Panthers Preparing to Pounce

The twitch of a panther’s tail stirs the warm, thick South Florida air. Ever so slowly, the big cat slinks through the sawgrass, one carefully-placed paw at a time. He’s locked on to his prey, a bizarre group of Penguins…and Ducks…and Lightning and Blackhawks, and other strange creatures. Consumed by their own individual worries, the herd fails to sense the approaching danger…

Though the ice is gone from the BB&T Center and the Florida Panthers players have scattered to the four winds for the summer, something’s happening in Sunrise. Something beyond the front office shakeup, the coaching changes and the new uniforms. Something BIG. The Erik Gudbranson and Marc Savard trades were just the opening moves in what’s shaping up to be a monumental summer for the organization. The Panthers are preparing to pounce.

It’s Called “Cap and Asset Management”

Former Vancouver Canuck Jared McCann is now a Florida Panther. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)
Former Vancouver Canuck Jared McCann is now a Florida Panther. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Though initially seen by many as a strange move, the Gudbranson trade is beginning to make sense. While the former first-round draft pick had perhaps his best season yet in 2015-16, he’s a stay-at-home defenseman, not a puck mover. Sending Gudbranson and a 2016 fifth round pick to Vancouver for center/wing Jared McCann and the Canucks’ second and fourth round picks sends the message that Florida’s new management will place a premium on puck possession going forward. The deal also replenished the Panthers’ stockpile of early-round draft picks and freed up roughly $2.6M in cap space.

Friday’s trade of Marc Savard’s contract and a 2018 second round pick to the New Jersey Devils clears another $4M in cap space, as the players acquired, right wing Paul Thompson and center Graham Black, are a career minor-leaguer and a (potential) future fourth-line center in the NHL, respectively. Barring injury call-ups, both should spend next season in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate.

With those moves, Florida’s salary cap situation now looks like this (all figures per Cap Friendly):

  • Forwards (10 NHLers under contract): $32,969,167
  • Defensemen (5 NHLers under contract): $7,845,833
  • Goalies (1 NHLer under contract): $4,533,333
  • TOTAL (16 players): $45,348,333

If the players vote once again for the five percent salary cap inflator, the cap should rise to around $72.8M. That would give the Panthers roughly $27.4M to sign six players. If the club proceeds with an expected buyout of oft-injured forward Dave Bolland, that figure goes up to $31.1M for seven players. That’s an enormous amount of money, given Florida’s needs.

What are the Panthers’ Needs?

First and foremost, Florida must re-sign center Vincent Trocheck. Though a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights, Trocheck’s performance last season should earn him a significant raise over his entry-level salary. Both sides should be happy with a five-year, $22.5M ($4.5M AAV) deal.

Next, the Panthers need to improve their woeful power play and penalty kill. Ranked 23rd and 24th, respectively, in the NHL during the regular season, both played a part in Florida’s first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders.

Adding a speedy, scrappy, shot-blocking forward – someone like Columbus’ Matt Calvert – would provide an immediate boost to the PK, while the man-advantage would get a shot in the arm from a net-crashing wing (Milan Lucic, anyone?) and a first-rate offensive defenseman. Brian Campbell has done everything asked of him and more, but at age 37, his effectiveness on the PP isn’t what it used to be. How much will pending UFA Keith Yandle command on the open market? Whatever the number might be, the Panthers have the cap space to cover it.

Finally, netminder Roberto Luongo will turn 38 right before the playoffs begin next season. Playing three games in four nights to begin the series with the Islanders this year was exhausting for the veteran goalie, and he admitted as much. Backup Al Montoya was rock-solid in the 25 games he played last season, but his career has been marked by inconsistency. The Panthers need a backup who can carry the mail for 30-35 games in 2016-17, to keep Luongo well-rested for the playoffs.

Eyes on the Prize

(Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)
(Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

Between clubs feeling the pinch of an almost-flat salary cap and feeling panic at the thought of losing a valuable asset for nothing in the expected 2017 expansion draft, Florida has a golden opportunity this summer. They have the cap space to add important pieces without giving up much beyond draft picks and prospects. With those key pieces in place, last season’s franchise-record 103 points could be eclipsed. A deep playoff run could become reality. The Stanley Cup could be within reach.

…The panther’s tail twitches again. This time, the herd senses the movement. Momentarily stunned – How did the big cat get so close without us noticing? – the group’s survival instincts kick in and they begin to run. They’re too late. The hungry, focused and deadly panther has been waiting for this moment, and he means to take down the entire herd.