There was no singular moment when the Florida Panthers decided their best long-term course of action would be to essentially keep their team intact moving forward. Bill Zito insists it wasn’t even exactly a specific plan.
Still, the Panthers exceeded most outside expectations from the very start of the 2021-22 NHL season and virtually every player they inserted in the lineup — most of whom were still in their mid-20s — looked like a piece worth keeping around as a building block. It meant the start of free agency Wednesday was mostly about trying “to keep the collective together and the core together,” Zito said.
“Each decision was made individually,” the general manager added, “and it sort of was a coincidence that they all collectively worked out.
“We’re happy that we are where we are.”
Of the four transactions Florida made in the first few hours of free agency Wednesday, three involved either re-signing or extending a player and these moves came after the Panthers handed out a series of extensions earlier this month.
Florida began the day by agreeing to a three-year extension with forward Carter Verhaeghe, then re-signed defenseman Brandon Montour on a three-year deal, too. The Panthers also brought back versatile forward Juho Lammikko on a one-year deal and signed forward Maxim Mamin, who spent the last two seasons with HC CSKA Moscow in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, to a one-year deal.
Earlier in July, the Panthers signed defenseman Gustav Forsling, and wingers Anthony Duclair and Sam Bennett to a series of three-year extensions.
All told, it means Florida will look familiar in the 2021-22 NHL season.
Mission accomplished: Bring back core
Of the 12 forwards to suit up for the Panthers’ final game in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, 11 will be back in Florida next year — and five are locked up beyond next season. Of the six defensemen to suit up in the finale, five will be back — plus defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who was hurt and didn’t play in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The only forward to leave is Alex Wennberg, who signed with the Seattle Kraken on Wednesday. The one departing defenseman is Anton Stralman, whom Florida traded to the Arizona Coyotes in a cap-clearing deal Monday.
The Panthers also lost goaltender Chris Driedger, who went to the Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
“I have confidence that the players are going to learn from their experience,” Zito said, “and continue to grow.”
Next up: Re-sign Sam Reinhart
The top remaining priority is to lock up forward Sam Reinhart. Zito said he spoke with the forward Wednesday and Florida is still optimistic it will be able to re-sign the restricted free agent.
Once Reinhart is in the fold, the Panthers might be done adding major pieces for next year. Reinhart, whose deal could be worth more than $6 million per year, is ultimately the big free-agent acquisition for Florida. The Panthers traded a future first-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday to acquire Reinhart and earn the right to match any contract he’s offered in free agency. The 25-year-old Canadian could potentially be a one-for-one replacement for Wennberg as Florida’s third-line center or he could play right wing and perhaps slot into one of the Panthers’ top two lines after he contributed 40 points in 54 games last season.
Florida is banking on Reinhart’s addition, plus the arrival of center prospect Anton Lundell and the natural progression of a still-young team, to help it reach the second round of the Cup playoffs for the first time since 1996.
“All of those things combined make me excited that this is going to be an improved team over last year,” Zito said.
On defense, the Panthers are hoping a healthy season from Ekblad will be enough to improve without adding any outside reinforcements.
Stralman was in and out of Florida’s lineup throughout last season, and was mostly out of the equation for next. The 34-year-old Swede is owed $5.5 million this season and the Panthers wanted to use those savings elsewhere.
Rather than using the money to make a run at Ryan Suter, David Savard or any of the other defensemen on the market, Florida opted to bring back Montour on a three-year, $10.5 million deal, according to CapFriendly.com, and use the rest of those savings to improve up front.
While the Panthers entered Wednesday with more than $10 million in cap space, most of it will be used to re-sign Reinhart, and some of the space needed to be saved for extensions. Verhaeghe’s deal, WPLG reported, is worth $12.5 million over three years and begins after next season.
Still to come: Extend Barkov
If and when Reinhart signs, Florida will have more clarity about its long-term salary outlook, which will give Zito even more of an idea of what a potential Barkov extension will look like. The star center is entering the final year of his contract and Zito said an extension is a top priority for this offseason.
Discussions, he said, are ongoing with Todd Diamond, Barkov’s agent, and now he has a clear picture to paint for his captain. The Panthers have nearly $26 million in projected cap space for next summer and, once Reinhart re-signs, will have six of their top seven forwards, all five of their top defensemen and both goaltenders locked in until 2023.
“You have the core there, and then you add a few pieces like myself and Benny at the deadline, you add Reinhart,” Montour said. “We’re here for a while. Like I said, you have these chances now where we’re in that stage where we have a good team and we believe we can do some damage.”
The Panthers closed out the day by signing Chris Gibson to a one-year, two-way contract.
The goaltender will be at least third in the pecking order behind Sergei Bobrovsky and rookie Spencer Knight, and could be the starter for AHL Charlotte next year.