Defensemen, RFAs and one major extension: What to expect from the Panthers in free agency

·5 min read

Bill Zito is careful not to frame his current maneuvering as a series of “win-now” moves for the Florida Panthers.

He says it’s maybe more apt to say “win every day.” It’s probably most accurate to say they’re trying to win with Aleksander Barkov.

The star center, his upcoming free agency and everything he did to help Florida put together a breakthrough 2020-21 NHL season loom over everything the Panthers will try to do once free agency begins at noon Wednesday. The most important free agent for Florida to worry about is Barkov — even though he won’t be a free agent until next year.

“It’ll be something that’s paramount for me,” Zito said last month, “and we’ll address in short order.”

It will be right at the top of the Panthers’ list of priorities this summer, and Florida has spent the last few weeks clearing space to make an extension possible — and appealing — to the 25-year-old forward.

Ryan Suter #20 and Zach Parise #11 of the Minnesota Wild celebrate after Suter assisted Parise on a first-period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game Seven of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on May 28, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/TNS)
Ryan Suter #20 and Zach Parise #11 of the Minnesota Wild celebrate after Suter assisted Parise on a first-period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game Seven of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on May 28, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/TNS)

The Panthers’ ‘win-now’ window

Last year, Barkov was one of the most valuable players in the NHL. Not only was he one of the best players in the league, but he put together his Frank J. Selke Award-winning season while getting paid just $5.9 million, giving him the second-best true value statistic in the league, according to Spotrac.com.

Barkov will once again make $5.9 million in the 2021-22 NHL season, which makes this an appealing window to make a real push for a Stanley Cup. Whatever contract Barkov gets beyond next season could double his salary to put him in the same class as star forwards like Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and Patrick Kane, all of whom make more than $10 million per year. The difference between Barkov’s current salary and the one he’s likely to get is at least one really good player. For the Panthers, this new piece would almost certainly be a defenseman.

At goaltender, Florida is set — Sergei Bobrovsky is the highest-paid goaltender in the league and rookie Spencer Knight is the team’s goaltender of the future. At forward, the Panthers have already improved by trading for Sam Reinhart on Saturday and handing out a series of extensions.

On defense, Florida has already cleared out a couple bad contracts by buying out defenseman Keith Yandle and trading defenseman Anton Stralman. Now it needs to find some second- and third-pairing players to supplement defensemen MacKenzie Weegar, Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Radko Gudas.

Defenseman Ryan Suter, who spent the past nine seasons withe Minnesota Wild, is probably the best defenseman on the market in the Panthers’ price range, and The Athletic reported Monday that Florida is a contender to the land 36-year-old American.

Alex Goligoski, a former Dallas Star, also fits as a veteran defenseman the Panthers could potentially add on a short-term deal, while fellow defenseman Mike Reilly and Ryan Murray are younger potential second-pairing players on the market. Brandon Montour, whom Florida added via trade in April, is also an unrestricted free agent.

Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett reacts after a play against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of game 1 of their first round NHL Stanley Cup series at the BB&T Center on Sunday, May 16, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.
Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett reacts after a play against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of game 1 of their first round NHL Stanley Cup series at the BB&T Center on Sunday, May 16, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.

‘Pretty comfortable with the group’

The Panthers head into free agency with more than $11 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly.com. Some will be reserved for a Barkov extension. Some will be used to add. Most will be used to keep the rest of Barkov’s supporting cast.

On Monday, Florida signed versatile forward Sam Bennett, who was about to be a restricted free agent, to a three-year, $17.7 million deal. One of the Panthers’ biggest priorities this week will be to lock up Reinhart to a similar sort of deal after Florida traded a first-round pick and prospect for him Saturday.

Forward Carter Verhaeghe, who will be a restricted free agent after next season and makes just $1 million per year, is also in line for an extension, Sportsnet reported Sunday.

It all fits with the approach Florida has taken since the end of the 2020-21 season. When the Panthers bought out Yandle on July 15, they did so to protect Gustav Forsling from the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft — and they immediately locked up the 25-year-old defenseman on a three-year, $8 million deal. On the same day, they signed winger Anthony Duclair, who was also set to be a restricted free agent, to a three-year, $9 million deal.

“We’re pretty comfortable with the group we have,” Zito told NHL Network on Saturday, “and don’t want to tinker with it too much.”

Reinhart might ultimately be the only major addition up front. Florida already has 13 NHL-caliber forwards under contract — Barkov, Verhaeghe, Reinhart, Bennett, Duclair, Patric Hornqvist, Frank Vatrano, Owen Tippett, Noel Acciari, Mason Marchment, Anton Lundell, Grigori Denisenko and All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau — and now needs only to resign forward Alex Wennberg if it wants to keep its entire lineup of forwards intact from last year.

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) carries the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) during the first period of game 1 of their first round NHL Stanley Cup series at the BB&T Center on Sunday, May 16, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.
Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) carries the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) during the first period of game 1 of their first round NHL Stanley Cup series at the BB&T Center on Sunday, May 16, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.

The (inevitable) Barkov extension

Whatever moves the Panthers do make will be made with an eye toward the Barkov extension.

In the past four months, Florida has traded five NHL Entry Draft picks — including a first-rounder, a third-rounder and two second-rounders — to add pieces and, in the case of the 2024 second-rounder the Panthers shipped out Monday, unload defenseman Anton Stralman.

Barkov has a supporting cast good enough to win a Cup and, with the vast majority of the roster 27 or younger, contend for years.

Sacrificing the long-term outlook is only risky if Florida can’t lock up Barkov and ride him annually to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

There’s a winning core in place. The Panthers don’t have to find one this offseason. They just need to make sure they can keep it.

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