Coming off career year, Jason Garrison set to cash in on free agency

Sean Leahy

As the curtain prepares to be drawn on the 2012 NHL free agency period, we're just a short time away from the annual chorus of "What?" and "Seriously?" responses bellowing across the hockey world as the latest general manager hands out an overpriced and far too long contract to an unrestricted free agent.

One UFA who is primed to sign one of those types of contracts is defenseman Jason Garrison. The 27-year British Columbia native burst on the scene scoring 16 goals (including 9 on the power play) and 33 points for the Florida Panthers this past season. Garrison made $675,000 in 2011-12 and will hit the jackpot beginning tomorrow as a member of a shallow class of defensive UFAs.

When the Calgary Flames acquired Dennis Wideman's rights and then signed him to a 5-year, $26.25 million deal on Wednesday, dollar signs lit up in Garrison's eyes. The Panthers defenseman had a career season in a contract year -- the best year to accomplish such a thing -- and the combination of the salary cap increasing yet again and the drunken spending of GMs come July 1 means Garrison's in a for a very nice payday.

But should it be more than what Wideman got? Harvey Fialkov of the Sun-Sentinel thinks so:

Garrison does everything Wideman does and more. He might not be the stickhandler Wides is but he's far better defensively and just as potent on the power play, especially with Brian Campbell setting him up.

Fialkov doesn't think, however, the Panthers would bring Garrison back at around that price due to the team's depth. Would Garrison take a South Florida discount? He told Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province this week that "you don't want to go somewhere just for financial purposes", citing the importance of fitting into a team would play a big part in his decision. But when you're 27, a very late-bloomer and entering a weak free agent class, this is the time for Garrison is get that big contract while he can.

The Panthers have just under $30 million to spend under the current salary cap of $70.2 million. We know how GM Dale Tallon likes to toss around the cash this time of year, but with Florida still needing to sign FAs like Kris Versteeg, who is restricted, and maybe taking on the salary of a certain goaltender currently playing in Vancouver, would there be room in the team's budget for Garrison?

If there is, Florida would be wise to pounce soon than later before the losers of the Ryan Suter sweepstakes turn their attentions elsewhere.

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy