4 Free Agents the Panthers Need to Target

The Florida Panthers have already made some notable moves in free agency this offseason, signing left-winger Carter Verhaeghe, defenseman Radko Gudas, and speedy center Alexander Wennberg. Despite these solid additions, the team will have to deal with departures as well, most notably Mike Hoffman, their top goal scorer from last season, who is a free agent.

While that is significant production to replace, a young core led by top point producer Jonathan Huberdeau and captain Aleksander Barkov is ready to step in and fill a portion of that void. Veteran right-winger Patric Hornqvist, acquired via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, will also be counted on to replace some of that offense.

Buffalo Sabres Carter Hutton Pittsburgh Penguins Patric Hornqvist
Panthers trade acquisition, forward Patric Hornqvist, as a member of the Penguins (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Still, there are players left on the board that general manager Bill Zito and head coach Joel Quenneville should consider signing in order to take their team to the next level. Heading into the 2020-21 season the Panthers are projected to rank 7th in available cap space, putting them in a favorable position to make some additional moves. Signing one or two of the skaters listed below could pay dividends in building a well-rounded and competitive team, one that already has a strong core and showed promise in the 2019-20 season.

Sami Vatanen

Adding a veteran blueliner could make a major difference in turning around a defensive unit that allowed the league’s fourth-most goals last season. Sami Vatanen would provide an immediate boost to the back end.

Sami Vatanen New Jersey Devils
Free agent Sami Vatanen, as a member of the New Jersey Devils in 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While the Panthers have already added Gudas in free agency and have Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Anton Stralman all returning, it is worth considering what Vatanen could bring if the price is right. At this stage in his career, he has amassed a lengthy injury history, including a lower-body injury that plagued him last season.

This is likely the main reason why a player of his skill set remains unsigned, and if the Panthers can work out a team-friendly deal, he could be a great insurance signing, especially if defender MacKenzie Weegar is moved. The coaching staff might also believe that defensive prospect Maxwell Gildon is ready to take the next step or will need more time to develop.

Andreas Athanasiou

A team can never have too much speed. Andreas Athanasiou is a burner whose speed is evident even to the untrained eye and who knows how to put the puck in the net. The 26-year-old winger is a headache for opposing defenses and netminders.

Andreas Athanasiou Red Wings
Current free agent Andreas Athanasiou, as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, December 20, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He is only one season removed from scoring 30 goals with the Detroit Red Wings. Known as an accurate shooter with a quick release and a sneaky backhand shot, there is no reason to believe he doesn’t have plenty of great hockey left in him. Athanasiou would help to replace what was lost with Hoffman’s departure, who’s now drawing interest from the division rival Boston Bruins. As far as speed and finding the back of the net, the two forwards share similar skill sets.

Athanasiou turns on the burners to score for the Red Wings.

Athanasiou would join an already potent offense, which ranked fifth in scoring in the Eastern Conference last season. If the price is right, this signing makes too much sense to ignore.

Conor Sheary

Sheary is another quick forward who is capable of playing on both wings. The 5-foot-9, University of Massachusetts alum is a high-energy player who likes to put the puck on net. He can provide a spark at any given moment and is great on the forecheck. He would be a great depth addition to build on the Panthers’ already young core. Sheary has plenty of NHL experience at age 25, with two Stanley Cups to his name as a member of the Penguins, and he is in the process proving that he can be clutch on the biggest of stages.

college free agents
Current Free Agent Conor Sheary as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Panthers sign him, Sheary would be reunited with Hornqvist, who hoisted the Stanley Cup alongside him in 2016 and 2017. He is coming off of a down year, posting 10 goals and 13 assists in 63 games in a season when he played for the Buffalo Sabres before returning to the Penguins in a trade. He has proven capable of finding the stat sheet though, only a few seasons removed from contributing 23 goals and 30 assists in 61 games. His skill set, along with his attitude and determination, would be an immediate asset.

Corey Perry

Perry may not offer the offensive upside he once did, but it would be foolhardy to overlook the possibility of signing a one-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner and former Stanley Cup champion. While Barkov is the unquestioned captain of the team, finding veteran leadership elsewhere is key in building a mentally sound squad.

Corey Perry Ducks
Current free agent Corey Perry, as a member of the Anaheim Ducks, Oct. 24, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s unlikely Perry will be a significant drag on cap space on a short-term deal. He put up a respectable 21 points through 57 games with the Dallas Stars last season. Known for getting under his opponents’ skin, his experience would be an asset, and he is still capable of turning it on in big moments. That speaks to his mental strength, and serving as a mentor to the Panthers’ young players could be priceless. The bottom line is, Perry still has plenty of gas left in the tank and still manages to get on the stat sheet regularly.

Outlook

Any of these free agents would be an asset to the Panthers next season. They each have their own unique abilities and attributes that would add to the team’s potential. Zito and Quenneville will continue to evaluate their roster and how to best use their available cap space for this season as well as the future.

Finding the right players at the right price will pay major dividends, especially late in the season and during their playoff push. Targeting any of these four could prove extremely valuable in the upcoming season and beyond.


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