Panthers Budgeting or Blowing It?

What are the Florida Panthers doing? Summertime is upon us, yet this question persists.

Even now the dust of free agency has settled, we are no closer to understanding the plan for the beleaguered franchise. There has been movement, yes; hirings and firings, signings and buyouts. It cannot be said the Panthers stayed idle after a thoroughly disappointing season.

Breakout star Jonathan Marchessault will not be back with the Florida Panthers, having been claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. (Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports)

They’re certainly different, but are they better? If the Cats think so, their logic is hard to comprehend.

Panthers Shedding Salary to Meet Budget?

It was reported after the season Panthers management was instructed to cut the team’s payroll by $10 million. In 2016-17, the Panthers ended the season with the third-lowest cap hit in the NHL, at just a shade over $64 million (leaving about $9 million in cap space at season’s end). Cuts approaching $10 million would leave Florida perilously close to not reaching the 2017-18 cap floor of $55.4 million, an unlikely scenario.

A more logical interpretation of the above report is that Panthers management is expected to offset the jump in salary expenditures brought on by previously signed contracts kicking in. Such a directive would keep the Panthers’ spending relatively steady. Frank Seravalli of TSN, among others, is adamant that the Panthers have an “internal mandate” to keep their salary expenditures to under $65 million, which fits with this explanation.

Yes, Florida general manager Dale Tallon denied this assertion but it’s not like the Panthers would want to admit that, after a couple years trumpeting their commitment to success – and backing up that commitment with spending, they are backing off. Innocent until proven guilty, I suppose. But we’ve seen this act from the Panthers before.

Panthers’ Additions and Subtractions

Thus far this offseason, the Panthers have, in terms of regular NHL players and their actual salaries (not cap hits):

  • bought out Jussi Jokinen (saved $2.7 million)
  • exposed Jonathan Marchessault ($750,000; sure to be more when his contract is up at the end of 2017-18)
  • not re-signed Jaromir Jagr ($5.5 million, including performance bonuses hit; Panthers reportedly wanted him back, but at a haircut)
  • not re-signed Jakub Kindl ($3 million)
  • not re-signed Reto Berra ($1.5 million)
  • not re-signed Shawn Thornton ($750,000, including performance bonuses hit; has since retired)
  • traded Reilly Smith ($6 million)
Jaromir Jagr and his glorious mullet might have to find a different place to ply their trade next season. (Sergei Belski / USA TODAY Sports)

As for major salary additions for the coming season:

  • Aaron Ekblad (an additional $5.225 million)
  • Alex Petrovic ($650,000 more)
  • Evgeny Dadonov ($4.65 million; a signee from the Kontinental Hockey League)
  • Jonathan Huberdeau ($2.2 million more that last year)
  • Mark Pysyk ($700,000 more)
  • Michael Haley ($800,000; free agency)
  • Radim Vrbata ($2.5 million, not including performance bonuses; free agency)

For those keeping track at home, the Panthers have dropped $20.2 million from their NHL payroll this upcoming season (again, real dollars, not cap hit) and added $16.725 million. That’s a total savings of $3.475 million, meaning Florida can still go out and sign another quality player while keeping their payroll relatively steady. Or, they can just keep the savings and hope the group they have is good enough to cut it.

Is this treading of water a product of wanting to rein in the spending of a team notorious for hemorrhaging money? Or is it just more smoke and mirrors to add to the cacophony of confusion surrounding this franchise?

The Curious Case of Jason Demers

Jason Demers, who, according to Own The Puck, was one of Florida’s most effective defensemen last season, was left unprotected for the expansion draft. Now, this was not necessarily surprising, seeing as the Cats already had to protect defensemen Aaron Ekblad (franchise player) and Keith Yandle (no-movement clause). They also chose to protect solid bottom-pairing restricted free agents Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk, both of whom are four years younger than Demers.

Thankfully for the Panthers, Demers and his $4.5 million cap hit ($5.4 million in real money for 2017-18), was not taken by the Vegas Golden Knights. However, the rumours surrounding Demers’ exit from Florida continued to swirl, with Pierre LeBrun confirming the Panthers were looking to move the experienced blue-liner. Several days later, LeBrun reported Demers had utilised his eight-team no-trade clause to block a trade to the Vancouver Canucks.

Unless Florida was set to absolutely fleece the Canucks, the only rational explanation I can give for Demers being on the market is that of a salary dump.

However, Demers provided reasonably good value for the Panthers in 2016-17. Yes, his cap hit is hefty – especially for someone with his lack of offensive output, but not altogether unreasonable. He is also a right-hand shot, a coveted attribute in a rearguard. And he’s only 29 years old, so he’s still got a lot of hockey left in him.

Look at that smile! How could the Panthers not like him?? (Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports)

Do the Panthers honestly feel they have enough NHL-ready depth on defense to be able to comfortably deal with the loss of Demers? That’s a big gamble.

Not a Good Look for Panthers

Florida made a big splash last summer by committing a lot of money to a lot of players, long-term. This season, the team had to endure management turmoil, a coaching (and therefore system) change and a healthy dollop of bad luck (see: injuries, very low shooting percentage), resulting in missing the playoffs. A setback, to be sure. But no cause for outright panic.

So what kind of message does it send to the fan base when a team changes the direction of its build one season in? What kind of message does it send to other players when a team is so willing to part with quality talent – especially so soon after committing to it? And what kind of message does it send to the NHL when one of the teams it desperately needs to succeed is intentionally handicapping its chances of doing so?

Panthers Going Cheap or Missing Boat?

It is entirely possible that the Panthers simply wished to clear the decks to go after one or more marquee unrestricted free agents, and ended up missing out on their desired prize(s). Or maybe they had a plan and just blew it on the execution. Whatever the case, they are left with nearly $11 million in cap space with most of the quality pieces on the free agent market already spoken for.

According to CapFriendly, the Panthers organisation has only used up 38 of 50 total contract slots. In terms of the NHL team specifically, the Cats have only 10 forwards and six defensemen on their roster.

The remainder of the roster spots are expected to be filled by organisational prospects and European signees. This means Florida will be relying on the veteran Vrbata, KHL star (and NHL unknown) Dadonov, and a gaggle of NHL neophytes to make up the lost production of Jagr, Jokinen, Marchessault and Smith. As with putting Jason Demers on the trading block, relying on unproven (with the exception of Vrbata) players – many of whom were developed outside the Panthers organisation, is an enormous gamble, no matter how cheap they might be.

Radim Vrbata is a reliable scorer who will no doubt bolster the Panthers’ depleted forward corps. But just how much will he be able to do? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Panthers’ Goals Remain Mystery

In fairness to the Panthers, the salaries they have shed were, at the very least, somewhat questionable. And it is July 20, meaning there’s lots of time left if they’ve got a rabbit waiting in a hat somewhere.

But as it stands now, one has to wonder if the Panthers have gone to the Ottawa Senators school of running an NHL team: implement an internal cap, lock up a couple of marketable stars, surround these stars with spare parts, and hope the team makes the postseason so you are guaranteed two games of playoff revenue.

It’s not a recipe for success. It’s not a recipe for loyalty. But if we know anything about Panthers’ ownership, they’ll do it anyway.