Sad your team is gonna miss the playoffs for the tenth straight season? Don’t be Panthers fans. Thanks to the brilliance of General Manager Dale Tallon, this team is in a position never before seen in the lockout era NHL. With the trading of Michael Frolik, Cory Stillman, Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman, Bryan Allen, and Christopher Higgins, the Panthers have injected their line-up with young talent, and continued to stockpile draft picks. So what’s unique about that you ask? Well, the Panthers will now have a whopping $42 million in cap space next season, and only have 8 players from the current roster signed for next season. Those players are David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Evgeny Dadonov, Scott Timmins, Dmitri Kulikov, Jason Garrison, Mike Weaver, Scott Clemmensen, and the awful contract of Rostislav Olesz. It has been assumed that Olesz’s contract will be bought out, which would be one of the best decisions in Panther’s history. It will only be a $372,222 cap hit for next season.
From the current roster, there are 9 unrestricted free agents (Sergei Samsonov, Marty Reasoner, Darcy Hordichuk, Ryan Carter, Bill Thomas, Alexander Sulzer, Joe Callahan, Hugh Jessiman, Tomas Vokoun) and 9 restricted free agents (Niclas Bergfors, Steven Bernier, Michal Repik, Shawn Matthias, Byron Bitz, Jack Skille, Mike Santorelli, Keaton Ellerby, Kenndal Mcardle). Reasoner, Bergfors, Matthias, Skille, Santorelli, and Ellerby are the only locks from that group to be re-signed, while Sulzer, Repik, Carter, Jessiman, and Mcardle are all auditioning this season for spots with the team next year. Samsonov, Hordichuk, Thomas, Callahan, and Vokoun are all older guys who may be jettisoned because of the youth movement, while Bernier and Bitz have just been filling up roster spots this year, making them unlikely to return. If all the locks and the guys on an audition this year are re-signed, that will leave the Panthers with 13 forwards, 5 defenseman, and 1 goalie under contract.
From a prospect standpoint, there are two locks to make the roster next year. That would be 2010 1st round picks Erik Gudbranson and Quinton Howden. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom is also likely to get a chance with the big boys next year. Forwards A.J. Jenks, Garrett Wilson, and John McFarland all should get a long look next year, while talented centers Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore are both likely another year away from being NHL ready. On the backend, Dale Tallon has been praising 2010 2nd round pick Alexander Petrovic, but he still needs some more seasoning before he’s ready. Colby Robak and Adam Comrie are players who will earn a look on the backend as well. I’m predicting only Gudbranson, Howden, Markstrom and Jenks make the NHL squad out of camp, bringing us to a total of 15 forwards, 6 defenseman, and 2 goalies.
Now here’s where it starts to get intresting. After tanking the rest of the season, the Panthers should be slotted in the top 5 for the draft. This is considered a weak draft year, but the big 4 at the top (Nicklas Lindstrom clone defenseman Adam Larsson, Swedish power forward Gabriel Landeskog, fantastic playmaker Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and big centerman Sean Couturier) are all full of potential. If I had to guess, I’d say Couturier is Tallon’s guy based on his size (6’4”) and skill (played in the WJC this season, a rare feat for a draft-eligible player). So I’m going to assume that’s who he takes. He is good enough to make this team out of camp next year. Acquiring another 1st round pick is an option, but I’m not going to discuss that option here.
So after all this, the Panthers have a young roster and a ton of cap space. So what to do with that cap space? The top UFA this year is Brad Richards, but he won’t be coming here. Simon Gagne, Christian Erhoff, and Alexander Frolov are all also free agents, but I can’t see Tallon really targeting any of them. The route Tallon might pursue is the RFA market. Superstars Steven Stamkos, Zach Parise, Drew Doughty, and Zach Bogosian are all RFAs this season. If I’m Dale Tallon, I’m offering Stamkos a 7 year, $70 million offer sheet. It’s a win-win situation for the Panthers. If he signs it, and Tampa declines to match, that would mean we just added one of the NHL’s top 3 players to our squad for the cost of 4 1st round picks. If Tampa chooses to match, that means our biggest rivals have a crippled cap situation and have to shed salary to fit under the salary cap, setting them back a few years.
Looking farther into the future, if we don’t steal a RFA this off-season, it means we get to keep our 2012 draft pick (which is a loaded class) and most likely the pick will be top 5. We can use it to add a premier forward (top prospect Nail Yakupov is the second coming of Pavel Bure). Not to mention, the cap strapped Islanders will have to try and retain John Tavares, who will be a pending RFA. If we keep our cap space, this would be the perfect oppurtunity to offer sheet. The Islanders won’t have the money to match, and we would steal a bonna-fide 50 goal talent.
This whole article is all speculation, but with the way this season is unfolding, us fans have to dream. What I do know is the Panthers have a bright future ahead of them if Tallon’s blueprint is anything like what I’ve suggested. To quote Charlie Sheen, Dale Tallon is “winning!”