It turns out signing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville didn’t solve the Florida Panthers’ problems. On paper, it should have. The Panthers have talent but couldn’t rise above mediocrity last year and were ultimately sent home after a qualifying round loss to the New York Islanders. It’s that talent, however, that opens up interesting options for the Seattle Kraken in the upcoming Expansion Draft.
Bobrovsky should have made more of a difference. The season prior, Florida was one of the league’s top goal-scoring clubs. But the problem was in net. The Panthers were near the bottom of the NHL when it came to save-percentage. They just needed a goalie.
Bobrovsky didn’t play up to the $10 million a year contract he signed and Quenneville couldn’t get the team to live up to its preseason expectations.
The result was a change at the top. Out was general manager Dale Tallon and in was Bill Zito, whose name had long been thrown around as the next GM somewhere. With a new general manager calling the shots, the Panthers could go several ways in the Expansion Draft. Whatever they do, Seattle will have good players to choose between.
Zito has cap space heading into the season so won’t need to dump any salary right off the bat. The roster should stay stabilized during the season but that may depend on how the Panthers fare on the ice. They have room to add if they find themselves in contention but have guys like Patric Hornqvist or Anton Stralman who have salaries above $5 million and would be attractive to contending teams. If the Panthers struggle, those guys could go on the block.
The Panthers have some decisions made for them. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, and Bobrovsky all have no-move clauses in their contracts so will have to be protected.
For this exercise, we’ll assume that the Panthers will protect seven forwards and three defensemen but Zito could choose the eight skater route which would allow him to protect four defensemen. Florida has four strong players on the blue line in a group that might have a bit more depth than the team has up front.
There are several ways the Panthers can handle their protected list, but regardless of the route they take, they will have to leave a talented player available to Ron Francis and the Seattle Kraken.
- Jonathan Huberdeau (NMC)
- Aleksander Barkov (NMC)
- Patric Hornqvist
- Noel Acciari
- Frank Vatrano
- Brett Connolly
- Carter Verhaeghe
A key player to circle here is Hornqvist. A consistent producer throughout his 770 NHL games, the 33-year-old winger can still contribute. He was traded this offseason from Pittsburgh – in a move that was a surprise to Hornqvist – and has three years left on a contract that will pay him $5.3 million a year. His production has slipped ever so slightly the past couple of years, but he still scored 17 goals and 32 points in 52 games last season.
By exposing Hornqvist, Zito could protect a couple of younger guys. We will protect him here but that is nowhere near being a lock.
From there the mix at forward depends on how guys perform.
Alexander Wennberg came to Florida this offseason from Columbus. Zito knows him well, and at 26-years-old he still has some potential. He’ll be a UFA at the end of this year and could play himself into an extension and potential protection.
Like Hornqvist, Brett Connolly is another veteran who could end up exposed. Connolly, 28, scored 19 goals for the Panthers last season and costs $3.5 million a year. He’s on the protected bubble, but if a guy like Wennberg re-signs before the season ends, Connolly could be available at the Expansion Draft.
Coming off his rookie season, Carter Verhaeghe is a player the Panthers like and could be protected with a strong second year.
- Keith Yandle (NMC)
- Aaron Ekblad
- MacKenzie Weegar
Zito also has tough decisions on the blue line. After Yandle, former first-overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad will be a lock to be protected.
Then it gets interesting.
Does Zito protect Anton Stralman, Mackenzie Weeger, Radko Gudas, or Riley Stillman?
Stralman, 34, is a veteran of over 800 games in the NHL and has been a consistently solid defenseman, but Florida will want to protect Weegar, who has been impressive in his short career. He’s 26 and has three years left on a $3.5 million per season contract. Weegar has strong underlying numbers and chipped in offensively last year with 18 points.
That will push him onto the protected list, freeing up Seattle to choose one of the vets or perhaps take a flyer on Stillman who is 22 years old and has yet to prove it in the NHL.
The Panthers may want to keep both Stralman and Weegar which may push Zito towards protecting four forwards and four defensemen.
Bobrovsky has a no-move clause and will have to be saved, but the Panthers need to make an eligible goalie available. Chris Driedger is the current backup but will be a UFA after the season so Florida would have to re-sign him to expose him. They could also expose 24-year-old Samuel Montembeault but would have to get him signed, as he’s currently a restricted free agent.
Florida Expansion Draft Candidates
- Henrik Borgstrom
- Patric Hornqvist (if exposed)
- Alexander Wennberg (potential UFA)
- Anton Stralman
- Radko Gudas
- Riley Stillman
- Markus Nutivaara
- Samuel Montembeault
If Hornqvist or Connolly are exposed the Kraken may take a long look. Hornqvist could provide leadership and can still produce offensively. He will be 34 when Seattle takes the ice but would only be on the hook for two seasons on his contract. If they feel they can squeeze enough out of him, he could be the pick.
Most likely, the Kraken will be looking at a defenseman and could land one who will produce right away. Would Seattle prefer established NHLers like Stralman and former Everett Silvertip Gudas or take a chance on younger, unproven guys like Stillman or Nutivaara?
Side Deal Scenarios
With cap room and no prohibitive contracts, it’s unlikely that the Panthers are going to entertain any trade scenarios.
During the Vegas Expansion Draft, the Panthers ended up losing both Riley Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to avoid losing a blueliner. They are set to lose a defenseman again this time around, but the question remains what Zito will do. He may just resign himself to losing a decent player to minimize the damage.
Did you miss our last Expansion Draft profile on the Nashville Predators? Check that out here.