Who Will the Panthers Protect?

(All advanced stats are thanks to Corsica. All contract information is courtesy CapFriendlyAll predictions guaranteed to be valid for as long as it takes me to write this.)

To put yet another wrinkle in the Panthers’ season, the 2017 expansion draft is fast approaching. After signing half the league this past summer, the Cats, like all National Hockey League teams, will likely lose a significant roster player this offseason.

And yet, this might be a good thing. Florida threw a lot of money at a lot of players – who knew convincing people to work in Florida was so difficult?! – and might appreciate the opportunity to rid themselves of an ill-advised deal. After all, Michael Matheson won’t be making entry-level money for very much longer. Oh, and that Marchessault kid they picked up on a whim? He’s second on the team in scoring. The Panthers had better keep their chequebook handy.

Rules and Regulations

The NHL stipulates that teams have to protect one goaltender, and then either seven forwards and three defensemen or eight skaters of any type. Like most teams that aren’t the Nashville Predators, Florida doesn’t have four defensemen in need of protection (the aforementioned Matheson will be exempt from the expansion draft).

And that’s a good thing for Florida’s forwards. The team is currently 24th in goals, after ranking 6th last year. Jonathan Huberdeau’s long-term injury is certainly a factor, as is the Cats’ 24th ranked power play. However, downright rotten luck appears to be the biggest influence; the Panthers rank dead last in shooting percentage at even strength – 6.06%, against a league average of 7.57%. These numbers should eventually normalize and leave little doubt as to Florida’s depth up front.


Aleksander Barkov

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
Aleksander Barkov in flight against the Red Wings (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

“Sasha” proved to the world last year that he is a two-way force to be reckoned with, finishing sixth in Selke voting at the tender age of 20. For comparison, the five players ahead of him had an average age of 31. Barkov’s breakout 2015-16 has carried over to this season, as the Finn currently leads the Panthers in scoring, despite playing over two minutes per game less than teammate and fellow centre, Vincent Trocheck.

Jonathan Huberdeau

Extended by the Panthers this past summer, Huberdeau, the third overall selection in 2011, has not played a game so far in 2016-17 due to a freak injury to his Achilles tendon. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old had a career year last year and should continue to flourish in South Florida, given the burgeoning group of young talent that surrounds him. Barkov and Huberdeau in perpetuity is sure to make playing Florida deeply uncomfortable for opposing squads for years to come.

Jonathan Marchessault

Hoping for more of an opportunity with the Panthers, Marchessault moved across the state and signed with the Cats over the summer. Sporting excellent possession numbers and currently second in team scoring – despite missing seven games, the diminutive winger is proving that the Lightning, Blue Jackets and Rangers were all wrong when they let him walk.

Marchessault might be the league’s best value, making a paltry $750,000 this year AND next. He is sure to be paid handsomely after that, but will require protection beforehand. There is always the possibility that his great start to the year will tail off, but his history of dominance at every level, not to mention his standout performance on a struggling Panthers team, suggests that Marchessault is a keeper.

Jussi Jokinen

“Jussi Jokinen is still playing”, you ask? Yes, yes he is. You might know him best from 2005-06 when he burst into the revamped NHL by burying each and every one of his first nine shootout attempts. But, even though his shootout numbers came down to Earth, Jokinen has carved out a lengthy and productive career providing secondary scoring – and the odd bit of shootout brilliance – to whatever team he plays for.



That said, despite a 60-point season in 2015-16, Jokinen might seem like an odd choice to protect, given that he will be 34 by the time the expansion draft rolls around. However, there is something to be said for a durable veteran who is respected by the team – Jokinen wears an “A”, is a steady contributor at both ends of the ice and in all situations, and who can play any forward position you desire. Add to that his shootout prowess and reasonable – four million – salary? You’ve got yourself a piece for the foreseeable future.

I would recommend that the Panthers look at extending Jokinen pronto, though. It would be tremendously poor asset management to protect Jokinen, only to see him walk during unrestricted free agency after next season.

Reilly Smith

Though off to a slow start in 2016-17, Smith has the versatility – and the shot – to help the Panthers reach the promised land. 25 goals last season, not to mention eight points in six playoff games – only one of which was on the power play, mean that Smith has to be considered worthy of protection. Yes, five million dollars – a number which only kicks in next season – is a lot for a struggling winger, but Smith’s numbers will come around. Last season was his second career 20-goal campaign, so he is no flash in the pan. On the contrary, he is a legitimate scoring threat who elevates his game when the pressure is at its highest. Big-time players deserve big-time respect. For the Panthers this offseason, that means protecting Reilly Smith.

Seth Griffith

Yes, I know he is a restricted free agent at the end of this year, but I am confident the Panthers will re-sign him. The undersized winger has very good possession numbers and, like Marchessault, is clearly too good for the American Hockey League – 77 points in 57 games last year. Given the injuries to key components of the Panthers forward core – and the offensive struggles of many who are healthy, Griffith should have ample opportunity to show his stuff. Size be damned, the kid has scored at every level. I am betting he will here, too. Look for Griffith to be re-signed and protected.

Vincent Trocheck

The Panthers’ ice-time leader among forwards, Trocheck, like many of his teammates, enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2015-16. Rewarded with a shiny new long-term deal (4.75 million per season), Trocheck is off that pace this season – name me a Panther who isn’t off their pace from last year – though not by much. A second line center with redonkulous possession numbers who can play in all situations? Sign me up.


Aaron Ekblad

A devastatingly handsome franchise defenseman that is locked up for eight more years for the very reasonable sum of 7.5 million dollars? Almost not worth writing about. So I won’t.

Jason Demers

This is Demers’ ninth year in the league. Just let that sink in for a second. Long buried within deep San Jose teams and an afterthought on the high-octane Dallas Stars, Demers has quietly built a reputation as a solid, minute-munching, possession-positive rearguard who can slot nicely into your second pairing. Is he going to win the Norris? Probably not. But he is the type of all-around defenseman that all good teams need supporting up their stars. 4.5 million per year is a little steep, but you could land a jumbo jet in the Panthers’ cap space. And, if they win a Cup or two, we might soon be talking about Demers as the Niklas Hjalmarsson of South Florida.

Keith Yandle

Geez, if ever there was a contract to get rid of, it would be Yandle’s 6.35 million dollars until 2023. Yes, you heard that right; Keith Yandle makes more than Duncan Keith, Roman Josi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, to name a few. Yandle is a possession monster and brilliant offensively, but I’m not sold on his defensive game. The catch is that he has a no-move clause built into to the contract – a concession from the Panthers that likely indicates Yandle left money on the table (yikes!), meaning that Yandle has to work out in Florida. He just has to.


James Reimer

After a shaky start to the season, Reimer has begun to prove his worth as the platoon partner of Roberto Luongo. Though Luuuuuuu is still unquestionably the starter, he will be 38 years old going into the expansion draft. While he appears to still have lots in the tank, I find it very hard to believe that Vegas would select the future Hall of Famer. Luongo will be carrying a cap hit of 4.533 million dollars for the next five (!!!) years, not to mention there should be a wide array of more suitable goaltenders available.

Meanwhile, in Reimer, you get a genuinely nice and legitimately good human being. As an observer of the Maple Leafs, I can tell you that he seems to play better the more action he sees, meaning that the inevitable decline in Luongo’s playing time should jive seamlessly with Reimer’s ascent to the starting job. Optimus Reim had better find a realtor.


Derek MacKenzie

After naming MacKenzie captain during the preseason, can the Panthers really leave the veteran unprotected? Well, on the surface at least, he is the antithesis of what the Panthers are trying to build. Steadily declining possession numbers and a reputation as a grinder do not exactly endear the 35-year-old (36 in June) to the analytics crowd.

That said, he is one of the best faceoff men on the team, leads the league’s seventh-ranked penalty killing unit and has built a reputation throughout his career for being a good teammate, particularly as a role model for younger players.

The Panthers clearly feel that MacKenzie has a role to play in their current iteration. Unfortunately, with regards to protection from Las Vegas, he might be the odd one out.

Jaromir Jagr

Jaromir Jagr’s traveling roadshow (The Hockey Writers)

Ever since leaving Pittsburgh in 2001, Jagr has been the very definition of a mercenary. The Capitals, Rangers, Flyers, Stars, Bruins, Devils and now the Panthers have all been home for the fun-loving legend following his days with the Penguins. Could the Vegas Something Knights be his next destination?

If the Panthers really want to re-sign Jagr, it has to be for less than the four million dollars he currently commands. Every record he breaks and milestone he surpasses make for good press, but four million bucks for a guy who will soon be 45 is insane. Additionally, there is a logjam of forward talent on the Panthers and I feel as though the Panthers would be best served letting that talent develop, rather than taking up a spot with a veteran who is not in their long-term plans.

Jagr can still play, make no mistake. I just don’t think re-signing and then using a protection slot on him is optimal asset management.

Nick Bjugstad

2016-17 is the big American’s fourth full season in the NHL. His career high is 43 points (in 72 games). He is making 4.1 million until 2021. Something doesn’t compute.

Bjugstad is, admittedly, only 24 years of age and is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad player. His possession numbers are average and his tantalizing size will surely not go unnoticed if he is left unprotected.

However, that much money for some depth scoring is a tough sell. Take P. A. Parenteau, for example. He had 20 goals and 41 points last year on a 1.5 million dollar deal. He is on pace to hit 20 goals again this season, this time for even less. Depth scoring need not require making someone your third highest-paid forward. The third center on the Panthers depth chart behind Barkov and Trocheck, it is unclear where Bjugstad – especially a four-plus million dollar Bjugstad – fits in.

A Good Problem to Have?

Whenever a team has a surplus of assets and has to decide between them, it always seems to be termed “a good problem to have”. Nonsense. The team has already won the lottery by drafting or acquiring players that are NHL caliber and that fit into the team. Now they have to win the lottery again by deciding which of these players can be exposed with the least amount of impact to team performance and dressing room morale. It is like going double or nothing in Russian Roulette.

The Panthers might well lose a valuable part of their puzzle. This list is merely one way of picking up the pieces.