Bill Zito, the still somewhat new general manager of the Florida Panthers, has spent the last year and a half re-tooling his roster. The team is ahead of schedule and coming off of an impressive regular season and competitive postseason performance. Optimism is high, but Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers’ all-star captain, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Barkov wants to re-sign, but he also wants his big NHL payday from the small market, cap stretched club. How does Zito give his franchise player the salary he expects without mortgaging the future?
What Can the Panthers Afford?
Before even considering what Barkov is worth, what can the team afford?
To Zito’s credit, he’s done a masterful job of handing out value contracts on short terms. With the exception of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed before Zito joined the organization, not a single player is under contract beyond 2024-25. The recently acquired Sam Bennett got a four-year deal, while forwards Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, and defensemen Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling all received three-year deals. That means paying a high annual average value (AAV) to Barkov is not a problem in the long term.
Zito could capitalize on that by backloading the actual salary paid to Barkov as done in the five-year, $45 million Kirill Kaprizov deal signed earlier this month by the Minnesota Wild. For a small-market team, it isn’t just the total dollar amount that’s important, but it’s when that money goes out the door. Despite the bright future, the Panthers join the Columbus Blue Jackets as the only team not to have a game exclusively on ESPN this season. Their arena will be without naming rights — and the profit that generates — this season. They may compete for a Stanley Cup, but their revenues will still be below league average.
When it comes to the short term, the Panthers have 14 players under contract for next season, including most of their core and both goaltenders. They have $14.5 million of cap space to sign the remainder of the roster, which includes Barkov and as many as four restricted free agents. The math here is simple; to afford Barkov, management must be comfortable with its young forwards on entry-level contracts, like Anton Lundell and Gregori Denisenko, playing every day.
Complicating matters is Barkov’s high-scoring teammate Jonathan Huberdeau, who enters unrestricted free agency just one year later. Whatever Barkov ends up getting will be exhibit A for Huberdeau’s camp as they enter contract talks this time next year. Luckily, between Keith Yandle’s buyout receding and Patric Hornqvist’s contract expiring, the Panthers free up almost $9.5 million in cap room – a convenient amount for Huberdeau.
All that said, the goal for Zito is clearly to keep Barkov’s AAV as low as possible, leaving maximum flexibility while the Panthers are competitive. Expect a full, or at least modified, no-movement clause and some creativity around when the dollars actually flow to the Finnish centre. Next, expect an eight-year deal, which he would not be eligible to receive on the open market, to give Barkov more job security and allow the Panthers to stretch the AAV over an additional year.
The Value of Aleksander Barkov
The next question, of course, is what is Barkov actually worth?
Last season Barkov led the team in both goals and points at even strength. He finished second on the team in assists, power-play goals, and power-play points. That follows four strong years where he’s put up 294 points in 277 games. He’s the reigning Selke Trophy winner, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward, and his puck possession numbers are off the charts.
Barkov sits 10th among league forwards with 221 more shots for than against when on the ice. When forwards from the high puck possession clubs of the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche are removed from that list, he sits only behind Phillip Danault, who is widely regarded as one of the best defensive forward in the game.
Barkov kills penalties, plays on the first power-play unit, is the only player in Panthers history to register six straight 20-goal, 50-point seasons, and he’s converted 45 percent of his career shootout attempts. Plus, he’s a 26-year-old playing the most sought-after position in the game.
Comparable Contracts Across The NHL
Despite that, he has few comparable contracts. Centres Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are both statistically in a league of their own. Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, and Sebastian Aho all signed their current multi-year deals after their entry-level contracts expired, and Sidney Crosby, who may be the most comparable all-around forward, signed an $8.7 million AAV deal partly because it matched his jersey number and birthday.
One could look to fellow captain Logan Couture’s eight-year, $8 million AAV extension signed at the age of 30 for comparison. However, the best comparable is just up the I-75 in winger Nikita Kucherov.
Kucherov also signed his eight-year extension at 26 years old. At the time, he had a career average of 0.91 points per game compared to Barkov’s 0.88 points per game. Both find themselves on competitive teams that could use as much cap space as possible to compete for championships. Kucherov’s contract took up 11.95 percent of the Lightning cap hit at an AAV of $9.5 million.
At today’s cap, that percentage works out to a $77 million deal with an AAV of just over $9.7 million for Barkov. Add in a small increase to accommodate for the eventually rising cap, and Barkov could find himself at $10 million AAV. That’s a top-10 salary at his position, slightly higher than the likes of pre-injury Jack Eichel and Tyler Seguin but below the likes of McDavid, Matthews, and the John Tavares deal signed on the open market.
Perhaps a number similar to Kucherov’s AAV is higher than Bill Zito wants. But, if Barkov delivers anywhere near similar results to Kucherov, then Zito, the fan base, and the league will think a similar deal is a bargain.
Projection: Barkov, 8 years, $9.5-$10 million AAV, No Movement Clause
Mitch Davidson originally hails from Oro-Medonte, Ontario just north of Toronto and has been following hockey, the business of the NHL, and the Florida Panthers for the better part of two decades. In his professional career, Mitch is a full time writer as he serves as Executive Director of a public policy think tank, a regular public opinion columnist, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, following a 6 year run as a senior staffer in provincial politics.