The notion of a “window to win” is nothing new when it comes to the National Hockey League and its ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
In a salary-capped league, it’s not enough for franchises to simply assemble a talented group of players. Instead, teams have to have the right players, on the right contracts, at the right time.
The Florida Panthers have painstakingly assembled a very good roster. Most of their core pieces are at or near their prime. Their contract situation is utterly spectacular. And their competition in the Atlantic Division – and Eastern Conference as a whole – is as vulnerable as it’s going to get.
The Panthers’ best chance to win is now.
Panthers’ Opponents Ripe for Taking
Much of the Panthers’ very real potential to win comes courtesy a rather messy Atlantic Division, where the weaker teams are decidedly non-factors, while most of the competitive squads are so unpredictable and chaotic as to inspire confidence in exactly no one.
The Tampa Bay Lightning should certainly be favoured to win the division, with a boatload of star players on wondrous contracts. But, after them, who’s really a lock in the Atlantic?
The high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs spent the summer not addressing their shaky defense corps, with head coach Mike Babcock’s stubbornness also having the potential to derail this top-heavy squad.
Are the Boston Bruins the team that was the NHL’s best from Nov. 16 onwards, or the one that looked highly vulnerable in their series win over the Maple Leafs – and subsequently face-planted in the Second Round against the Lightning?
The Buffalo Sabres should certainly be much improved, but are they really going to make a 30-plus point improvement to challenge for the postseason?
And the Detroit Red Wings, Montréal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are neck-deep in rebuilds, meaning any of them even being in the playoff conversation come the spring would be nothing short of a miracle.
This is not to say the Panthers are a shoo-in to even make the postseason, let alone secure a divisional slot in the process. But, with instability all around them, the team that finished 2017-18 on a 25-8-2 run – and only got better over the summer – would do well to take advantage of the chaos around them and claim contender status while their divisional rivals sort themselves out.
Panthers’ Salary Cap Situation Enhances Urgency
Obviously, the Atlantic Division won’t be prime hunting ground for the Panthers forever, as at least some the teams around them will stabilise and improve. Another consideration is the Floridians’ coming cap crunch.
The Panthers have just under $2 million in projected cap room at present, though their current roster will be pared down to the NHL limit of 23 by opening night, opening up some more space. Even more headroom will be opened up at the conclusion of the 2018-19 campaign, helping the Panthers prospect for acquisitions next summer.
Regardless of whether Florida goes all-in this year or next – or both, there should be real urgency for the Panthers to swing for the fences now, while their best players are still on team-friendly deals.
Currently, most of Florida’s premier talents are on extremely cheap deals but, two seasons from now, the Panthers’ pocketbook will begin to be thoroughly stretched when they inevitably have to pay their top players fair market value.
Mike Hoffman ($5.1875 million) and Evgenii Dadonov ($4 million), both up after 2019-20, will be the first to test the Panthers’ financial finagling, with both potentially commanding raises of 50 percent or more. A little further down the road, Aleksander Barkov ($5.9 million) and Vincent Trocheck ($4.75 million) could well double their annual earnings.
Sure, the salary cap might continue to increase, but it won’t come close to increasing enough to accommodate the Panthers having to pay their best players what they’re worth.
Panthers’ Defense, Goaltending on Borrowed Time
Unlike in previous eras, it seems spending is now no issue for the Panthers. Which is good news, as the Cats, as successful as they were in the second half of last season, could very much use at least one upgrade on defense. Undoubtedly, the most glaring weakness in Florida’s game in 2017-18 was their often-horrendous play in the defensive zone.
Another consideration is the uncertain future of starting goaltender Roberto Luongo who, while still elite, will be 40 by season’s end. How long can he keep doing what he’s doing? More importantly, how long can he stay healthy while doing what he’s doing?
There are similar concerns regarding Luongo’s batterymate, James Reimer. For years an underappreciated talent, Reimer’s body hasn’t helped his case by breaking down at some point nearly every single season. Additionally, the affable Manitoban is a notorious slow starter. Given that he’s now on the wrong side of 30, what if his slow starts begin to take longer and longer to dissipate, if they dissipate at all?
All the more reason to go for it now.
Panthers Have Point-Blank Shot
The Panthers have the right players on the right contracts at the right stages of their careers. Their division is vulnerable and the Cats also have the advantage of surprise. Florida should be taking every opportunity to load up for one or more serious runs at the Cup.
Admittedly, the temptation to merely maintain a respectably competitive squad with a reasonable shot at the playoffs every year is very real. However, not only would one or two serious, all-in pushes give the Panthers some much-needed credibility in the eyes of the NHL mainstream, even a reasonable modicum of success should mint a bevy of new lifelong hockey fans in South Florida, not to mention galvanising the ones they already have. Just look at how fondly the 1995-96 team is remembered.
The simple truth is, this group will likely never have a better window to win. The Panthers must pounce.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.