With their 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues Monday night, the Florida Panthers finished their five-game road trip undefeated, a franchise first. The victory vaulted the Cats into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and within striking distance of first in the Atlantic Division.
Healthy for the first time all season, the Panthers are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. After a trying first half, they’re starting to live up to the expectations raised with last year’s run to the division title. While a playoff berth is not yet secure, postseason prospects are looking good in South Florida.
As with any team, there’s always room for improvement, and Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon told NHL.com Saturday he’s looking to buy at the trade deadline. Specifically, Tallon said he’s looking to add a player who can help on the power play.
Who might that player be? With more cap space than any other club in playoff contention, the Panthers have room to add any player in the league. Due to obligations next season (such as Aaron Ekblad’s new contract, which balloons from $925,000 to $7.5 million per year on July 1), however, the club would likely prefer a “rental” player, one who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and won’t need to be protected in the June expansion draft. Given the temporary nature of the acquisition, Tallon would rather trade draft picks for the player, but could part with a prospect for the “right asset,” he told NHL.com.
With the aforementioned factors in mind, a handful of players meet the Panthers’ requirements. In particular, our pending UFAs should be at the top of Tallon’s wish list. The forwards, as well as their pros and cons, are listed below.
- 2016-17 Stats: 34 games played, 7 goals – 7 assists – 14 points, 1 PPG, 1 SHG
- Playoff Experience: 142 GP, 47g – 40a – 87pts, 14 PPG, 1 SHG, 5 GWG
- Stanley Cups Won: Three
Sharp is a sniper and a leader. Almost one-third of his playoff goals have come on the power play. He normally patrols the wing but has played center in the past. At 35 years of age, Sharp has a good combination of foot speed and veteran savvy. An alternate captain for the Dallas Stars, he’s a mentor to the younger players on the team, particularly his rookie linemate, Devin Shore. “Sharpie” has played in 78 postseason contests and won two Cups in the last four years; he knows how to handle both the on-ice pressures and the increased media attention of the playoffs, and can teach the younger Panthers to do the same. Finally, his cap hit ($5.9 million) will limit the number of potential trade destinations, which could make him a steal for the Cats.
After notching 20 goals and 35 assists last season, 2016-17 has been a disappointment for Sharp. The winger sustained a concussion in a game against Los Angeles on October 20th and didn’t return to action until November 19th. Sharp then registered one goal in seven games before falling victim to post-concussion syndrome. He missed almost the entire month of December before returning New Year’s Eve to play the Panthers. Since then, the veteran forward has 6 goals and 12 points in 23 games but hasn’t been the dynamic force the Stars saw last season.
- 2016-17 Stats: 59 GP, 21g – 16a – 37pts, 11 PPG
- Playoff Experience: 76 GP, 9g – 10a – 19pts, 2 PPG
- Stanley Cups Won: None
Eaves is a hard-working winger who is unafraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice. On the power play, he plants himself in front of the opposing goalie as a screen and looks for rebounds. The Stars forward is having a career year, posting personal bests in goals, points, power play goals, power play points and shots on goal. Eaves has good hands, but most of his goals are of the blue-collar variety, like this tally against Winnipeg:
Eaves is notoriously injury-prone. Though he’s only missed one game this season, the wounded winger usually works out off the ice during practices and game day morning skates, as he’s been dealing with a lower-body issue for months. Clearly, it hasn’t affected his play, but that may be due to his familiarity with the Stars’ system and his teammates. Eaves would need practice time to adjust to a new team, and only he knows if that would aggravate his injury. Also, his low cap hit ($1 million) makes him attractive to almost every playoff team, which could result in a bidding war.
- 2016-17 Stats: 53 GP, 13g – 9a – 22pts, 3 PPG, 6 PPP, 2 GWG
- Playoff Experience: 100 GP, 15g – 11a – 26pts, 1 PPG, 2 SHG, 3 GWG
- Stanley Cups Won: None
With Nick Bjugstad’s move to the wing, the Panthers are a bit thin down the middle; that’s where Brian Boyle comes in. The big (6-foot-6, 244-pound) forward could center Marchessault and Bjugstad, bumping Michael Sgarbossa back to the fourth line with Derek MacKenzie and Colton Sceviour on his wings. Boyle’s imposing physicality will keep opposing teams honest, essentially filling Shawn Thornton’s role, but at a higher skill level. Like Eaves, Boyle provides a good net-front presence on the power play.
Other playoff-bound clubs, including Edmonton and St. Louis, have shown interest in Boyle, so his price will be inflated. Some rumors suggest Lightning GM Steve Yzerman wants a first-round pick for the big center. With this year’s draft class perceived as weak, Yzerman’s alleged demand may be met. Would the Panthers, being in the same division as the Lightning, have to pay an even higher price to get the deal done?
- 2016-17 Stats: 49 GP, 15g – 9a – 24pts, 4 PPG, 8 PPP, 2 GWG
- Playoff Experience: 23 GP, 4g – 8a – 12pts, 1 PPG, 3 PPP, 2 GWG
- Stanley Cups Won: None
Like Boyle, Hanzal is a big-bodied (6-foot-6, 226-pound) center. On a young Arizona Coyotes team, the veteran Czech pivot does it all, leading ‘Yotes forwards in goals, overall ice time, average power play time and faceoff win percentage this season. He’s formidable in front of the opposing net, tough to dislodge and tenacious in his pursuit of rebounds. On the Panthers’ third line, Hanzal could really shine against lesser competition, and he might relish the chance to play on the same team as fellow countryman and living legend, Jaromir Jagr.
Hanzal is injury-prone and hasn’t played more than 65 games in a season since 2009-10. He’s already missed nine games in 2016-17. Despite the risk, Hanzal’s status as the Coyotes’ top-line center means he won’t come cheap. Arizona GM John Chayka is reportedly looking for a defenseman; would the Panthers have to give up a first- or second-round pick and, say, Ian McCoshen to get Hanzal? Would he be worth the cost, given his injury history and limited playoff experience?
Go for Two?
The Panthers have a real chance to make some postseason noise in the wide-open Atlantic Division. Because injuries happen, you can never have too much forward depth. With that in mind, Tallon should look to add two players, instead of one. Trading for a wing and a center could give the Cats a bottom-six like this:
Marchessault – Hanzal/Boyle – Bjugstad
Sharp/Eaves – MacKenzie – Sceviour
When healthy, the Panthers would have arguably the deepest, most dangerous forward corps in the league. When injuries strike, any of these four potential acquisitions can easily slide up the lineup. If Tallon can land two of these players in exchange for draft picks and a prospect, that’s a small price to pay to elevate the Panthers from playoff team to Cup contender.