Can the Florida Panthers stay a powerhouse subsequent season?

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In hockey, as in poker, generally you’ll be able to play an excellent hand and nonetheless lose. The Florida Panthers had each motive to assume they have been holding all the best playing cards heading into the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. Now, simply 10 video games after they began their quest, they’ve been left to ponder what might need been and what occurs subsequent.

The Panthers cruised to the Presidents’ Trophy with a stellar 58-18-6 document for a complete of 122 factors, the fourth highest complete of a regular-season champ within the 36-year historical past of the award. Within the course of, the Cats scored extra objectives than another group within the wage cap period. They even bolstered their already-contending group on the deadline with coveted acquisitions Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot. The Panthers have been a stable guess to make a deep run and a front-runner to hoist the Cup.

The playoffs bought off to a adequate begin for the Panthers, as they managed to get by the Washington Capitals in six video games of their first-round matchup. It was a gritty efficiency however definitely not a dominant one. Their time basking within the Florida solar was short-lived, as they shortly bumped into some darkish clouds and some flashes of lightning up the highway in Tampa. Whereas a couple of gamers (most notably Carter Verhaeghe) have been stellar for the Panthers all through the 2 playoff collection, not sufficient gamers have been in a position to replicate their nice regular-season performances, and the vaunted Cats’ energy play simply by no means confirmed up. There is no such thing as a disgrace in dropping to the two-time defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, however happening with out a single victory within the collection and having a 3.2% power-play proficiency in the complete playoffs will result in some vital soul looking out this low season.

Dialogue will go on about whether or not the Panthers’ fast second-round exit was a case of a troublesome opponent, an inopportune time to go chilly or a roster not constructed for playoff hockey. It is perhaps components of all these issues. Regardless, this doesn’t should be the tip of the highway for Florida. They nonetheless have an abundance of expertise and a big a part of their core signed by way of subsequent season. Nonetheless, if it’s nonetheless going to be #timetohunt in South Florida subsequent season, it’s going to require a masterful job by GM Invoice Zito this offseason. The Cats’ salary-cap state of affairs is about to turn out to be a complete lot extra difficult.

Important and well-deserved extensions will kick in on July 1 for Aleksander Barkov (who will go from a $5.9 million cap hit to a $10 million cap hit) and Verhaeghe (who will go from a $1 million cap hit to $4.167 million cap hit). Florida may even should deal with $6.575 million in useless cash ensuing from its earlier buyouts of Keith Yandle and Scott Darling (up from the $3.525 million in useless cash these two gamers price this previous season). Add to {that a} additional $637,500 in useless cash regarding the 2021-22 efficiency bonuses earned by rookie ahead Anton Lundell and goaltender Spencer Knight, which the Cats weren’t in a position to match into their cap this season and thus want to hold over to 2022-23.

The Panthers do get some aid with cash additionally coming off the books, first within the type of Roberto Luongo’s $1.092 million cap recapture penalty lastly ending, after which with the disappearance of the $1.325 million wage retention that Florida agreed to tackle for the tip of the 2021-22 common season to facilitate Max Domi’s commerce from Columbus to Carolina (a really good use of Aaron Ekblad LTIR cash to primarily purchase again a draft choose on the commerce deadline).

With the additions and subtractions famous above, the Panthers may have an incremental $8.53 million in commitments towards the cap for 2022-23 that they didn’t have this yr, earlier than they make a single roster transfer.

You may guess that can have an enormous affect on the offseason. 

The excellent news is that the Panthers are mainly set in purpose and on protection. The blossoming Knight remains to be on his entry-level deal for yet one more yr, and Sergei Bobrovsky had a stable yr, however he and his $10 million wage cap hit possible aren’t going wherever. 5 of the highest six defensemen stay beneath contract, and part-timer Lucas Carlsson may be introduced again cheaply as a restricted free agent with no actual clout in arbitration. Veteran defensemen Chiarot, Robert Hagg and Markus Nutivaara (who was restricted to only one sport this yr attributable to damage) will likely be unrestricted free brokers, and it’s laborious to see the Panthers bringing any multiple of them again, and even then provided that a deal comes with a pay lower.

Up entrance, the Panthers have a stable returning group however some particular query marks. Prize deadline acquisition Giroux, in addition to pesky fourth-liner Noel Acciari, winger Maxim Mamin, late-bloomer Mason Marchment and grizzled vet Joe Thornton, are all unrestricted free brokers, and the Panthers should select who they assume suits finest when it comes to enjoying fashion and cap hit. There may be additionally Eetu Luostarinen, whom the Panthers management as a RFA, however even he will likely be difficult to slot in, as he might benefit a slight increase after a 26-point season and stable play as a third-line middle. They may even wish to make room for Grigori Denisenko, their high ahead prospect.

In all, the Panthers at present have $41.017 million tied up in 9 forwards, $19.417 million tied up of their defensemen and $10.925 million of their two goalies. That’s $71.36 million plus the $8.53 million of useless cash referred to above, totaling $79.89 in dedicated cash. When you’re scoring at residence, that leaves $2.61 million from the $82.5 million wage cap to signal their unsigned gamers, together with the RFAs. It’s not sufficient, particularly if the Panthers hope to be wherever close to nearly as good as they have been this yr.

Zito might want to get artistic and may have to maneuver the next priced participant or two with a view to release some cap room and tweak the roster. One possibility is perhaps to deal Patric Hornqvist, who at 35 remains to be productive however in decline but carries a cap hit of $5.3 million. The Panthers can’t afford to retain wage, so meaning they may take a look at including a draft choose or prospect as an enticement for somebody to tackle the additional cap. Solely downside is that the Panthers already dealt away their first-round choose this yr and in every of the subsequent two seasons, their second-rounder this yr and in 2023-24 and their third rounder in 2022-23, plus defenseman Ty Smilanic within the Chiarot deal. Dealing any extra draft picks or prospects will set the group’s future again dramatically, so it received’t be Zito’s first alternative as a plan of action. 

The Panthers might need seen the cap crunch coming, however that they had what they felt was the chance to win and pushed all their chips to the center of the desk on the commerce deadline. To proceed the poker analogy (Luongo would approve), they have been holding a very good hand, however they didn’t get a very good flop in having to play their cross-state rivals. After which finally, they themselves flopped. The last word dangerous beat. The query that continues to be is: will they’ve sufficient capital to purchase again in and keep within the sport?

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