To succeed in the NHL team’s must find a way to navigate the salary cap and properly manage player contracts. Signing young talent to long-term deals is a surefire way to find success. Additionally, signing veteran players to reasonable deals is another key to building a complete team.
The ideal way to build a Stanley Cup contender is through the draft, and the Florida Panthers have been in a position to grab some game-changing talent during the past 10 years, as they found themselves making a top-three overall draft pick four times between 2010 and 2014. Making the right pick is one thing, but developing talent is another. The Panthers seemed to do both particularly well during that span of time.
When evaluating a good contract, or more specifically choosing the best on a team, it is important to consider the numbers a player is contributing compared to the payment they are receiving. In essence, investment versus return. Other contributing factors such as the player’s age, length of contract, and any additional clauses all come into play, but the return a team is getting for their investment is at the core of the evaluation. Here, we evaluate the three best contracts for the Panthers heading into the 2020-21 season.
Jonathan Huberdeau: $5.9 Million
Huberdeau was drafted third overall by the Panthers in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and particularly over the past three seasons, he has shown that he was worthy of a top-three pick. Last season the forward led the team with 78 points in 69 games, putting him in the top 10 in the league and tying him with players like Buffalo Sabres’ center Jack Eichel, who comparatively is set to have a cap hit of $10 million this next season for his own squad.
Still just 27 years old, Huberdeau’s $5.9 million ties him for just the fourth largest cap hit for the team in the upcoming season. The fact that he led the team in points paired with his favorable salary is something the Panthers are likely ecstatic about. Looking at it from a league-wide perspective, his top 10 production compared to the team’s current level of investment is enviable at the least.
Huberdeau’s age, production, and cap hit are all signs that the alternate captain is a player the Panthers should remain committed to for the foreseeable future. That makes his current no-movement clause, as well as his modified no-trade clause in the 2022-23 season, of relatively little note. His contract is presently set to expire following the 2022-23 season. The club should continue to give him every opportunity available moving forward and expect that in doing so they will continue to be rewarded for an investment well made.
Aleksander Barkov: $5.9 Million
Barkov was drafted 2nd overall by the Panthers in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and has shown to be the star center they had hoped he would be. He was seconnd on the team this past season with 62 points in 66 games, behind only Huberdeau.
In the 2018-19 season, he led the team with an impressive 96 points. This made him just one of four Panthers ever to reach 90 points or more in a season. His performance surpassed Hall of Famer and former Panther Pavel Bure for the franchise record for points in a season, and some believe Barkov is not far off from potentially being a Hart Trophy contender.
Barkov also adds great defensive play as a forward, something that the Panthers will rely on to help struggling goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky bounce back in the upcoming season. In addition, his $5.9 million ties for only the fourth-highest cap hit on the team overall. That is a number the Panthers’ front office should be happy to have invested in not only an offensive force who can play great two-way hockey, but also the captain of the team.
Still only 25 years of age and playing great hockey, his current no-movement clause is barely worth mentioning, as is his modified no-trade clause starting in the 2021-22 season.
Mackenzie Weegar: $3.25 Million
In a perfect world, this spot would belong to Aaron Ekblad, who was drafted 1st overall by the Panthers in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. As it is, the re-signing of Weegar to a solid 3-year contract complicates this particular ranking, and comparing the two defenders sheds some light on why Weegar has the better contract at this point and the best contract among defenders on the team.
Ekblad has been good, even great at times, but the Panthers were certainly hoping the former 1st overall pick would be more than that, and his $7.5 million cap hit for the upcoming season looms somewhat large as the second-highest for the team, behind only goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s $10 million. Meanwhile, Weegar’s cap hit of $3.25 million ranks ninth team-wide and fourth defensively.
While Ekblad has excelled in many areas and was particularly good on the offensive side in limited games this past season, he is always going to be held directly accountable for not only his draft stock but also for the level of investment the team has in him. His contract is far from a liability, but it doesn’t present itself as top-three. Weegar, however, excels in different areas and does not have the level of investment to live up to.
Ekblad ranked sixth on the team this past season with 41 points, (second amongst defenders on the team), but defensively he lacked in some key elements, particularly physicality, which the Panthers need more of. They get this in Weegar, who averaged more blocked shots than Ekblad and posted 76 hits in only 45 games compared to Ekblad’s 34 hits in 67 games.
An alternate captain, Ekblad is not in any danger of being surpassed by the 26-year-old Weegar. He offers more upside offensively and will be a key contributor regardless, though Weegar could be in a great position for a breakout season. While Weegar’s body of work to evaluate is not that large, what there is to evaluate is promising, particularly this past season, and his level of play is trending up.
For a team that needs to be more physical defensively, what Weegar brings in physicality to a team already potent on offense could end up being even more valuable, including more offensive upside than defensive imports like Radko Gudas. That is why his contract may just add more bang for the buck.
Where the Puck Drops
It is not difficult to tell when you take into account the three best contracts for the Panthers this season that the front office has done a fantastic job of drafting, signing, and retaining players within their own system. Looking for players elsewhere can often be expensive, though general manager Bill Zito has managed to address some issues immediately by signing certain players in free agency to some team-friendly contracts. This, among other reasons, is why the team is currently sitting with the seventh most projected cap space heading into the season.
While there may be a few less than desirable contracts on the team, in large part both the cap and future outlook are well under control, and the pieces are in place for both immediate and long-term success.