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Off-Season Game Plan: Florida Panthers

Scott Cullen
6/2/2014 12:03:25 PM
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The Florida Panthers finished with the second-worst record in the regular season, missing the playoffs for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons. It's been a rough road, but maybe things are looking up. After all, the Panthers did win the draft lottery.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Panthers club that has a mix of aging vets and unproven young players, with very few in their prime years.

That roster composition is could force some difficult decisions upon the Panthers. It's one thing to build around the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and the upcoming No. 1 pick, knowing that it will take a few years before they are impact players in the league, but the Panthers' best players right now are 35-year-old G Roberto Luongo and soon-to-be 35-year-old D Brian Campbell.

If they are going to be part of the Panthers' success, that success likely has to come very soon.

"We're moving forward. I'm going to fix it," GM Dale Tallon said at season's end. "We're going to add the pieces to help these kids get where they need to be."

The Panthers could be aggressive to make moves for immediate help, feeling emboldened by the financial backing of new owner Vinnie Viola, but it's not easy to turn young players and prospects into players in their prime.

The long view might be to take that time and let those young players develop, but with the Panthers making a big splash move to get Luongo, there ought to be some sort of urgency to win in the near future. For a team that has made the playoffs once in this century, maybe that urgency should have come sooner and it sounds like Tallon is prepared to get to work this summer.

"We have a lot of assets," Tallon told the Miami Herald. "We have a lot of kids who are in college, 10 picks next year, a lot in the system. I'm open to any suggestions that make us better quicker without jeopardizing our future."

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts).

GM/COACH
Dale Tallon/Peter Horachek

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Sean Bergenheim 69.60 62 16 13 29 55.1% $2.75M
Nick Bjugstad 67.91 76 16 22 38 50.8% $900K
Brad Boyes 67.88 78 21 15 36 50.9% $2.625M
Scottie Upshall 67.79 76 15 22 37 51.8% $3.5M
Aleksander Barkov 64.99 54 8 16 24 52.1% $925K
Jonathan Huberdeau 63.94 69 9 19 28 51.0% $925K
Tomas Fleischmann 63.01 80 8 20 28 51.3% $4.5M
Tomas Kopecky 61.74 49 4 8 12 52.0% $3.0M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Brandon Pirri 66.34 49 13 12 25 51.7% RFA $618K
Jesse Winchester 64.81 52 9 9 18 51.7% UFA $600K
Jimmy Hayes 62.94 55 11 7 18 47.5% RFA $654K
Scott Gomez 59.38 46 2 10 12 48.4% UFA $900K
Krystofer Barch 53.92 55 0 4 4 44.1% UFA $750K

The Panthers have four veteran wingers that are going into the last year of their respective contracts and while all may contribute in some fashion, they're all potential trade candidates due to their expiring deals.

Health has been an issue for veteran winger Sean Bergenheim, as he's missed 19 or more games in five of the past six seasons, but he plays a strong two-way game and generates enough shots that he can score a little bit even if he's not a high-percentage finisher. Though he's never scored more than 17 goals in a season, Bergenheim's 11.23 shots per 60 minutes (5-on-5) over the past three seasons ranks sixth. He gets the puck to the net.

Health has also been an issue for winger Scottie Upshall, but he played 76 games in 2013-2014 -- the second time in his career that he's played more than 75 games -- and finished with a career-best 37 points. He tends to be a decent possession player and plays a feisty game when he manages to stay in the lineup.

Two seasons removed from a career-high 27 goals and 61 points, winger Tomas Fleischmann endured a brutal year in which he scored eight goals and 28 points in 80 games, his lowest scoring totals since his 29-game rookie season of 2006-2007. Scoring on just 4.3% of his shots -- one-third the rate of his career average, 12.9% -- does make Fleischmann a solid candidate for recovery this season, and since it's the last year on his contract, he may not be around long-term, even if he recaptures his scoring touch.

Coming off a shortened 2013 season in which he scored at career-best rates (15 goals, 27 points in 47 games), Tomas Kopecky managed four goals and a dozen points in 49 games last season. Even so, he was a solid possession player and has versatility to move around the lineup as needed.

Towering centre Nick Bjugstad led the Panthers with 38 (!!) points and has potential to be a very good two-way centre. He may not have the highest offensive ceiling but, at 6-foot-6, could become a real handful at both ends of the rink as he gets stronger.

Veteran winger Brad Boyes topped 20 goals for the first time since 2008-2009, earning a two-year contract extension, and his 18 even-strength goals tied him with Jeff Carter and Eric Staal, among others. The 32-year-old provides stability, but his 0.46 points per game was also the lowest scoring rate of his career.

The second overall pick in last year's draft, Aleksander Barkov was thrust into a prominent role for the Panthers -- one of two forwards to play at least 17 minutes per game (minimum 25 games played) -- before suffering a knee injury at the Olympics that prematurely ended his season. Before that point, though, Barkov impressed with his two-way game and the 18-year-old holds promise as a bona fide No. 1 centre.

The reigning Calder Trophy winner, Jonathan Huberdeau, slumped in his second season, scoring only nine goals and, more troubling, generating only 1.57 shots on goal per game. It was a step back, to be sure, but Huberdeau is still just 20-years-old, so he should be given an opportunity to bounce back and, along with Barkov and Bjugstad, be part of the club's core group of young forwards.

Stuck on the outside looking in when he was with Chicago, Brandon Pirri got a better opportunity once arriving in Florida and was effective enough to warrant a spot. With 101 points in 102 AHL games over the past two seasons, 23-year-old Pirri is ready for the NHL, though getting stronger and improving his play without the puck would improve his odds of not only sticking long-term, but being able to contribute consistently.

Another former Blackhawks prospect, 6-foot-6 winger Jimmy Hayes, does have some touch offensively, but he is more dependent on linemates to drive possession, so that could ultimately leave him in the position of battling for a job as the Panthers roster matures. At the same time, with veteran wingers that could be moving on soon enough, Hayes might have an opportunity to be a 20-goal scorer if he can use his size effectively.

It would be reasonable enough for the Panthers to press forward with the group they have at forward but, if they are going to harbour ideas about being immediately more competitive, then paying for a scoring winger would really help.

Even if Florida may not be a premium free agent destination, they still might want to investigate the possibility of adding the likes of Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri or Milan Michalek, players with some track record of production that could fit in their top six.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Brian Campbell 69.67 82 7 30 37 52.7% $7.143M
Ed Jovanovski 59.22 37 1 4 5 47.4% $4.125M
Colby Robak 59.14 16 0 2 2 49.4% $675K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Tom Gilbert 67.11 73 3 25 28 51.7% UFA $900K
Dmitry Kulikov 64.58 81 8 11 19 51.2% RFA $2.5M
Dylan Olsen 64.48 44 3 9 12 51.1% RFA $738K
Erik Gudbranson 61.35 65 3 6 9 51.2% RFA $900K

He can get overlooked now that he's in Florida, but Brian Campbell remains an excellent play-driving defenceman. He puts up stellar possession stats, plays more than 27 minutes per game for the Panthers and hasn't missed a game in three seasons since arriving in Florida. The 34-year-old has two years remaining on his current contract which should actually make him a target for an enterprising team in win-now mode. The price would likely be steep, but a team in need of a top-pair defenceman could at least force the Panthers (and Campbell, since he has some say over his destination) with an offer comprised of young talent .

While 37-year-old Ed Jovanovski made it the long way back from hip surgeries to play in 37 games, perhaps not surprisingly, he wasn't terribly effective. There's one year left of his contract and Jovo would be a prime buyout candidate because the Panthers would likely be better without him in their top six. Age catches up with all athletes, but especially so in the case of those who suffer major injuries.

24-year-old Colby Robak has been a prospect, it seems, forever, and has played 35 games with the Panthers over the past three seasons. He was serviceable in 16 games in 2013-2014, good enough to figure that, with an economical one-way deal for next season, that he is in a good position to have an NHL job when next season begins.

23-year-old Dmitry Kulikov already has five years of NHL experience and he's a legit top-four defenceman, though one that was spectacularly unfortunate last season, finishing as a minus-26 despite pretty much break-even possession numbers. Only Alexander Edler and Seth Jones had a lower PDO (on-ice shooting plus save percentage) than Kulikov's 96.0. It's not necessarily the optimal long-term approach, but it's conceivable that an attractive asset like Kulikov (whose name pops up in trade rumours semi-regularly) could be moved in the summer, in an effort to upgrade the team's offensive talent.

There has been some progress with 22-year-old Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, but it's been gradual. In an ideal world, he'd be able to use his size and physical game in a shutdown defensive role, but Gudbranson hasn't yet been trusted to take on the hard minutes defensively. He's young enough to hope that there is time to realize that upside.

Another former Blackhawk, Dylan Olsen, responded well to the opportunity presented to him in Florida. Olsen didn't play big minutes, and his ice time decreased later in the year, but it was a step forward for the 23-year-old and he was solid enough to have a leg up on the competition for a regular spot on the blueline next year.

There are a couple of wildcards for the Florida defence. The first might as well be the number one overall pick in the draft, which could be Barrie Colts D Aaron Ekblad. He'd likely take some lumps as an 18-year-old -- they all do -- but Ekblad would provide a long-term building block on the blueline.

The other is unrestricted free agent Tom Gilbert, who was salvaged off the scrap heap after being bought out by Minnesota. Gilbert played more than 21 minutes a night on the top pair with Campbell and was very effective in that role. After making just $900,000 last season, though, Gilbert should be a due a sizeable pay increase on an open market that tends to appreciate top-four calibre defencemen. So, it would be great for the Panthers to keep the 31-year-old around for a few more years, but they will have competition for his services.

 

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Roberto Luongo 70.33 56 25 23 7 2.40 .919 $5.333M
Dan Ellis 43.63 20 5 11 0 3.62 .879 $900K

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Scott Clemmensen 66.80 17 6 7 1 3.08 .896 UFA $1.2M

The Panthers' decision to bring back Roberto Luongo, acquiring him in a trade from Vancouver, does give them an immediate window to be a competitive club. Over the past five seasons, Luongo's .919 save percentage ranks fourth (effectively tied for third with Jaroslav Halak and Ryan Miller) among those with a starter's workload and he should be the backbone of this team for the next couple seasons, at the very least.

Upon acquiring Luongo, the Panthers jettisoned Tim Thomas to Dallas, in exchange for Dan Ellis, who is still under contract for next season. Ellis had a tough time immediately after the deal, posting an .836 save percentage in six games with Florida, and the 33-year-old has a .905 career save percentage, which isn't ideal, but he's a reasonably-priced backup option behind Luongo.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Mike Matheson D Boston College (HE) 3-18-21, +18, 38 GP
Ian McCoshen D Boston College (HE) 5-8-13, +22, 35 GP
Alex Petrovic D San Antonio (AHL) 2-11-13,+3, 43 GP
Vincent Trocheck C San Antonio (AHL) 16-26-42, -5, 55 GP
Rocco Grimaldi C North Dakota (NCHC) 17-22-39, +13, 42 GP
Drew Shore C San Antonio (AHL) 6-26-32, +2, 50 GP
Quinton Howden LW San Antonio (AHL) 10-17-27, -1, 59 GP
Michael Downing D Michigan (Big 10) 2-10-12, +3, 34 GP
Kyle Rau C Minnesota (Big 10) 14-26-40, +16, 41 GP
Sam Brittain G Denver (NCHC) .929 SV%, 2.22 GAA, 39 GP
Mackenzie Weegar D Halifax (QMJHL) 12-47-59, +56, 61 GP

A first-round pick in 2012, Mike Matheson could be ready for the pro game if he chooses to leave Boston College after his sophomore campaign. He needs to get stronger, but is a good skater who can move the puck.

The first pick of the second round last year, Ian McCoshen is another defenceman for NCAA-finalist Boston College, though he brings a more physical game than Matheson. Whenever the Golden Eagles duo makes the jump, the Panthers will have a more capable blueline corps.

Taken in the second round in 2010, lanky blueliner Alex Petrovic is closer to making the Panthers' roster, having skated in 13 games over the past couple seasons. He's a tough, physical blueliner who has 30 points, a plus-4 rating and 181 penalty minutes in 103 AHL games.

It's entirely possible that Vincent Trocheck, a third-round pick in 2011, will open next season with the Panthers. He had 42 points in 55 AHL games to earn a promotion and while he posted a respectable eight points in 20 games with the Panthers, the more encouraging sign from Trocheck was that he handled significant ice time and put up solid possession stats. He doesn't have to start next year in Florida, particularly if any veteran centres are added, but Trocheck is going to play for the U.S. in the World Championships and should be knocking on the door rather loudly.

Tiny playmaker Rocco Grimaldi was a second-round pick in 2011, and has 75 points in 82 games over the past two seasons at North Dakota, but until he gets into the pro game, there will be questions over whether the 5-foot-6 forward can produce at the highest level. Only one way to find out the answer to those questions.

Drew Shore has logged a lot of NHL games, 67 over the past two seasons, to be considered a prospect, but he's also played 93 AHL games in that time, so he's been on the fringe of the roster. The thing is, he clearly deserves a better look, as he's been a very good possession player in those 67 NHL games. There may be a ceiling on his offensive production, but Shore is a big forward whose game is NHL-ready.

A first-round pick in 2010, Quinton Howden has played 34 NHL games over the past couple seasons and hasn't produced much. Two years ago, he had great possession numbers, but couldn't produce any points. This past season, he managed four goals and a couple of assists, but had abysmal possession stats. As it is, he's probably just on the outside looking in, depending on how many extrernal forward acquisitions are made over the summer.

A fourth-round pick last summer Michael Downing is a physical defender with good size who had a fine first season at Michigan. There's no need to rush him, and there are others ahead of Downing in the pipeline, but he's one to watch develop over the next few years.

Kyle Rau is a tiny forward who was a third-round pick in 2011 and played with Bjugstad at the University of Minnesota. Rau has put up 123 points in 121 games for the Golden Gophers, so he's going to warrant a look when his collegiate career ends. Like Grimaldi he'll get a chance to prove that he can overcome his lack of size.

It's never easy to project goaltenders, even those that have steadier collegiate track records than Sam Brittain, but the fourth-round pick from 2010 was very good as a senior at Denver, so now it's time to see him at the pro level.

A seventh-round pick in 2013, Mackenzie Weegar may not have the defensive game, but his ability to move the puck and run the power play, should get him some consideration in the coming years.

Power forward Garrett Wilson, who played three games for the Panthers last season, is another prospect of some note and could make his mark as a physical presence on the fourth line.

Panthers advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
1st - Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Panthers have approximately $45.3M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 13 players.

Check out my possible Panthers lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Two top six forwards, depth forwards, two top four defencemen.

What I said the Panthers needed last year: Three top six forwards, one top pair defenceman, starting goaltender.

They added: Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Brad Boyes, Jesse Winchester, Krys Barch, Joey Crabb, Tom Gilbert, Ryan Whitney, Tim Thomas.

TRADE MARKET
Tomas Fleischmann, Jimmy Hayes, Drew Shore, Dmitry Kulikov, Colby Robak.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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