an organization. Sure, they have a great young core with the potential of a superstar or two breaking out, but all great teams have significant complimentary pieces to go along with those players who grew within the team’s system. The off-season game plan for the Panthers must be disciplined yet vigilant. There is no need to mortgage the future for a quick fix, yet in this league you must give to get in terms of trades. What are the options Dale Tallon has going into June and July?
Despite a solid core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, along with pieces Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck, the Panthers will still be in need of a proven NHL goal-scorer. The Cats struggled to put the puck in the net and with no one other than Pirri fitting that “sniper” role; they will need to shore up scoring from outside sources. The free agent pool is relatively weak without too many options in terms of pure goal-scorers so trading may be the best route for Tallon and company.
The big name that was thrown around in regards to possibly heading to South Florida during the season was Toronto’s Phil Kessel. One of the best scoring wingers in the game, Kessel at times has been a dominant force. At other times, he is non-existent, barely noticeably for streaks of games. The Maple Leafs are in their early steps of a full, top-to-bottom rebuild. Kessel is arguably their most valuable piece (that they are willing to part with) so you have to imagine they will be asking for a king’s ransom for Phil, a price that I cannot see Tallon paying. Rumors swirled that Jonathan Huberdeau would be involved in a package for the American winger, but with Huberdeau’s offence enjoying somewhat of a renaissance at the end of 2014-15 season, the likelihood he gets moved is even lower than before.
As for other options, the cupboard runs dry fairly quickly throughout the league. Most teams are not
willing to part with their high-end goal scorers. However, rumors have surfaced that Chicago could be looking to move Patrick Sharp this off-season to aid their cap situation. The veteran winger struggled with only 43 points in 68 games played, significantly down from his normal near point-per-game output. The Blackhawks once again are facing a bit of a log-jam for their top 12 and Sharp could be the odd-man out considering his age and contract.
If he wants to upgrade his forward core without mortgaging the future, Tallon will have his hands full, but if he keeps his ear to the ground he might pick up some tremors of teams looking to shake things up. Rumors have circled around the league that perhaps the St. Louis Blues will be looking to move some pieces after yet another early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The asking price for certain plays will likely be high, but with Tallon’s track record of trading, I don’t see him jumping the gun on a risky proposal.
Much like the forwards, the Panthers could be a bit crowded when training camp starts in September. Boston College alumni and former 1st rounder Mike Matheson made the jump to pro hockey earlier this season, registering a couple assists in 5 games with the (now former) Panthers AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage. Matheson is an offensive-minded d-man and will be hopeful of making the big club for the 2015-16 season. However, with Tallon being extremely patient with most of the prospects he’s drafted, Matheson would likely have to exceed expectations significantly to earn an NHL roster spot.
The other big concern for the Cats is the situation with veteran defenseman Brian Campbell. For the second straight season, the Ontario native’s numbers have regressed. His play has diminished both offensively and defensively. At times he looked like his old self, but often he looked a step slower and just didn’t have that dynamic touch he once possessed in the offensive zone. If the Panthers are looking to move Campbell, it comes with a couple obstacles. He’s turning 36 at the end of this month and is still owed north of $7 Million for the final year of his contract. Perhaps Tallon would like to hold onto Campbell for one last season in hopes that he can both regain his form from a couple seasons ago and
help guide the new prospects into full-time NHL roles. Or maybe he signed Willie Mitchell last off-season as the calming veteran presence in anticipation of trading Campbell during this off-season. But with that money, what team can realistically acquire the one they call “Soupy” without handcuffing themselves with the cap? If you ask me, the answer is simple, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are going into full rebuild mode and will likely have a ton of cap space. Campbell could be a positive influence on the likes of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly while still being productive enough that he isn’t a complete waste of a roster spot. If Tallon is looking to move Campbell, the price will likely be very low (acquired him for now defunct NHLer Rostislav Olesz) so the Leafs wouldn’t have to give up a key piece for his services.
If Campbell is moved, the Panthers will likely look for a replacement. Mike Green fits the role well and with his resurgence after significant injury woes, the Capitals defenseman is on his way to a nice payday come July 1st. He is an ideal candidate for the Panthers blue line and replaces the offense that Campbell has provided and then some, and at age 29 he still has 4-5 years of quality NHL play at the level he is currently at.
One thing that the Panthers don’t really need to improve on is their backstops. Both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya did an admirable job this season. Tallon will likely have to start looking at an eventual future replacement for Luongo, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Off-Season Will Be Key
The fruits of the Panthers labor are beginning to grow, but without the right pieces around them, they will struggle to succeed on their own. Tallon will likely once again be busy from the end of June to late July. What he has planned for the off-season is anybody’s guess, but with the glaring areas of need for the Panthers, one has to assume he’s got his eye on a goal scorer or two. It’s not far-fetched to think that the franchise is expecting a playoff-berth this season, and without any key additions, this group may struggle once again to reach the playoffs. It could be said that this is the teams most important summer in its history and where it goes from here could very well be decided in the coming months.